What’s in a Colour?

traffic lights with different green shades

As I was going through a familiar intersection the other day, I’ve almost hit the brakes on a green light, with other cars behind me.

The street is so familiar that I know the exact distance between each traffic light by feel, and there are three of them in quick succession. It was dusk, the traffic lights were bright…  A totally different shade of green on the third light must have signalled to my brain: “Not the same colour!”

The light must have been installed earlier that day. Now that I noticed how different the shade of green is from the two lights before and two lights after, I will remember and will not be that surprised anymore. But at that moment, when my brain was receiving the information for the first time, it was instantly confused, and almost forced me to brake at full speed.

An impactful reminder?

When we use colors to convey meaning, we have to be logical and consistent. If you are teaching your audience to associate certain colors with certain meaning, don’t forget to:

  • Provide a legend
  • Use the colors that align with popular understanding. For example, don’t use red to signify “completed” and green for problem areas, or your audience will be confused even with a legend
  • Be consistent with the use of colours – don’t change them as flavors of the day, choose some and use them consistently (reinforced by the legend)
  • Follow the standards of your organization
  • Research about color use and how people perceive colors, and follow a few common sense rules. For example:
    • Majority of people will prefer lighter pastel shades for large shapes, but bold and sharp colors for lines
    • Mixing up pastels with jewel colors may look off
    • Bright red shapes are better avoided, except to highlight one or two objects
    • The more colors you use, the more white space you need around it to let the eye rest somewhere
    • Using light lettering on darker background requires more contrast and bolder fonts than dark lettering on light background
  • Be very careful with brand colors. If you want to use a one in a diagram or legend, makes sure it is exactly right. You may have to use the RGB picker or keep a sample on hand that you can copy the format from
  • Remember that your audience may have colour-blind people. If you have a person with colour-blindness on your team, you would have to provide alternatives, such as adding patterns or alphanumeric labels.

Using colours to imply meaning can be quite powerful, if used wisely. But please, use the same shade of green on all traffic lights!

Please share your thoughts!

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