Color Is Information



Any graphical image, including printed and electronic pages, and computer software displays and GUIs (graphical user interfaces)


color, information

Predecessor Patterns

. . . (none)

Problem Summary

When color is used arbitrarily and gratuitously information is obscured.


Favorite Colors

Many people make the mistake of choosing colors simply because because they like them. If you use colors simply because they happen to be your favorites they will be irrelevant to what you want to say, and they almost certainly won't be other people's favorites. For online documents people like to set up the graphical interface preferences with their own favorite colors. Hence, if there is no functional reason to use particular colors, the choice should be left to the user.

Being Color Happy

Another common mistake is being seduced by the availability of a rich color palette. The first instinct of a child presented with a big box of crayons is to try them all. This same phenomenon can be observed when people are presented with new media. When color monitors became affordable for the consumer PC market, some software engineers tended to become "color happy", and the same phenonmenon can be observed in many Web sites today. The availability of so many new colors, enabled by new technology, seduces people into overusing them.

Gratuitous use of color is dysfunctional. Too many colors can obscure whatever rationale might exist for using different colors, obliterating their information value. A very colorful display may attract attention at first, but it can actually hinder the readability or information structure of what's on the screen. In The Visual Display of Quantitative Information Edward Tufte cites examples of "graphic puzzles" where data is color coded, but the code is so complex the viewer cannot make visual sense of the graphic.

If you can't think of a reason for something to be a different color, it probably shouldn't be a different color.

The Function of Color

Properly used, color itself can convey information. It can reinforce typographic information, add to order and logic, indicate varying qualities and quanities, call attention and emphasize, establish tone or connotation, and clarify complex ideas. Generally speaking, use "neutral" colors like black, white, and greys to just present the facts with no particular "spin", and use other colors sparingly to reinforce or enhance a message. Be careful with simplistic cliched color associations like "yellow means caution" and "red means danger", however. As discussed in Colors In Context, colors change depending upon both physical and psychological situations.

Another function of color as information is purely physiological. For example, a rule of thumb for legible typography is to maintain high contrast between the background and the type. However, because of the intense brightness of some computer monitors a pure white background may cause eye fatigue, so a slightly pastel or grey background may be better. (This is the rationale behind the amber monitors briefly popular in the 1980s.)

Solution Summary


Select a small palette of colors objectively based on the information you want to convey and stick to it. Associate each color choice with your message, and let the purpose of the message determine when to use a particular color.

Successor Patterns

Be aware that the perception of color can vary radically as described in Colors In Context. When choosing a color palette consider Colors For The Colorblind. For Web page and other hypertext links use Consistent Link Colors to reinforce navigational information. . . .


  1. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte.


Gary Swift, 06 August 1996
This pattern was originated by the author at INTERACTIVE Systems, Corp. in 1989 for the INTERACTIVE UNIX bootstrap CUI interface, which was highly constrained by the 16-color PC/AT pallate.
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