eLearning Design – Choosing the Right Color

Colors in eLearning

Unless you want everything to blend together, you don’t put white furnishings in a white room. Likewise, if your learners can’t see your content clearly, they can’t learn from it. To keep your work in visual ship-shape, remember:

● Warm colors naturally “pop,” while cool colors tend to fade into the background. As a result, you only need to use a little of a warm color like red or yellow for it to be effective. You have to use more of a cool color for it to make an impact. If you’re using warm and cool colors together, use more of the cool color.
● Black and dark grey are generally good colors for body text. You can use other colors but make sure there’s enough contrast between the content and the background that nothing gets lost. Pairings like dark green and brown are not easy to read.
● Do not forget to consider colorblind learners. Use symbols or other visual clues like underlines or highlights, vary the contrast and brightness of design elements, and avoid using combinations that are especially difficult for the color blind to distinguish such as red with green or blue with purple. You can learn more, check out links to colorblindness simulators, and take a basic color blindness test here.

A room doused in red triggers feelings of danger, if you’re from a Western country. In China, however, red is the color of happiness and the same room could be regarded as pleasant. In many cases, colors do not “mean” the same thing in one culture as they do in another. Here are a few cultural considerations to keep in mind:

● Blue is the most universally liked color.
● Yellow is a harsh color for people’s eyes. It is disliked in multiple cultures, sometimes very strongly, when it is used as the main color on a screen.
● Be mindful of your use of black and white. Although black tends to conjure up images of funerals in Western minds, white plays that same role in a number of Eastern cultures (notably Hindu and Chinese).
● Take a look at this multi-cultural color wheel to see what different colors mean in ten different cultures.

Most lawyers would probably throw a fit if you painted their office bright orange. Why? It isn’t an appropriate color for their profession. Similarly, the colors you choose for an eLearning project should complement the subject matter. Here are some quick tips on picking a scheme that works for your project:

● Red, blue, and yellow are an appealing color combination for children. That said, they’re probably not the best design choice for eLearning intended for adults.
● If you have a style guide or company colors to work with, use them to your advantage. Depending on the project, they may be all you can work with, which removes the decision making from your hands. If you have some latitude, consider using lighter tints and darker shades of those base colors as part of your palette.
● Does the project have a prominently featured image? Use the eye dropper tool in programs like Paint or Photoshop to pull colors from the image itself and apply them to the project.

There are a number of great sources available to further expand your palette of color and design know-how. My personal favorite is The Non-Designer’s Design Book 3rd edition, by Robin Williams (not the actor, although this one has a great sense of humor too). 131 Tips on Graphics and Animations for eLearning is more field specific to eLearning. And for anyone who wants more interactivity in their color learning, check out this great color tool. It teaches the ropes of making effective color schemes and tests your understanding with nifty color mixing, matching, and identifying activities. What trials or triumphs have you had working with color? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Jennifer Ritter

From storyboards to module building, Jennifer covers a lot of eLearning ground as an instructional designer, writer, and course creator. She earned her B.A. at Rollins College and draws on her past life as an occasional amateur film maker for insight on the zaniness of the production process. This Jen-of-many-trades is fascinated by the role of storytelling and gameplay in learning and engagement. This may or may not be connected to her urge to write novels and love of videogames and most things “nerdy.” A passion for learning that started in school and led to tutoring has happily landed her in the mystical realm of eLearning.

Spirit animal: Hawk
Diet-breaker: Ice cream
Comfort object: Throw blankets
Personal vice: Medieval-fantasy novels
Useless talent: Remembering useless facts
Unreasonable paranoia: Rollercoasters
Wishes more people cared about: Other people


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  • Katharine Holden

    Why isn’t orange an appropriate color for lawyers? Red, of course, can be associated with “red tape,” so that’s not a positive association. But orange?

  • Jennifer

    Thanks for your comment Katharine. Orange is considered to be an “informal” color. It tends to be more associated with “fun” and playfulness than professionalism. If you are familiar with the American cable channel, Nickelodeon, this is a prime example of why the color orange is associated with youth and not the best choice for your continuing legal education course.

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