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Psychology of Visualization Post 1.3- Food, Sex, and Danger- A Deadly Combination: Color and Culture

Post 1.3- Food, Sex, and Danger- A Deadly Combination: Color and Culture

Example: A color map of the different business regions for their business, showing the total revenue for the quarter for each region. Yellow was for the Eastern part of the US, green for the Central, etc. The example uses red for the western states.
Situation: (hypothetical) VP of Sales gets to the podium and starts the slide show to the financial and accounting staff of the company. Up comes the colored map. A gasp can be heard in the auditorium, and then there is the buzz of urgent conversation. The VP tries to continue the talk, but the VP has lost everyone’s attention. They are all talking amongst themselves. Finally someone blurts out, “What the heck is going on in the West?!” “What do you mean?”, the VP asks, “Nothing is going on. They had a great quarter”.

What does red mean? –To an accountant or financial person red is a bad thing. It means that they are losing money. The presenter had to explain that they had just picked red as a random color.

Colors have associations and meanings — Red means “in the red” or financial trouble, or it could mean danger. Green means money, or “go”. You want to pick colors carefully since they have these meanings.

Color meanings change by culture –Some colors have similar meanings everywhere, for example, gold stands for success and high quality in most cultures, but most colors have different meanings in different cultures. For example, in the US, white stands for purity and is used at weddings, but in other cultures white is the color used for death and funerals. David McCandless has a color chart  that shows how different colors are viewed by different cultures.

Color for the blind- Color blind that is. Many visualizations use green and red but not everyone can see, or they have difficulty seeing, these colors. Check out this informative blog post by Dundas for more information.


  • Choose your colors carefully, taking into account the meaning that that color may invoke.
  • Pick a few major cultures/countries that you will be reaching with your design and check them on the cultural color chart from David McCandless to be sure you do not have some unintended color associations for that culture.
  • Make sure to keep color blindness in mind when designing your visualization

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