How Many Colors Are Too Many in Your Charts?

Nine. Well, so says Scott Berinato, in his book Good Charts. He bases this number on a conversation he had with Tamara Munzner, a data visualization expert and professor of computer science at the University of British Columbia. Here’s an example Gantt chart with more than eight colors.

Munzner is quoted (in the footnotes) as saying “There are fewer distinguishable categorical colors than you’d like. You don’t get more than eight.”

This is an opinion — a subjective view from someone who has studied data visualization for over a decade, but an opinion nevertheless.

Humans are all different and are going to have a different threshold for where that too-many-colors-line is, but the number eight feels right… and maybe even a little on the high-side for me (my brain is feebler than most).

Have you ever heard the expression “Can’t see the forest for the trees?” This is perfect for explaining what we experience when we’re presented with a chart that has too much complexity. We have a hard time visually and mentally extracting what the most important information is. Instead, our brain wants to look at everything at once.

Based on his own research and Munzner’s thoughts, Berinato adds an accentuating comment that, “The threshold at which individual data points melts into aggregate trends is surprisingly low.”

This makes sense, right? For that reason, we, as the ones creating these plan communications, need to be very conscious of over-using color to illustrate attributes in our data.

The principle can be applied beyond color, as well. In his book Scott Berinato also wrote, “Simplicity is courageous.” Any sort of complexity will take away from the important information — the “story” — that we’re trying to get across, and we should do everything we can to simplify for the sake of clarity.

Is Munzner right? Again, it’s subjective. You should ask your audience.

When you’re building your communications plan, use your judgment. Don’t accept what’s being asked of you as the right way if it doesn’t make sense. Ask questions to find out what it is your audience wants and needs to see. Go through a process of iteration and drafts. From that point you can work to find better solutions within the designs of your data visualizations.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OnePager blog.

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Written by Jay Leslie
Jay Leslie carries with him 15 years of project management experience within the cable, telecom, construction and software development industries. The spectrum of projects and programs that Jay has managed throughout his career is broad and deep, enabling him to help clients implement Chronicle Graphics software -- including OnePager -- in a multitude of applications. His employment history includes positions at Narvaes Construction, Leslie Brothers Construction, CSG Systems, Echostar Satellite Services, Comcast, and Level 3 Communications.
  1. When it comes to colors remember the most common form of color-blindness for males is where red and green look identical. I know because I am red-green colorblind.
    And yes, that is why the red stoplight is always on top and green is always on the bottom on our streets:-)


  2. A very good point, and audience consideration, Chip!

  3. Also note that the example chart above has the tasks clustered by resource name, possibly reducing the too-many-colors problem. Consider how this chart would look if the resources were intermingled. The example given drives a theory that work on project tasks flows from resource-to-resource but that might not be true.

  4. When I use stoplights or icons in MS project or Excel to indicate risk or status, I always use the Green Dot, Yellow Diamond and Red Square for the icons. If I don’t have a status or it doesn’t apply, it is a dash.

    My Sr. Executive was colour blind and he appreciated it.

    Coloured bars will only distract. Critical path items should be red with some other indicator or grouped.

    Dr. McCoy would would say I’m a PM not a decorator…

  5. To me the most important part is the legend. When people colorize charts most people don’t understand what it all means without the legend. Too many colors it too confusing. Keep it simple. Is the color distinction really that important from the readers point of view. If there is too much I stop reading. I also agree there is a high percentage of color blind people and this needs to be taken into account. A client had me use symbols for this reason instead of colors.

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