Graphics: Scrap rainbow colour scales

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
519,
Page:
291
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/519291d
Published online

It is time to clamp down on the use of misleading rainbow colour scales that are increasingly pervading the literature and the media (see http://tiny.cc/endoftherainbow). Accurate graphics are key to clear communication of scientific results to other researchers and the public — an issue that is becoming ever more important.

Aside from the challenge they pose for colour-blind readers (S. C. Allred et al. Nature 510, 340; 2014), spectral-type colour palettes can introduce false perceptual thresholds in the data (or hide genuine ones); they may also mask fine detail in the data (D. Borland and R. M. Taylor Comput. Graph. Appl. 27, 1417; 2007). These palettes have no unique perceptual ordering, so they can de-emphasize data extremes by placing the most prominent colour near the middle of the scale.

These issues can have profound consequences: for example, changing to a non-rainbow colour scale improved diagnostic accuracy for heart disease (M. Borkin et al. IEEE Trans. Vis. Comput. Graph. 17, 24792488; 2011).

Journals should not tolerate poor visual communication, particularly because better alternatives to rainbow scales are readily available (see, for example, go.nature.com/zvouhq and http://colorbrewer2.org). We urge all journals to stipulate in their guidelines that graphics must convey accurate and accessible information.

Author information

  1. *On behalf of 5 correspondents (see Supplementary information for full list).

    • Ed Hawkins

Affiliations

  1. University of Reading, UK.

    • Ed Hawkins

Corresponding author

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Supplementary information

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