Today, I stumbled upon a lengthy post that provides an in-depth review of the theory behind our color perception. The article concentrates on quantitative colormaps but also includes information relevant to selecting proper colors for categories.
If you never learned the theory behind the color and are interested in data visualization, I strongly suggest investing 45-60 minutes of your life in reading this post.
There was a consensus among the data visualization purists that the rainbow color map, and it’s close cousin Jet are bad. Really bad. These colormaps used to be popular at the beginning of the computational data visualization era. However, their popularity decreased in the last five years or so. The sentiment isn’t as bad as it used to be a couple of years ago, but still.
What is the biggest problem of the rainbow colormap? The most apparent problem with this particular colormap is that it not perceptually uniform. By “perceptually uniform,” I mean that equal changes in the value that we encode using a colormap should correspond to same changes in the color perception. This is not the case with the rainbow or the Jet colormaps. They have distinct bright and dark stripes within the number range, making them the wrong choice to encode numerical data. The situation is even worse for people with impaired color vision.
The solution to this problem was proposed in the form of better colormaps. The first one that I know of is Parula by Matlab, and it’s opensource alternative Viridis that is available in matplotlib and many other plotting libraries. (Watch this video about viridis to get a good introduction to color perception and color maps).
Everything was nice and good, and I was trashing the rainbow colormap whenever I could. Until yesterday, when I read about Turbo, the improved rainbow colormap developed by Google.
According to Anton, “Because of rapid color and lightness changes, Jet accentuates detail in the background that is less apparent with Viridisand even Inferno. Depending on the data, some detail may be lost entirely to the naked eye. The background in the following images is barely distinguishable with Inferno (which is already punchier than Viridis), but clear with Turbo.”
I must admit that I’m convinced.
The biggest problem with that is mentioned concerning the original rainbow scheme that its brightness varies too much. However, it turns out that the color saturation and hue attract our attention more than the lightness (here’s the reference which I haven’t read yet). As such, it makes sense to construct a colormap that relies more on color and hue changes.
Moreover, in many cases, the interesting details appear in the extreme values of the data range, not in the middle. In thes cases, a properly applied rainbow-like color scheme becomes a valid choice.
The bottom line is that one should not refrain from using rainbow(-like) color maps in their visualizations anymore, provided that they use a modern implementation. Luckily, it’s even available in matplotlib
The maximum data-ink ratio principle implies that one should not use colors in their graphs if the graph is understandable without the colors. The fact that you can do something, such as adding colors, doesn’t mean you should do it. I know it. I even have a dedicated tag on this blog for that. Sometimes, however, consistent use of colors serves as a useful navigation tool in a long discussion. Keep reading to learn about the justified use of colors.
Pew Research Center is a “is a nonpartisan American fact tank based in Washington, D.C. It provides information on social issues, public opinion, and demographic trends shaping the United States and the world.” Recently, I read a report prepared by the Pew Center on the religious divide in the Israeli society. This is a fascinating report. I recommend reading without any connection to data visualization.
But this post does not deal with the Isreali society but with graphs and colors.
Look at the first chart in that report. You may see a tidy pie chart with several colored segments.
Aha! Can’t they use a single color without losing the details? Of course the can! A monochrome pie chart would contain the same information:
In most of the cases, such a transformation would make a perfect sense. In most of the cases, but not in this report. This report is a multipage research document packed with many facts and analyses. The pie chart above is the first graph in that report that provides a broad overview of the Israeli society. The remaining of this report is dedicated to the relationships between and within the groups represented by the colorful segments in that pie chart. To help the reader navigating through this long report, its authors use a consistent color scheme that anchors every subsequent graph to the relevant sections of the original pie chart.
All these graphs and tables will be readable without the use of colors. Despite the fact that the colors here are redundant, this is a useful redundancy. By using the colors, the authors provided additional information layers that make the navigation within the document easier. I learned about the concept of useful redundancy from “Trees, Maps, and Theorems” by Jean-luc Dumout. If you can only read one book about data communication, it should be this book.
This example shows the default barplot and is the first barplot. Can you see how easy it is to add colors to the different columns? But WHY? What do those colors represent? It looks like the only information that is encoded by the color is the bar category. We already have this information in the form of bar location. Having this colorful image adds nothing but a distraction. It is sad that this is the default behavior that seaborn developers decided to adopt.