color theory for project management

Color Theory for Project Managers: Using Color to Tell a Story

When you think of color, you probably think of a rainbow. Your mind probably doesn’t immediately go to the psychology of color and how to leverage the relationship between colors to make your data work for you.

However, color psychology and color theory are at play all around us, whether we know it or not.

When it comes to project management, data tells your story. Whether you’re communicating resource allocation or updating stakeholders, your data speaks volumes.

So, how can we use color to make this data go even further? Let’s dive deeper.

In this post, we’ll cover:

  • Color Psychology 101
  • Recommended colors for various use cases
  • Gantt chart examples that leverage color theory

Color Psychology for Primary and Secondary Colors

There is a lot to learn about the psychology of color. Let’s start with its definition: the conscious or subconscious effect of color on perception and reaction. 

We know black is the color of mourning and that brides wear white. A red sign usually means danger, and pink is associated with softness and naivety. But how can we leverage these perceptions and reactions as project managers?

Primary Colors

  • Red – As the first primary color, red is known to be a color of danger. It is also frequently associated with passion, desire, and love. As far as subconscious reactions go, as stated above, red enhances human metabolism, increases the rate of respiration, and raises blood pressure. It tends to attract more attention than any other color.
    • 🔴 Best used for: items in your project that need immediate attention.  
  • Yellow – Why do we associate intelligence and mental capacity with the term “bright’? Because of yellow, of course! Yellow is used to talk about good ideas, heightened awareness, and energy; it has even been shown to increase left-brain activity. Careful, though: too much yellow can overstimulate. Babies are even known to cry more in yellow rooms! Brands that use yellow include Snapchat, Ikea, and Post-It.
    • 🟡 Best used for: items that require attention but are not urgent.
  • Blue – Blue is often associated with being the color of tranquility and peace. It signals sincerity; brands often use blue to signal trust and compassion. Brands known for using blue include institutions that need to foster reliance, such as banks and insurance agencies. Think Chase, Allstate, PayPal, and Blue Cross.
    • 🔵 Best used for: pitch presentations and idle statuses that are not urgent.

Secondary Colors

  • Orange – Known for being the color of persuasion, orange is also associated with joy, sunshine, and enthusiasm. It can also foster feelings of creativity, determination, and encouragement. Brands you see using orange include Harley Davidson, Fanta, and Hooters.
    • 🟠 Best used for: pitch presentations, timeline pivots, and exciting updates.
  • Green – Green is frequently associated with nature, freshness, and health. You often see green associated with brands that tout vitality and productivity, like John Deere, Green Giant, or Starbucks. Opposite of red, it has a calming effect. 
    • 🟢 Best used for: signaling start dates, items that have yet to be started, to signal forward momentum.
  • Purple – As a secondary color, purple combines the trust and steadiness of blue with the passion and energy of red. Often associated with royalty, it symbolizes luxury, power, and extravagance. It can also be associated with mystery and spiritualism. Hilariously, brands that use purple include FedEx and Taco Bell. I’ll let you do with that information what you will.
    • 🟣 Best used for: talking about expenses, feature releases, and highlighting authority. 

Defining Color Harmony

Understanding the location of colors on the color wheel helps us understand what colors go well together — otherwise known as color harmony. If you work as a designer, the relationships between colors, including their various hues and chromas, can be very nuanced. In this article, we will focus on two: analogous and complementary.

Analogous Colors 

Analogous colors are three colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel. These are usually one primary or secondary color and their corresponding tertiary colors, with one color being dominant. For example, yellow-green, yellow, and yellow-orange would be analogous colors where solid yellow is the dominant color.

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. These colors create a stark difference that is not too unappealing to the eye. Complementary colors are opposing colors that create maximum contrast and maximum stability.

It is important to know these relationships between colors as you never want your color scheme to be too boring and lose attention, but you also do not want it to be too overwhelming to the eye. The human brain is also drawn to what it can organize and understand. Seeing things with our eyes often requires our brains to process a logical structure.

Using Color for Project Management

Armed with the knowledge of which colors go well together and how to use colors to portray image, emotion, and affect perception, how can we apply this to project management? 

Complementary Colors to Show Status and Progress

The human brain already associates certain colors with instruction and status. Think of a stop light: red means stop, green means go, and yellow means caution. Applying this same schema to statuses such as “To Do” and “In Progress” makes a lot of sense and is a pattern the brain can readily recognize. Formatting statuses like “Blocked” or “Bug” with red allows your team to identify these danger areas and respond accordingly.

Gantt chart made in Visor using complementary colors:

Complementary Colors in a Gantt chart

Analogous Colors to Present Divided Work and New Projects

Using three consecutive colors on the color wheel can add some harmony to your workflows while still diversifying the information you care about. Giving a presentation to the CEO and need to seem trustworthy and powerful? Use a combination of blues and purples to give an aura of regality and sturdiness to your graphs and charts. Trying to get your team excited about a new project? Present it with yellows and oranges to get spirits high and good ideas flowing.

Gantt chart made in Visor using analogous colors:

Analogous Colors in a gantt chart

Managing Your Projects with the Wheel In Mind

Many project management tools allow you to customize and format your workflows. With Visor, you can customize your integrated data as well as your custom fields, Gantt charts, and Timelines to make your data speak for itself and tell the story that works for your goals. 

Are you ready to begin?

Visor is secure, free, and doesn't require a credit card.

Get Started For Free