Sunday, August 3, 2008

Do Colors Impact Learning?

We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.”

But this may not be true in case of eLearning courses, tutorials or PowerPoint presentations. If we include too many colors in any of these then it is sure to spoil its look. Like they say “Too many cooks spoil the broth’, in the same way too many colors spoil the look!

Colors that appear pleasing to my eyes may not look so when you view it. But then the question arises which color should we use? I may not be an expert in this field, but I have attempted to put forth my view and understanding on the use of colors and their impact on learning after doing loads of research on the information super highway a.k.a internet.

Let’s look at the co-relation between colors and learning in detail.

Color is an element of design that is used to create ideas, convey messages, evoke feelings, and accentuate areas of interest (Groff, 1990). Choosing an appropriate color for any PowerPoint presentation or any tutorial is as important as adding salt to any dish. Too much or too little of it can spoil the whole thing. Before we move on to using colors, let us know what the different types of colors are. Color can be classified as:

Primary: Those colors that can be combined to make a range of other colors is known as primary colors. Primary colors can not be created using other colors hence they are known as primary colors.
Example: Red, Blue, and Green

Secondary: A secondary color is a color made by mixing two primary colors.
Example: Yellow, Magenta, and Cyan

Tertiary: A tertiary color is a color made by mixing one primary color with one secondary color.
Example: Orange, Violet, and Aquamarine
A color wheel is also referred to as a color circle, which is a visual representation of colors arranged according to their chromatic relationship.

A color wheel is also referred to as a color circle, which is a visual representation of colors arranged according to their chromatic relationship.

Apart from these three types there are complementary and analogous colors.
Complementary Colors: Colors located opposite each other on a color wheel are known as complementary colors.
Blue and Orange are complementary colors.

Analogous Colors: Colors located close together on a color wheel are known as analogous colors. Violet, Blue and Azure are analogous colors.

Let us know the principles of using color.
Use of good colors can provide good visual effect where as use of bad colors can mar the visual effect altogether. There are four principles which govern good visual effect.

Principle 1: Use of Strong and Bright Colors
Very strong or bright colors should be used sparingly or between dull background tones. This allows the strong colors to draw attention to a particular feature of a graphic you want to focus on.

Principle 2: Combine Light and Dark Colors
Using a combination of light and dark colors means that we should make use of contrasting colors in any presentation or course. This helps the audience to read the text without having to strain their eyes.

Principle 3: Background colors
For background one should use soft, dull or neutral colors that allow smaller, bright text or images to stand out vividly. When two or more colors are used for a background it tends to distract the viewer from the important objects you want him/her to focus on.

Principle 4: Unity
When we use an image with multiple colors we should keep in mind that diverse colors should intermingle with each other.

Why do we need colors at all?
If we look around ourselves we will find colors of all shades. So how can we ignore colors? In fact colors form a major part of our lives, in the sense that if the whole world becomes black or white probably we would end up confusing one object with another.

Colors help us distinguish different objects. It is often said “variety is the spice of life”. And colors add variety to most of the things around us. Color is a powerful tool, which has many uses. It can be used to get attention, create a mood, enhance clarity, establish a code, label things in nature, and differentiate items. Let us look at each of these reasons in detail.

Color is used to attract attention
Colors can be used to emphasize a particular thing. For example in the given example only some words in the instruction is highlighted to show that it is important.
“Select only one option from the options given below”

Similarly you must have noticed that models or dummies in jewelry shops are black. It is done so as to make the jewelry stand out.

Colors may turn on or turn off your mood.
This background glares and causes eye strain
This does not cause eye strainBright colors may tire you and you may have to strain your eyes. Whereas soft colors make it easy for us to spend longer duration of time to read things.

Color enhances clarity
We use color to enhance clarity and readability in the text and graphic elements.
Take a look at this picture where different languages spoken in different parts of our country are indicated using various

Color helps us establish a code
Color can be used to code items, locations, regions, and so on. Colors come in handy to make graphical representation.

