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Information, colour and learning

Jo Smedley

The physical and virtual elements of today’s higher education learning environment place greater emphasis on the effective and efficient experience of learners. Technology enables their 24/7 learning world to progress quicker information translation and interpretation to maximise learning impact. No longer is it sufficient to present static information for learner audiences to engage with: in today’s mobile world, learners expect information in user-friendly form to enable them to gain deeper understanding through an ‘anytime, anywhere, anyhow’ approach.

So what is meant by ‘information translation and interpretation’? ‘Translation’ is defined as ‘The conversion of something from one form or medium into another’ (OUP, 2018). Similarly, ‘interpretation’ is defined as ‘transforming information in one form into another form to enhance understanding’ (ibid). Information ‘enablers’ effect and enable this transformation to achieve maximum learning impact. These may be plentiful and unique in combination, and with each learning experience being multi-dimensional in terms of information management. An effective multimedia learning application should follow some basic principles (Clark and Mayer, 2008) combining words and images. This enables learners to transfer, process and maintain information, and encourages long-term memory creation while contributing to the effective acquisition of knowledge.

‘Colour has a powerful subconscious effect on every part of our everyday lives, and the literature shows that appropriate use of it can maximise learning experiences.’

So, as one of many enablers, what impact does colour have on the learning world of information plenty? Colour psychology impacts in many ways, with literature readily highlighting the appropriate uses of colour to maximise learning experiences (Anderson, 2008). Colour has a powerful subconscious effect on every part of everyday lives. It greatly influences human emotion and behaviour, and evokes emotional responses in most people. However, there are not always universal truths about colour. Every colour has a specific wavelength, and each of these affect our body and brain in a different way (Gerard, 1958). Colour information travels simultaneously to areas of the brain that are responsible for detecting motion, shapes, edges, and transitions – even among those who are colour blind. There may be challenges with colour recognition in 8.0 per cent of men and 0.5 per cent of women, but the brain still knows how to use this information in order to gain a balanced view of the world. Therefore, it is important to highlight key points using different font types or underlining.

Painters use the colour wheel, created by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666, to identify colours to mix, and designers use it to choose colours that go well together. The colours include primary colours (red, yellow, and blue) with secondary colours obtained through combinations.

The question of which colours should be used in designing learning developments is an important one. One of the most effective ways to boost learner engagement and assist emotional connectivity is to integrate colour into online learning developments to effectively connect with learner emotions and moods (Pappas, 2014). The most highly recommended colours are vivid versions of green, cyan, white and yellow. The best colour display combinations are blue, black or red on white; or white, yellow or green on black (Rockley, 1997). Single-colour backgrounds, with a high contrast ratio between the background and the text, are easiest for readers; white or off-white is best for the background. Different cultures can associate different meanings with different colours. Lighter shades seem more ‘friendly’, while darker ones seem more sombre. Warmer colours enhance readability. It is better to use just two or three colours throughout the course to avoid the design looking chaotic and disorganised; overuse of different colours can also constitute a barrier to engagement and learning through distraction, overload and looking cluttered (Dwyer, 1970: 38–39).

So, while ‘one picture paints ten thousand words’ (Barnard, 1921), the enabling aspects of colour enhance impact. Let the colouring begin!


Anderson T (2008) The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, second edition, Athabasca: Athabasca University Press

Barnard F R (1921) advertisement, Printer’s Ink, December 1921

Clark R C and Mayer E R (2008) E-learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning, San Francisco: Pfeiffer

Dwyer (1970) [unknown article], in Szabo M (1998) Survey of Education Technology Research. The Educational Technology Professional Development Project (ETPDP) Series. Edmonton, AB: Grant McEwan Community College and Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Gerard R (1958) ‘Colour and emotional arousal’, American Psychologist 13: 340

Meacham M (2015) ‘How Color Can Affect Learning’, webpage, 28 April 2015. [accessed 10 January 2018]

Oxford University Press (2018) English: Oxford Living Dictionaries, online database. [Accessed 15 January 2018]

Pappas C (2014) ‘4 Tips To Use Color in E-Learning’, webpage, 21 October 2014. [15 January 2018]

Rockley A (1997) Intranet Publishing, Stouffville, ON: The Rockley Group