I’ve been working on a design project for the past few weeks and I have had lots of occasions to think about how we use colour, shape and imagery to express ideas.  Sometimes we see things in reports that just plain ugly, whilst other times we see things that are nonsensical. 

I have a report on my desk at present that is, at first glance, beautiful. It is very professionally done and gives a good first impression of the company. Nevertheless, I’m having a tough time with the numbers.  There are many graphs in the report, but they are more “pretty” than they are helpful.   

There are two primary problems with the graphs in the report.  Firstly, whoever put the graphs together didn’t always match the type of data with the optimal graph. You know: pie charts represent a whole, line graphs are good for showing trends and bar graphs are helpful for categories – to put it very briefly. 

The second problem was that the colour code kept changing.  The same categories occurred throughout the report, but in the graphs they kept changing colours.   

Imagine you were reading a report about sporting trends in different provinces. Now imagine that in the tennis section, Gauteng was red, Limpopo was blue, and Mpumalanga was green. Now you move to the next section, let’s say it’s soccer. Suddenly, Limpopo is red, Mpumalanga is still green, but now Gauteng is blue. The next section is about rugby and now Mpumalanga is red, Limpopo is purple and Gauteng is green. 

At this point you would be forgiven for feeling confused. You see, in the first section of the report, your brain would have formed the idea that, in this report at least, information about Gauteng would be shown in red, Limpopo’s numbers would be blue, and Mpumalanga’s data will be green. This helps you to categorise information and keep track of things. It also speeds up your reading time because you can apply the “code” to all the graphs that you see. 

Colour should never be random in a technical report. You need to use it carefully and clearly if you want to demonstrate something effectively.  No picture, except for a cover photograph, is there for decoration. Every picture, graph or graphic is there to enrich the technical discussion. Remember that colour is a form of visual coding and use this to your advantage when expressing ideas and findings in a report. 

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