Why color choice matters in your presentations

Tree of Life

There I was, happily browsin…err…researching for you, my patient readers, when I came across another gorgeous example of visualization, courtesy of GrrlScientist, which she got from Flickr. Now, as y’all know, I’m huge fan of using images to convey complex stuff, and so I skipped down to the key:

  • The bacteria …[are]… orange nodes.
  • The archaea … are represented by red nodes…
  • The eukarya … are represented by yellow nodes ..


It amazes me that folks, especially biologists, still seek to paint distinctions with orange, red, and green, given the rather well known, I mean Intro-Biology well-known, phenomenon known as red-green colorblindness. It afflicts about 10% of North American males (as it is carried on the X chromosome). You’ve probably seen the Isihara color tests with the little circle of dots that make those with rgcb feel dim.

When I teach this subject to my freshman undergrads, I use the nifty Colorblind Web Page Filter to show what a rather gaudy floral image from the OU web page

Normal color vision

looks like to a person with red green color blindness:

Red Green colorblind image

Note, when I was uploading these two images I had to be extra careful not to mix them up, as they look identical to me (and about 1 in 20 of your fellow readers). So, there are two takehome messages for this post:

  1. If you use orange/red/green to provide critical contrast in a visual presentation, you will lose some fraction of your audience. For the most common types of colorblindness consider using the primary spectra: blue, yellow, red. Or use patterns.
  2. Once those 5-10 people in an audience of 100 figure out that you, an educated person, forgot about them, your audience, they are likely to be peeved. Disgruntled. And there will also likely be another handful of folks that roll their eyes at your mistake.

Is it worth giving up on even a single member of your audience for something that is so easy to fix?

4 Responses to Why color choice matters in your presentations

  1. whitishrabbit says:

    First glance, the first image looked like oriental art. Or an oriental silk rendering of a globe. It was surprising to find out what it *really* was.

    Neat image, great post.

  2. Cristiano says:

    I’ve discovered recently (25 years old) that I’m a red-green color-blind too. It’s very strange to notice something like that only after taking the tests, but the commom sense opinion about color-blindness is a bit exaggerated.

    I can see red, can see orange, can see green, but what I (and I think, most green-red color-blinds) can’t really notice is the difference among certain specific colors. Just like the first image on that post.

  3. Scott says:

    While we are on this subject, what about no black text/objects on a pure white background for us dyslexia sufferers! I’ve seen plenty of presentations by people who think they are “keeping it baisc” and I can’t read a thing. Seriously, if we take one visual disorder into account shouldn’t we do them all? There are plenty of dyslexia suferers, but no good stats because it is so poorly diagnosed.

    On the issue of adjusting one’s colour scheme for the colour-blind in the crowd, I have to say that I never quite know what will work and what doesn’t. Yes, I know the basics, but as the posts point out, not all colour-blindness is the same and sometimes it is nice to use more than the primary spectra. This makes things a little trickier for the non-colour-blind folks to make sure they keep the 10%. It would be great if there were some filters built in to the leading presentaiton software. Perhaps there are add-ons out there but I have never come accross them.

  4. kron says:

    The large majority of colour blind people are red-green colour blind. Thus it is only a range of colour combinations that really need to be accounted for.

    Usually when I see a presentation with bad colour combinations I dont think that it is my colour blindness, I just assume that the presenter made poor choices. This is just because it is not in the for front of my mind that most people are looking at a different slide than me. So it usually just leaves a bad impression with me, and I wonder why they would choose suck a bad combo.

    In the end it is up to the presenter, but 10% of the audience is quite significant. I agree that it is a simple thing to keep in mind to help improve the reception of your presentations.

    On the flip side, I usually stick to a few colour combinations that I know match. However, I dont know if that is colour blindness or just poor co-ordination.

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