Taking Dashboards from Good to Great With Custom Color Palettes

By: Tiffany Spaulding | September 30, 2015

Learning Tableau is like learning to write. We start with single letters, uppercase and lowercase before we ever build words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. If we focus on just the penmanship aspect, our handwriting has hopefully evolved from age 4 through now. As we evolve, we eventually develop our own style as we are exposed to alternative handwriting families: script, caps, technical, cursive, bubbly, architectural, and even the quick chicken-scratch every now and then. Through repetition, we develop and hone the skill over time. The same happens with our design style in Tableau, but instead of letters, we are learning functionality: chart types, calculated fields, filters, groups, sorts, hierarchies, and parameters.

Learning Focuses on Function

As new users become more comfortable with Tableau, they tend to search for ways to make their dashboards stand out: testing new functionality, incorporating Jedi hacks, pushing the barriers of what was conceivable, and using other technologies to enhance Tableau. Some of the best dashboards in production utilize none of the former enhancements, just basic Tableau functionality plus a little something extra.

What Makes the Best Dashboards Different?

  • They are clean, simple, and intuitive. 
  • They don't fight Tableau but embrace its beauty. 
  • They require minimal training or orientation to use the dashboard successfully.
  • They encourage curiosity, discovery and action.
  • They balance form and function.

Great Design Respects Form and Function

The most used dashboards gracefully balance form and function. Designing minimalistic dashboards takes hours and hours of effort to polish, re-evaluate, test, and redesign. Instead of simply knowing how to press buttons in Tableau, to become great in the tool, you'll need to embrace design principles such as proportion, balance, rhythm, and harmony. Knowing that most people who use Tableau have never taken a course in 2D or graphic design, I'll be sprinkling in a few posts here and there on graphic design basics and how to incorporate them into Tableau. Let's ease into our first topic: color.

Use Color Palettes That Strengthen the Data

A very simple modification you can make to any dashboard is to design the color palette relative to the story the data tells. If you are building a dashboard looking at football stats for the Houston Texans, you'd probably incorporate the Texans logo. To enhance the dashboard graphically, modify the color scheme to a Houston Texans palette. All of us have emotional ties to color. Why not utilize that emotion to strengthen the familiarity and connection of the dashboard with the end user? Intuitive color palettes increase speed of insight, giving your end user valuable time back in their day.

Step 1: Find Color Inspiration

Logos are great places to start building a color palette from, but websites and photos can work just as well. For kicks, let's pretend we are analyzing the popularity of M&Ms candy by color. We could get close by randomly choosing a yellow, green, red, blue, brown, and orange, or we could find a photo with all the colors shown and then extract the colors from the picture.

M&Ms 

Step 2: Build the Palette

  1. If you are using Sample Superstore as your data source, drag any dimension with 6 members or more to the Color shelf on the Marks Card. I used Sub-Category and then aliased the members to the M&M colors.
  2. Using the drop down on the Marks Card, change your mark type to circle.
  3. Click the Size button on the Marks Card and move the slider all the way to the right to increase the circle sizes.
  4. Create a Calculated Field for the label. Formula = "M"
  5. Drag your new label field to Label on the Marks Card.
  6. Click the Label button on the Marks Card and adjust the formatting.

Font = White, 36pt, Bold
Alignment = Middle Center

Now that our base view is built, look closely at the legend: Blue is shown as Blue however Brown are shown as Orange. We need to edit our colors not only to ensure each color matches the name, but to the exact shade of each M&M hue.

Build the palette

To edit the colors, click the Color button on the Marks Card and select Edit Colors (or double click the color legend). We can reassign the color values by selecting any of the pre-built palettes from the drop down list in the top right corner of the pop-up menu. 

Side Note: In 8.x versions, this is where I would leave Tableau and utilize a color tool such as Pixie Color Picker to scrape the HTML color codes. I'd then write XML code to build a custom color palette in my Preferences file in the Tableau Repository. 

Edit colors

Version 9 gave us a new feature called the Color Picker to make creating ad-hoc custom palettes quicker and easier. To access the new tool, double click on the colored square for Blue in the left hand column of the pop-up menu ("Select Data Item:"). A new popup menu titled "Select Color" will appear.

Select color

  1. To begin building your palette, click one of the white rectangles in the bottom left corner under Custom colors. 
  2. Next click the "Pick Screen Color" button in the top left quadrant of the pop up menu.
  3. Click anywhere you want to pull the M&Ms blue color from. (Having dual monitors makes the process a little easier, but you can navigate to another program and it will read the next click.)
  4. Click "Add to Custom Colors" to save the color to your palette. 
  5. Press OK.
  6. Rinse and Repeat selecting the second data item in the list at the left of the Edit Colors menu. Work your way through all 6 colors.

Select color

Our original view of the M&Ms now match the exact colors of the candy coating, bringing familiarity and relativity to the data simply through color, shape, and label. 

M&Ms 

Caution: Building color palettes through the Pick Screen Color option is designed for ad-hoc purposes. You are limited to 16 colors in your palette and it is only active in the existing workbook while it is open. Once you save and close the workbook, the Custom Colors will return to white rectangles once again. Any data points assigned to your custom colors will remain encoded. 

Step 3: Check the Palette for Color Deficient Viewers

Tableau has invested heavily in developing their color palettes to span the most users. Should you choose to develop your own, please use an app such as Vischeck to ensure your new custom color palette is friendly to color deficient viewers.

Step 4: Save Palette for Future Use

If you need to share color palettes or save them for use across multiple workbooks, check out this article on how to write XML code in your Preferences.tps file. If you would like Tableau developers to build in an option to save a Custom Colors palette from within the pop-up menu, please upvote this post in the Community.

Try it Out!

We are entering the season of color themed dashboards: football stats, Halloween costumes, Thanksgiving menus, Christmas wish lists. I hope you'll be able to put this into immediate use and start to set apart your dashboards through design elements such as custom colors. Below are a few extra sample of color palettes I've pulled from photographs as well as alternative links to get you started if you are missing inspiration. Enjoy!

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Example1

Color inspiration

Categories:Tableau, Data Visualization