You need a better color palette for your Excel charts, but you are a mere mortal and your artistic skills are less than stellar. Hell, you can’t even choose the right tie for a suit! So, what do you do? (hint: watch the video below)

Maybe we could ask Edward Tufte for advice. In Envisioning Information, he writes:

What palette of colors should we choose to represent and illuminate information? A grand strategy is to use colors found in nature (…). Nature’s colors are familiar and coherent, possessing a widely accepted harmony to the human eye (…). A palette of nature’s colors helps suppress production of garish and content-empty chartjunk.

Better said than done, right? Well, let me tell you a secret: it’s easier than it seems.

How to create a new Excel color palette

I’m going to show you how to create a palette of colors found in nature ( you can create a palette of colors not found in nature, if that suits you better). Here are the steps:

  1. Select a photo you like. If you happen to live in a big city, finding nature can be challenging. Google for “
    [your location]+park” and you may get lucky. Go there, take some photos and download them to your computer. If that looks like a lot of work, you can try Flickr. Search for “autumn colors” and you’ll get some useful results. I’ve picked the one on the right;
  2. Upload it to an online palette generator. There are many, so choose whichever you like. I like Genopal because it is clean (no ads) and extracts exactly the number of colors we need (eight). [Update: well, Genopal is no longer available. I’ll have to make a new video…]
  3. Convert color codes to RGB. Copy the color codes to Excel and use the HEX2DEC() function to get the RGB values.
  4. Create the Excel palette. In Excel 2003, replace the existing colors with the new ones. In Excel 2007 create a new color theme.

This is it. You can try it in your next chart.

A new Excel palette: the making of

If you need the details, here is a step by step tutorial:

Is this good enough?

As you can see, the results are heavily dependent on the photo you choose, so you should try different photos and test the resulting palette in a chart. If you find it hard to come up with a good color scheme, you can use this method to create a basic color palette that you can tweak to meet your needs.

Other Excel and Chart Color Resources

Jon Peltier wrote two interesting posts about managing the Excel color palette (here and here) and Stephen Few shares some Practical Rules for Using Color in Charts (PDF). Bonavista’s Chart Tamer includes a professionally designed palette.

Photo credit: Xavier Fargas