seeing red

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Last month, we challenged our community to create a visualization based around the color red. That particular color gets plenty of use in visual design, and it has a lot of cultural and visual significance; so, we offered the opportunity to complete this challenge by leveraging an audience’s expectations, or by subverting their expectations by using red in an unusual fashion. 

Forty-five people participated, and of those, almost none of the submissions used red in a way that would undermine our expectations. We’ll look at some of the specific approaches folks took in more detail; but taken as a whole, this month’s collection of visualizations demonstrates that it is very difficult indeed to intentionally work against associations that most of us have spent a lifetime internalizing. 

If this is the case, then how did the SWD community choose to use red this month? (We’ll mention a few creators and their visuals here, but we encourage you to visit the community and browse the whole collection.)

Visualizing health issues

One of this month’s participants (and recent Member Spotlight nominee) Lisa explicitly said, in sharing her “Lyme disease” visualization, that red is often used to visualize health issues, like blood, or high-risk indicators in other areas of medicine. This is true; most commonly, we see folks use red when visualizing data about something life threatening, or something related to the heart or our circulatory system. Red is not a soothing color, and we do often see lighter, less saturated blues and greens in healthcare graphics; but to get someone’s attention about a critical facet of their own health (or of others’), red takes a larger role.

Other health-related submissions this month:

Evoking a country or a flag associated with red

In some cases, we think of a country having a strong association with a certain color, or combination of colors. For the Netherlands, we think of orange (even though it isn’t in their flag); for Argentina, sky blue; for Brazil, green and gold. Other countries, like Russia and Japan, we associate with red. A few of our submissions this month leveraged these associations to create visualizations about aspects of these countries and cultures.

Referencing the literal flags of world countries

While Maxene and Wingrid used color and design to allude to Japan’s flag, multiple participants in this month’s challenge visualized their analyses of flags themselves. As Jaime pointed out in the accompanying text to his beautiful “Color dissection in the flags of the world” graphic, red is the most common color to be found flying from a nation’s flagpole. (Conversely, it’s thought to be the least common color in a standard bag of M&Ms—tied with light brown.) 

Other flag-related submissions this month:

Sounding the alarm

Several participants used red to call attention to some particular topic of great concern; in the context of the visual, there was something the viewer needed to know that demanded urgent action, and could lead to a negative outcome if ignored. 

Culturally, this is a common use of the color red; some of the examples shared with us used it sparingly (as Kuan-Pei did in “The Most Expensive Beer in MLB”), while some used it to overwhelm the viewer (as Monica did in “How Big is the Gender Gap in the Drone Industry?”). Each approach can be, and was, successful—as were the other red-alert contributions this month.

Not surprisingly, given the state of things in June of 2021, several “sound-the-alarm” visualizations were specifically related to the economic impacts of the global pandemic, although each one had a different perspective and focus:

Subverting expectations

Did we surprise you by including this section? While it’s true that almost none of the submissions undermined our expectations for the color red, one graphic created by Brian, entitled “Fresh Apples,” provided a memorable surprise, related to the way he used color in his long-form visualization. We won’t ruin the surprise for you; we’ll just encourage you to see it for yourself, and hopefully you enjoy it as much as we did.

Big thanks to everyone who participated this month! You can browse all entries in the community, and be sure to participate by leaving comments and datapoints on those you like. We encourage you to take on the current challenge and build your data storytelling muscle as well. 


Our Fall 2021 schedule for individual learning is set, including both virtual and in-person offerings! Are you responsible for representing data in your day-to-day job? Is it important for you to be able to tell stories through graphs and presentations? If you ever find yourself needing to communicate something to someone using data, sign up for an upcoming session and move beyond simply showing data to telling a data-driven story. Learn more here.

Source: Story Telling

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