Adding color to graphs is simultaneously the easiest and absolute hardest technique to nail. Color is about much, much more than simply making your graphs look pretty.

When used well, color can enhance branding, guide viewers’ eyes to the most important pieces of the graph, and reinforce the underlying nature of the data, all while being legible when photocopied in black and white and for people with colorblindness.

I talk about these techniques in depth during my custom workshops. Today, let’s focus on just one technique–matching your publication’s color palette to your brand and logo.

First, the enemy we’re avoiding: the software program’s default color palette. (And major bragging rights to anyone who can correctly identify these software programs in the comments section!)


Default color palettes scream I have no idea what I’m doing, or, worse!, I know I should be customizing my graph’s colors but I didn’t take 30 seconds to do it.

Here’s what we’re aiming for instead: selecting colors from an organization’s existing branding and identity.

Custom colors make our work look polished and professional. Custom colors shout I care about my work and this graph was designed specifically for YOU with special thought and attention and data is central to our work and our stellar graphs reflect that commitment to data.

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Will you use your own organization’s colors or the viewers’ colors? For example, a research consulting firm might use their own color palette when writing the proposal for the work and switch to using their client’s colors for the deliverables. A nonprofit might use their own color palette when publishing their annual report on their own website, but switch to their funder’s color palette when submitting quarterly reports on the outcomes they have achieved. I don’t care whose color palette you use. I care that you’ve put conscious thought into this decision and can explain your reasoning to someone else.

Matching colors to branding is just one piece of the effective-use-of-color puzzle. But it’s the first and perhaps most important step. Yes! You guessed it! I’ll be discussing the rest of the equation in future posts.


But wait! Here’s where you come in. Bonus points for helping me find organizations that are doing a good job of customizing the colors in their graphs. Share a link to their reports, to their handouts, or to their slidedecks. Celebrate the good work that’s being done!