Importance of Color and Shape in Design


“Studies show that 33% of color blind workers have less energy at work during flu season”


I have to admit that this isn’t a bona fide statistic but it was the first thought I had after opening a package of cold medicine this morning.

In dashboard and scorecard design we talk about the importance of not only using color to indicate the purpose of an object but to provide appropriate separation using other attributes, like shape and description.  As KPI indicators have become popular and commonplace, good dashboard design tools visualize KPIs with not only different color but also the shape of indicators to help users differentiate important values.  The fine people at the Vicks company have made this point quite effectively in the preceding unaltered picture.  I snapped this photo on my phone this morning after opening a combination package of NyQuil & DayQuil, both  night-time and day-time capsules conveniently situated on the same foil blister card.  I could only imagine sitting in a long, important conference meeting with client,  quietly fighting off a little bronchial cough.  Discretely reaching into my pocket, I separate two capsules and covertly slip them into my mouth just in time for me to lead the second hour of the executive demonstration.  Now what color were those pills?

This important concept resurfaced yesterday when I met with a client who is writing guidelines and standards for BI dashboard designers in their organization.  I reiterated the following:

Consider the values and KPI indicators displayed in the business scorecard table of this dashboard.  Are they self-explanatory?  Is the meaning of the indicator clear?  I hope so since I put this one  – or one very much like it into production.


In an earlier post titled Let’s Get Visual; The Art of Report Design, I gave the following examples of KPI indicators, showing how they would look if printed in black and white or converted to grayscale.



By combining color with shapes, the problem is resolved as long as we inform the user that icons of a certain shape consistently represent a specific KPI state. For example, the round green, triangular yellow and diamond red shapes in the following example can be discerned by users who understand that circles are good news and diamonds are bad.  Sometime the best way to do that is to simply label them with text or at least with tool tips.



Readers may not know readily, and based only on the shape of the bottom row of indicators, whether one is good or bad.  After all else fails, put some text next to the symbol to call out the meaning.  Perhaps having the measure value next to the indicator will tell the story.  As long as users understand that bigger numbers are good and lower numbers are bad; the three states, varied by shape, should be decipherable.

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Paul Turley

Paul Turley

Microsoft Data Platform MVP, Principal Consultant for 3Cloud Solutions Specializing in Business Intelligence, SQL Server solutions, Power BI, Analysis Services & Reporting Services.

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