Color Commentary

As the giving season approaches, your thoughts are probably turning to that frantic year-end push for donations. You know you want to show donors your impact, but that Excel color and style just isn’t cutting it – every graph looks out of place and off brand.

So how do keep your data visualizations on-brand? You go in with a plan.

FREE DOWNLOAD: Bonus toolkit to stay on top of your organization's branding!

Psst – Are you on Pinterest? You know what to do!

Larger organizations will probably have a Style Guide or Branding Book that goes through every detail of the colors, fonts, and design elements that form your organization’s visual identity. This is often something that’s presented to your organization as part of the logo / identity package from the graphic designer (ask your Communications staff if you’re not sure). If you have one, USE IT – don’t make up branding elements on your own.

If you are lucky enough to have an organizational branding book, you can skip the next section and meet us back at Color Codes.

Note: organizations will sometimes allow you to go off-brand if it’s for a specific purpose, like a major report or separately-branded subprogram. If that’s the case, check in with your Communications staff to see what they recommend. If you’re allowed to make something up, you can use the tips below using a photo or other visual inspiration as your guide.


Steal from yourself

So you don’t have a fully-defined organizational brand, huh? Well, your logo is an excellent place to start. You can use its colors as a jumping-off point for a more complete color palette.

(If you don’t have a logo, you should strongly consider getting one. Even establishing a uniform way to write the company name every time – font, colors, etc. – counts as a logo. But if you’re adamantly logo-free, try using a previous company publication that you liked the look of instead.)

I’ll use my own logo as an example. Black and orange stand out as the two main colors, but a few others are lurking around as well. White, for example, isn’t just empty space; it can be a useful addition to your overall palette. Similarly, the grays between black and white are up for grabs. As such, my primary palette consists of black, white, grays, and orange. Simple enough.

Still, black and orange can get a little Halloweenie after a while. To spice things up, I also have a secondary palette – colors I swap in to break up the tedium. And where did these colors come from? Math.

There are a number of color palette generators online. They take in a color code (more on those in a minute), run some algorithms, and then spit out colors that, mathematically speaking, should work. I usually hate the results. This time, however, I actually got a good one from I plugged the color code for orange into the generator as my base color and played with the equations – monochromatic, adjacent, triad – and found something I liked with tetrad. You can see the results below.


Other palette generators you could try:


Color codes

Whether you’re using an established brand guide or forging ahead on your own, it’s very important that you use the right color code for the occasion.

Color codes tell computers and printers how to reproduce the color you have in mind. There are many types of codes, but you’re most likely to see these three:

  • RGB – this stands for red / green / blue and is given as a series of three numbers. This code is used for computer screens.
  • CMYK – this stands for cyan / magenta / yellow / key (black) and is given as a series of four numbers. This code is used for printing.
  • Hex – this stands for hexadecimal and is given as a ‘#’ character followed by a string of six letters and/or numbers. This code is used for computer screens, particularly in things intended for the internet.

Because these codes are intended for different things (printing vs. screens), they will look weird when used in the wrong way – RGB colors look funky when you print them, while CMYK looks a little off onscreen.

Assuming you’re making stuff to be viewed online (social media, online reports, etc.), you want to make sure you’re using the RGB version of your organization’s logo.

Open the logo in an image editing program. This could be anything from Photoshop to good ol’ Paint (I routinely use Paint – yes, MS Paint – for color grabbing and image cropping). If you don’t have anything suitable try Pixlr Editor, a free online clone of Photoshop. Whichever program you’re using, find the eyedropper tool and click on the color you need the code for.

Open the color detail window. In Paint, click Edit Colors at the top of your screen; in Photoshop or Pixlr, double-click the sample square on the left. Somewhere in the popup window you’ll see a set of boxes labeled red, green, and blue. Write down the numbers in those boxes IN ORDER. That’s the RGB code for your new favorite color.

You can use this RGB code pretty much anywhere – Word, Excel, a color palette generator, the graphics program of your choice, etc.



So now you have a palette. At this point it’s pretty much just a matter of spreading colors around in a logical fashion. But don’t just do it willy-nilly; make sure your color choices support Rule One and help your reader understand your core message.

I usually pick the boldest color to be my highlight and add a few others as backup / context colors. I’m sure you can guess how that plays out with the Hypsypops palette – I highlight whatever element I want my reader to focus on in orange, while various shades of gray get to be the backup singers. If I were working on a longer series of graphs, I might replace the orange with one of the secondary colors as needed.

Don’t have an obvious leader / followers in your color palette? Even if your official palette doesn’t include grays, there’s a good chance you can sneak them in anyway. Gray is a neutral color that goes with anything and it’s often viewed as a default. Try using grays for background or context information and use your organization’s primary colors for the highlighted information. Good luck!


In short

Apply your organization’s established branding to make your data visualizations look like they belong.

No Comments