The point of most communication is to convey meaning. When faced with trying to convey simple or organized meaning from multi dimensional or dense information color can be a great aid in helping the reading grasp significance quickly.
Of course it can also be used to inflict pain in the wrong hands. In his brilliant book – Envisioning Information, Edward Tufte begins his discussion on the subject of color with this caution – “Above all, do no harm.”
When using color to convey information I think it’s best to view it functionally rather than visually. There is no denying that blocks of black text on a white page are often the best way to convey large chunks of information and that careful use of colored text can help the reader meter how they consume the information.
Color used to convey information must have a purpose to be effective. With the advent of simple, low cost design tools we’ve all seen color used in a “look what I can make the font do” kind of way that, while perhaps attention getting, creates information pandemonium.
Image credit: ottonassar
Using color to convey information effectively must be done in a way that helps the reader understand the information more quickly while remaining aesthetically pleasing.
Consistent and intentional
The use of color to communicate inform and decorate suggests that you have reasons for using color a certain way throughout a text or to label a chart or graph and that use only tends to confuse when it’s done without thought and not carried through consistently.
Creating an information color scheme using a tool like the ColorSchemer found here is a great way to lock in a set of standards and intentions for your entire organization.
“Noise is not music.” – Eduard Imhof
Hierarchy of importance
When using color to organize information you are automatically applying a scale, alerting the reader in a sort of outline, which is the most important information. If you use blue heading for your text, you are systematically pointing out the sections and hierarchy of the information, but if you simply choose a color to make something pop, you run the risk systematically confusing the reader.
Image credit: unbounce
Hue, or shades of a color, is often one of the best ways to create a system of communication for labeling information by measure. Maps use deepening shades of blue to communicate deeper water and darker shades of green to show denser forests. I think this is an underutilized visual cue in brochures and business data presentations.
Color deficient vision
Over 5% of adults suffer from some form of color deficient vision (CDV) or what my dad called colorblindness. The number is significant enough to consider how people with the various forms of CDV might actually view your color choices.
My father suffers from the most common form of red/green color blindness – meaning he can’t really distinguish between the two or between colors primarily made from the two.
The image on the left is how a person with CDV might see a batch of fruit
He can however tell the difference in lightness and darkness or shades of a color in ways that make shades of black and white a really great option for him.
There is a handy (although not foolproof) tool called vischeck that allows you to view your web site through the lens of the different forms of CDV.