Defining your colors is a very important step when designing a polished and beautiful data visualization, but not all of us have previous design experience. This can result in poor choices and, unfortunately, relying too much on the software default color palettes. Though Tableau Desktop did a great job designing a beautiful and functional set of color palettes, sometimes you need to find colors that match your company’s brand or just to personalize your visualization.

Why colors are important in dashboard design

There is no doubt that color is critical to effectively discover and share insights. For example, color can be used as a strategic tool for drawing your reader’s attention, highlighting important data, or distinguishing between categories. However, color should always be used thoughtfully and intentionally. You should avoid using color just to brighten up a boring viz.

First things first, let’s review the fundamentals. The quickest way to customize colors in Tableau is to know either the HSV (Hue-Saturation-Value), or RGB (Red-Green-Blue) values. But what does it mean?

  • Hue is what we most often consider as color and it refers to a color wheel, ranging from 0° to 360°.
  • Saturation is how pure the hue is. A full saturation means that the pure base hue is used. It ranges from 0% (grey) to 100% (super colorful!).
  • Value or Lightness is the amount of white or black mixed in with the color. It ranges from 0% (black) to 100% (the actual color)

The following image illustrates how hue, saturation, and value intersect to create colors on a 3-dimensional scale.


Munsell color system for dashboard design

The RGB is an additive color model based on the color theory that all visible colors can be made using the primary colors of red, green, and blue. Additive means that the more RGB light beams are emitted, the closer you get to white (RGB 255 255 255). If no light is emitted (RGB 0 0 0) you will see black. RGB values range from 0 to 255. RGB color model is best suited for on-screen applications.

Both HSV and RGB color models are widely used and available in software programs.

Using the color wheel in your dashboard design: getting started

Now let’s take a closer look at the mother of all color tools in the design world: the color wheel. The color wheel is a circular diagram that shows the relationships between colors. Through the color wheel, you can create the most DIVINE colors! It gives you endless ways to mix and match. The following demonstrations make use of the principle of proximity, which ensures that design elements near each other are perceived as related, while elements spaced apart are perceived as belonging to separate groups. These are the basic techniques for combining colors, also known as “color harmonies”:


color wheel for dashboard design


Analogous color palette is defined by choosing one main color and two or more colors nearby. This is one of the simplest and most appealing color harmonies and are often found in nature.

Complementary color palette is on opposing sides of the color wheel.
You should select a dominant color and use the other color as an accent, this will create a strong contrast in your image.
Split Complementary color palette is similar to a complementary color scheme, except one of the colors is split into two nearby colors. This keeps the high contrast of the complementary color scheme, but also adds more variety.
Triadic color palette is composed of three colors spaced evenly on the color wheel. These color combinations are often bold and vibrant.

Tetradic Color palette uses four colors positioned around the color wheel in the shape of a rectangle, made up of 2 sets of complementary colors together as one palette. These palettes work best when you focus on one main color and use the other colors as contrasting accents.

Monochromatic color palette is composed of different shades and tones of a single hue. It’s one of the easiest color harmonies to create and looks simple, cohesive and organized.


Dashboard design tips: How to make your colors work

So now that you know the basics, here are a few tips to put your colors to work:
Tip #1: Don't rely on hues from all around the color wheel


Don't rely on all the colors on the wheel

Color can overwhelm. When it comes to color, “less” is often “more”. Limit the number of colors to five or fewer and if you are in a situation where more than five categories need distinct colors, consider a two-color palette—making the category of interest a color that stands out, and everything else a more muted color, such as gray. We don’t want to put more stress on the user by looking back and forth at a color legend!

Tip #2: Make your colors more pleasing to look at

By reducing their hue saturation, making color less intense. To do this add transparency to the colors (On the Marks card, click Color > Reduce opacity).

Make your colors more pleasing to look at

Tip #3: Use color consistently

More than aesthetically appealing, it avoids mental fatigue. The audience needs to familiarize themselves with what colors mean and then will assume the same specifics apply to the rest of the communication.

Tip #4: Load your own custom color palettes

Whether you need to use the style guide of your organization or you just want to give your personal touch to the viz, Tableau allows you to create and use your own custom color palettes by modifying the Preferences.tps file


Tip #5: It's time to choose a color scheme... lost?

Luckily for you, finding a color doesn’t need to be hard because there are many cool tools out there to help you mix and match colors and find the perfect color palette that will fit your needs.

Check out and explore the following websites:

  • Color Hunt – A collection of beautiful and trendy color palettes
  • Viz Palette - As they say, this website was “born out of a frustration with picking colors for data visualizations”. Just edit the colors and see them in action! Plus, there’s an option to see how the colors would appear to people that have a color deficiency so that you can make your viz more accessible!
  • Adobe Color  - You can choose which color harmony method to apply, and you can select the colors yourself, it is able to upload a picture to extract a palette and a color gradient.
  • Colorable – Works best when you want to simulate which colors match well when there’s text color on a background color. If you are not feeling inspired just select “Random” and it will generate colors for you.
  • Color Supply - Based on the color wheel, just select the method of your choice and choose the colors that you like, then copy the HEX color codes.
  • Coolors - It’s a super-fast color scheme generator, just press the spacebar to generate new color palettes. There’s an option to also explore trending color palettes.
  • DataFam Colors - This workbook is a Tableau Color Palette Crowdsourcing Project from the Tableau Community. You can submit your palette through a simple Google Form or browse all the different palettes, then download a preferences.tps file containing all the palettes.
  • Pantone Color Finder - Enables users to pick and search trendy colors from their color library.

Or pick colors out of a beautiful picture with the pick screen color tool (Steal like a pro, there’s no shame in that!)

Color picker from an image

Design your dashboard with the colorblind in mind

Color vision deficiency (CVD) affects as many as 8% of males and 0.5% of females. People suffering from CVD can in fact see color, but they can’t distinguish colors in the same way as the rest of the population. Deuteranopia is the most common type of red-green color blindness. It makes the green look more red. Thus, when highlighting both positive and negative aspects at the same time, you can use blue for positive and orange for negative, for example.

In Tableau, you can use the built-in color blind palette. But, if you want to be creative, there are several websites (for example, Vischeck and Chromatic Vision Simulator) that allow users to upload images and simulate how they would appear to people with different forms of CVD. 

The other possibility is to render your dashboard in your browser and use Chrome DevTools color blindness emulator to simulate the five common types of CVD. How cool is that? 

What if you have an international audience?

Take into consideration that colors can have different meanings in different cultures.

For example, in the Western/American cultures, red has both positive and negative connotations. It can be the color of love and excitement but also anger, danger, and radicalism. On the other hand, in Chinese culture, red is the color of happiness, success, and good luck.

David McCandless created a dope viz called Colours in Culture, which can be found in his book The Visual Miscellaneum: A Colorful Guide to the World’s Most Consequential Trivia (2012) or in his website

Colours in culture

I hope this article was helpful! And remember that the goal of a visualization is to tell the story behind data. So, be mindful of your color choices in order to deliver your message effectively.

Other Helpful content to improve your dashboard design

Here are some other resources and blogs that might help you improve the designs of your dashboards to find insights in your data easier and faster:

Micaela Domingues

Micaela Domingues

I help you get insights from your data. Easier. Faster.

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