Kristen Thyng authors paper on the importance of colormap accuracy

Sep 26, 2016

A research team from across the state of Texas recently joined Dr. Kristen Thyng in publishing a research paper – True Colors of Oceanography: Guidelines for Effective and Accurate Colormap Selection.

The paper focuses on encouraging scientists to think about the impact of colormaps in presenting their data. Many colormaps tend to use jet (rainbow) based colors, which can be misleading to viewers. While evidence shows colormap choice is important for an audience in understanding data, it doesn’t necessarily get a lot of attention.

“We present literature that speaks to the importance of how people perceive color scales – showing that while hue-based (rainbow) colormaps are commonly-used, they can lead to misinterpretation,” said Dr. Kristen Thyng, lead author of the paper.

The research team suggests that scientists focus on making sure colors are just as accurate as the words they’re using to interpret the data. They emphasize the importance of color beyond simply being an artistic expression. Inaccurate color scales can give viewers an unrealistic perspective of data, which impacts its perception. 

“For example, we see yellow in a typical rainbow as being brighter than the surrounding colors, so an audience will tend to notice whatever is represented in yellow more strongly compared to the rest of the plot, regardless of whether it was intended to be more important or not. We propose that in general, a colormap that accounts for human perception and does not have incidental artificial perceptual jumps are better for properly displaying your data,” added Dr. Thyng.

Additionally, the team offeres guidelines for scientists to consider when creating colormaps for oceanographic data. Their main focus is increasing more accurate communication of scientific data – while also considering human intuition and visual perception with interpreting data. As part of the paper, the team also put together several scientific software packages of uniform colormaps available online. 

“The response that we have gotten to this paper and the colormaps has been phenomenal and really encouraging. People are interested to learn more about colormaps – and also happy to have easily available, nice-looking options to use for their own plots,” said Dr. Thyng. 

You can read the research paper in its entirety here.