Colors have particular connotations
We generally use certain colors to symbolize a particular thing. For example red symbolizes danger, black is generally associated with evil where as white denotes purity. Blue is often used to show sky and water bodies and green is used to illustrate flora and fauna. Of course these connotations differ with culture.

How does color facilitate or impede learning?
Research proves that colors have a psychological impact on learning environment. The choice of color can have a positive or a negative impact on students’ performance and behavior in class. Also colors should be used on the basis of age group the students belong to. Students in lower class respond better in a brightly colored classroom.

I remember when I was in kinder garten the classroom used to be brightly colored, mostly yellow or red color was used. But as I got promoted to higher grades, the color of the classroom changed from yellow or red to green.

Teachers have also used various colors to influence learning outcomes. For example in school we were asked to stick to blue or black ink. And the red ink was supposed to be used by teachers to correct assignments, notebooks, and class works. It was definitely done to draw our attention to the mistake we made. In one way red was threatening but in another way it made us feel anxious and enhanced our learning outcomes, in the sense that we will remember not to repeat the points highlighted in red.

Also while showing the differences between two or three concepts teachers generally make use of colored chalks so as to make the differences prominent. Furthermore in school writing board is black in color so that white color will be easily visible. Another example can be the use of a highlighter to mark an important piece of information in a text book. Color facilitates to memorize and identify different things.

To conclude I would say, colors are most influential aspect of our lives. Without color we cannot see traffic signals or enjoy scenic beauty, and learning techniques would be much more difficult. These signals require perception of color in order to be effective. So colors used in the right proportion can enhance learning and benefit us in a number of ways whereas it will have exactly the opposite if we use too much of it.


Inmate of infinity said...

absolutely interesting read...

Archana Narayan said...

Very interesting, Mousumi. Good examples to help understand the principles.

It would be interesting to see how colors are typically used in learning solutions.
1. For example, in e-learing or classroom training with PPT or handouts, we ensure that we use the corporate colors so that the learner can relate learning to their work. We use cooler colors such as blue, green for a more formal look. On the other hand, we use warmer colors for a more fun or energy radiating look.
2. We never use lighter fonts on a darker background as it hinders learning.
3. While selecting font colors, we keep in mind the age of the learner. For example, blue color font is not easy to read for a learner who is 40+.
4. In graphics, we ensure that the colors we use go with the color theme used in the course. We also ensure that the colors 'go' with each other.

Like you mentioned, we reach these conclusions after consulting the design experts. It would not be right to just rely on our opinion of whether things 'look good'.

Really cool post, keep writing! :)

ripul said...

In childhood we did learn that primary colors are red/yellow/blue and when I went to design school, I was taught that primary colors are a little more sophisticated: they are cerulean, lemon yellow, and cyan. But when we went to offset printing classes, we were told that primary colors were magenta, cyan, lemon yellow.

When I started designing for the computer, the primary colors changed to red, green, and blue. This confused the hell out of me!

The concept of additive and subtractive colors is important to understand to clear this confusion. Kids grown up with computers as toys may not ever understand subtractive colors now!

Gestalt Laws will also be an important concept to understand before we understand colors: it may enhance our color learning many times.

Mousumi Ghosh said...

Hey Sneha thanks for taking time out to read my article. :)

Mousumi Ghosh said...

Thanks Archie. And you have rightly pointed out that colors should help learners to relate to their learning. And I was also not aware of the fact that- "Blue color font is not easy to read for a learner who is 40+." Thanks for your valuable inputs.

Mousumi Ghosh said...

Hi Ripul, I came across these terms 'additive' and 'subtractive' colors but was not sure about it, hence did not include it in this article. Anyway I want gain a good understanding about colors so will definitely read up on Gestalt Laws to get a better understanding, as you pointed out. Thanks!

Chester Creek said...

Green cannot be combined to create other colors - it is not a primary color in that sense.