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What Makes a Beautiful Report: Colors

Posted on 07/25/2014

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NOTE: This is the sixth post in our Windward series on creating beautiful reports. Missed the beginning? Start here.

There’s no rule that says your business report or document has to be boring in order to be professional.

So go ahead – make your documents more meaningful and memorable. Using color is a fairly simple and quick technique that will give your reports the polish they deserve.

Where to Use Color

First, keep in mind that you don’t need to go overboard. Just a touch of color here or there can add needed “oomph” to your output.

color subhead and bullets

A report with colored bullets and subhead text.

Obvious places for report color include table rows and chart data. You can make a document more impressive with background colors in headers and footers. And inserting a company logo is another great way to insert a splash that isn’t overwhelming.

Take a look at non-traditional spots for color, too. Is the report broken into sections? Consider adding subheads with colored text. Do you have a long list of bullet points? Set them off with colored bullets. Is there a paragraph or two that could benefit from extra emphasis? Draw attention to it with a special text box with colored background.

Colors and Their Meanings

Check out the colors in this search engine optimization (SEO) report:

SEO Report Colors

It’s no coincidence that the report designer chose red for warnings, amber for items that need attention, and green for acceptable practices, because most of the world associates these colors with the lights on the ubiquitous traffic signal. As any kindergartener will happily tell you, red means stop, yellow means caution, and green means go.

When using colors in a report, think about how to best represent the data through commonly associated colors. Along with the red/yellow/green example above, you might consider, say, red for losses in a financial report.

Less well-known are business color associations, but they can be just as powerful. Color psychologists – yes, folks make entire careers out of this – have studied the effects of specific colors and how to best use them in business. Did you know that blue represents financial security and stability? We recommend “Your Brand’s True Colors” in Entrepreneur magazine for more info.

Tips for Color Combinations

One of the biggest objections we hear from customers is along the lines of “I can’t use colors in my reports because it’s too difficult to get the color combinations right.” Here is some guidance to help you get past this seemingly tough obstacle:


    A monochromatic sample.

    Use colors consistently throughout a report. Ask yourself if a particular color is being used to represent more than one thing in a single report. For example, did you use green to represent a competitor’s market share in an internal report? Check to make sure you don’t use that same green for text emphasizing recommended courses of action for your company.

  2. Monochromes are your friend. You know those paint color sample strips on display in home improvement stores? They often are “monochromatic”: colors of the same hue but with different tints, tones, and shades. Monochromatic colors are great for indicating intensity – think shades on a weather map representing temperature – and for alternating row background colors in a table, among other things.
    NOTE: Windward customers can find many monochromatic options for charts and tables right within Microsoft Office.
  3. Emphasize your company colors. Your hard-working marketing team has researched colors that combine well and represent your brand. You can use these colors with confidence and get the added benefit of some subliminal messaging. (Did you notice that the Windward sample report above includes blue heading text and green bullets that match the blue and green of the Windward logo?)
  4. Be understated. Please, don’t confuse “color” with “colorful.” Bright yellows, pinks and oranges have their place, but perhaps not in your report. Adding color via muted tones can make your point without overwhelming the report viewer.
  5. Use logical and readable combinations. If you’re using colored text on colored backgrounds, keep this basic principle in mind: In general, the lighter the background and the darker the text, the better the contrast — and the easier it will be to read. The chart’s background colors in this “Contrasting Foreground and Background Colors” article are fairly dark, but it’s a good general guide to readable color combinations:


Color and Print

If your report will be printed instead of read onscreen, remember that color can get expensive. You may want to cut down on that cost by using fewer colors in your document. One recommendation is to use colors that work well in various shades, such as darker and lighter blue, to give you more flexibility in design.

Also keep in mind that the color you see on the screen is not the exact color you will see in print. Clearly, part of the reason is that your monitor may distort colors. Another factor is that computer applications such as Microsoft Office use RGB (red, green, blue) to describe colors, but printing presses use CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) instead. There’s a great explanation of RGB vs. CMYK colors on the Printernational website.

You may also run into the case of print designers referring to Pantone colors, which they use for ink printing. These don’t match exactly match RGB or CMYK indexes. If you’re planning to print and are working with a designer, you may want to check on the color index they’re using and whether or not Pantone equivalents need to be estimated.

Final Notes on Color

Lastly, one piece of advice: Don’t rely solely on color to convey information.

No matter how clear and consistent your report colors are, some readers are bound to ignore or misinterpret them. About 8-10% of the U.S. male population has some form of color blindness, so these readers may not be able to see the colors. Older readers tend to struggle with pale blue. Even those with “perfect” eyesight may be viewing your report as a black and white photocopy.

So our final recommendation is to use text and shapes to give context to any color information. Click here for our next and final series post, on beautiful report navigation.

The Whole Beautiful Report Series

Beautiful Reports cover pageWe hope you found these tips useful. Feel free to let us know in the comments section below and add your own observations on navigation.

Also, we want to thank your for reading this series on how to design beautiful reports. We have released the entire series as a free e-book for you to download, share and refer to in the future.

Remember, you can receive the series in your email inbox by subscribing to our company blog here:

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Author: Heidi V. Anderson

Heidi has been writing professionally about computers, technology and the Internet for more than 20 years. She lives in Vermont where she taps her maple trees for syrup and most of the year wishes it was just a little bit warmer out.

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