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January 04, 2017
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The Multicultural Interpretation of Graph Colors

By Jonah Schwartz, Chapter Member

Jonah Schwartz
Jonah Schwartz
Documentation must be localized for it to be relevant and meaningful for an intended audience, however this is not always possible.

Consider highly diverse international and multicultural organizations such as the United Nations, NATO, INTERPOL, the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), the International Olympic Committee, and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) to name just a few. Their style guides rigidly detail format and spelling conventions. Color guidelines, however, are often absent.

An audience of international and multicultural readers will receive data collectively, but interpret and act on it through individual cultural lenses.

Assessing Graph Design Issues

Effective graphs are concise, are readable at a glance without having to be explained, and represent the data honestly. The literature on graph making; on color usage within a document is vast, but surprisingly, not much has been written about color usage within graphs.

This leads to two highly compelling and troubling questions:
  • Is this a problem?
    • If not, why not? (Why would color not matter in graphs?)
    • If so, what can be done about it?

Solving Graph Design Color Issues

On the latter, my solution is simple: explain—in a single sentence, written in plain language in Global English—what graph colors convey. Color meanings vary between cultures, but we continuously learn new contexts and acquire new meanings. For example, no matter what your associations with red, green, and blue are, your cell phone—a device shipped to all corners of the globe—flashes notifications in those colors. We must learn their context to understand them, and we do so without difficulty; without conflicting with our own cultural understandings of these colors. We merely partition these new meanings from old ones.
Audiences in such organizations make financial and social decisions based on this data, so how the color influences them should be of great concern.

Designers often don’t think consider the effect of their color choices. Are bars on a graph about infant mortality rates red to make it more visible? Was it merely the default color generated by the software? Or is it the sponsor’s organizational color? Might it be to signify blood? Or danger? Was the author trying to alarm (or maybe pacify) their audience? And what effect will these colors have on the decision making and buying power of Eastern audiences over Western audiences?

As I said earlier, graphs shouldn’t have to be explained to be understood. This hasn’t changed. I’m not telling readers how to read the graph; I’m informing them of what colors mean.

Role of Graph Colors

More research needs to be done to determine if these descriptions are effective and if graph colors really do play a role in how such information is interpreted, but to quote Josephine Caricato, “Knowledge of color distinction will help a visual designer reduce reaction time, decrease message distortion, and defer opposition within an audience.” If we explain what colors mean, not only will it align audience interpretation with author intent, but it will force designers to be more thoughtful of audience needs. This should ameliorate any confusion that may arise from graphical colors choices.

P.S. Travel guides, International Airports, and sporting areas (e.g. World Cup and Olympic Parks) are just three examples of commercial applications of this practice, if proven to be effective.

Image description

Caricato, Josephine A. 2000. Visuals for speaking presentations: An analysis of the presenter' perspective of audience as a partner in visual design. Technical Communication 47 (4): 496-514.

JONAH SCHWARTZ can be reached at 4jonah at gmail dot com. Read more articles by JONAH SCHWARTZ. End of article.

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