Project Dashboard Icons

turn signal traffic light

We create project dashboards all the time to show status, or to give upper management an update. Dashboards and scorecards are great for giving us a “quick view” into the health of a project – they give us a way to drill down. Many of us use the colors red / yellow / green, with a stoplight metaphor. The problem is that some of us are colorblind. Johanna Rothman gives us a GREAT tip. We give you a set of icons / images.

Dashboards and Scorecards

Without going into detail about the differences between the two, they have a common mission: a scannable view of the status of a project. Scannable often means images or colors too, at least in the dashboards we’ve seen (and made in the past). The traffic light is a common metaphor – green is good, yellow is ok but might be going bad, red is bad.

Then someone adds blue. Or orange for “bad, but not end of the world bad.” Sort of like “extra high priority” features.

Rothman On Traffic Lights

Some may use the traffic light model–red, yellow, and green–to denote the project’s state. This model shows today’s state, but it’s hard to see where the project is headed. I haven’t found the traffic light useful, due to the static nature of the assessment and the limit of three levels to denote project state. And unlike traffic lights that automatically change, projects don’t change unless the project manager and the team act to change them. Projects tend to continue in the direction the team is heading.

Sunny Skies or Storms?, Johanna Rothman

We agree, traffic lights are lame. And thanks to Johanna, we now have a much better metaphor.

Weather Reports

This is definitely Johanna’s idea – we’re not stealing it, we’re redistributing it. It goes in the “wish we’d thought of that” bucket. We’ll try and add a little value, though.

In short – weather reports work as a better metaphor both for (current) status, and forecasting. They also allow for more than 3 statuses without breaking the metaphor. Johanna throws up an example with six.

Six may be too many. Suddenly, your audience is tasked with mapping a fairly nuanced break-out against a common metaphor. We think four would be more effective.

weather forecast

We created these using free icons from Ganato, who asked only that they not be downloadable, except from them. Get them there if you want to use them, or search for others. Johanna also points us to a page with a zillion icons, all hot-linked from their respective owners. Don’t take them without permission – but definitely go there for inspiration if you want your own.

The goal is to have a natural and obvious progression of status.

Explaining The Meaning

We could propose definitions for each icon – in terms of what it represents for the project – but we won’t. At some level, the icons need to stand on their own, or they aren’t good icons. If your team needs an explanation, make sure you include it in the scorecard as a legend.


Another thing to keep in mind – the senior manager you’re communicating with has to juggle a lot of information about a lot of projects. And when you have problems, the questions they should ask are “when will it get better?” and “what can I do to help?”

weather forecast

This quick and simple presentation shows where the project was, is, and will be. It presents both position and velocity.


Thanks Johanna! Stealing this idea. We (all) owe you one.

8 thoughts on “Project Dashboard Icons

  1. I have used the red/green/yellow colors from traffic lights, but instead have happy and sad faces in them. This gives me six variations in the metaphor (usually only need the happy and sad yellow). I also do two columns, one for schedule, one for progress. Would show it here, but this is text only…

  2. Hey John, thanks for reading and commenting!

    I like the idea of happy and sad faces, and it sounds like you usually have four levels too.

    Does “sad green” mean not quite as good as “happy green?” Or does it mean “we’re green now, but not for long?” Sort of a wistful green?

    How do you distinguish between schedule and progress? Can you give an example?

  3. I like a lot the idea of adding “forecasting” to a status report. This improves the reporting a lot.

    Regarding the sad and happy faces in the red green and yellow color, I think it is a matter of how precise you want to be. A good variation I’ve seen is plain green, half green and half yellow, plain yellow, orange, plain red.

    Adding more levels increases the information, but, the forecasting is much better.

    All in all, it may all be a lie. Some good idea I once saw in practice is choosing a sub-project each week and looking into it in detail. This avoids the yes-man in the midle that sweets is status reports so that he doesn’t get the attention and hopes others will do worst than he does.

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