It has multiple faces, we all have our favorite and the effects it exerts on us, without our knowledge, spark our curiosity. Color is a powerful element, an integral part of our lives. It is no coincidence that the neuromarketing experts study it in all its nuances. In the design of online training, its choice cannot be arbitrary, since, beyond its aesthetic value, the color is a significant communication tool, bearer of meaning and catalyst of sensations. Here are some fundamental principles to help you find the right tone for your training program.

Of all the stages of designing online training, choosing one’s color scheme is probably one of the most fun. However, this does not mean that this exercise should be taken lightly! And following certain principles should not diminish the excitement. On the contrary, it should provide an additional angle of analysis for this training to be consistent in substance and form, adapted to the learners and to the image of the company or institution that provides it. By having a better idea of what, in this process, can be a creative impulse and what needs to be reflected upon, you will avoid getting lost in the infinite possibilities of the chromatic spectrum.

Canada, Quebec, Montreal, Palais de Congres de Montreal, Photo by Felix Dubois-Robert50 shades of subjectivity

Our relationship to color has a great deal of subjectivity, tinted with our tastes, our experiences, as well as the socio-cultural context in which we immerse ourselves. As the historian Michel Pastoureau, a specialist in the symbolism of colors, emphasizes, this socio-cultural context plays a significant role in the construction of our perceptions: “It is the society that “makes” the color, which gives it its definition and its meaning, who builds its codes and its values, who organizes its practices and defines its stakes.” One has only to think of the fact that for us Westerners, the color of mourning is black, whereas for Asians it is white. On a lighter note, fashion trends also illustrate this strong social influence: you may never have thought of wearing a particular color until the famous Pantone chart named it the color of the year. 😉

To add a layer to the subjective nature of our chromatic tastes: we cannot ignore the importance of the context. The fact that you might love pink wouldn’t make you appreciate it overpowering your computer screen for 15 hours of an online training. In his book The Amazing Power of Colors, the color designer and member of the French Committee of Color, Jean-Gabrielle Causse confirms: ”The preferences of colors are […] very subjective and change completely according to the context. Your favorite colors in different areas usually have nothing to do with your favorite color in the absolute (Holmes and Buchanan, 1984).”

Emmy Huot, interactive developer at KnowledgeOne, who has followed and given several training courses on color, speaks from experience: “I have already heard an expert in pedagogical design advise against the use of purple at all costs … But in my opinion, colors can ALL be used in the design. It’s a question of context. If you do not like a color representation, maybe you did not choose the right tone. Tone level, opacity, brightness, and saturation need to be adjusted to make the color suitable for both text and visuals. It is by adjusting them that we can get the best of each color!”

A question of image: the color in the foreground

Working on one’s image is no longer an option for those who want to succeed. Exposed every day to some 3,000 ads, the modern eye is sharp, to say the least, in the decoding of visual information… and also, a little tired. To capture attention, the visual identity of a brand – whether it is a product, a company, an institution, etc. – must be carefully designed. Color is a key ingredient that “attracts attention and encourages action,” as Jean-Gabriel Causse points out.

The effects of color have made a lot of ink spill, especially in neuromarketing. This discipline relies on psychology and neuroscience to decipher consumer behavior with the ultimate goal of influencing their purchasing decisions. Researchers in psychology have also analyzed the influence of colors on learning. While many of the marketing studies cannot be applied as such to the world of e-learning – since neither the target audience, nor the environment, nor the goal are the same – some of their findings remain relevant for the topic of interest (see box: Colors under study).

Let’s not forget, however, that the development of online training has a marketing dimension, in the sense that it is necessary to “sell”:

  • the training to the employees (learners), to make them like it and to want to follow it;
  • the company to the employees, in other words, to give them a favorable brand image;
  • the benefits of continuing education to employees, including showing them what they can learn.

You should never go according to your favorite colors. Training is not for you, but for a target audience, you need to understand.

Emmy Huot, interractive developer at KnowledgeOne

Basic principles

The following principles should help you make better choices for your online training.

Design a harmonious and appealing environment. Today’s online training is an environment in itself in which learners are, more or less, immersed from a few hours to several weeks. It is therefore essential that this learning space is inviting, pleasing to the eye and in line with its content.

As Emmy Huot notes, the choice of a color palette must be based on criteria other than our personal taste: “You should never go according to your favorite colors. Training is not for you, but for a target audience, you need to understand. And keep in mind that design is secondary to learning. In fact, it must be at its service!”

Creating the desired effect. Color can boost the overall look of a training program or, on the contrary, make it seem boring. “A bright, colorful palette could have a fun touch. They are suitable, for example, for rewards. On the other hand, it is necessary to tame it down sometimes, as it may appear childish,” warns Emmy Huot.

Equally, discrete colors are serious, but choosing a palette of only such tones can be detrimental to any learners’ motivation. Ditto for monochrome palettes, to a certain degree, according to the interactive developer: “They may be suitable for a very complex course where it is better to avoid any form of distraction and for which the images are of little importance.”

Each color in your palette should have its purpose in the hierarchy and functionality of the design.

Carmelo Cipolla, Visual and Interactive Designer at KnowledgeOne

How many colors to choose from? Moderation is popular among most experts. Carmelo Cipolla, Visual and Interactive Designer at KnowledgeOne, agrees with this trend: “Only use what you need. Less is better! Each color in your palette should have its purpose in the hierarchy and functionality of the design.” Michael Cerantola, Integration Manager at KnowledgeOne, opposes the idea of an absolute rule on the question: “Obviously, we want to avoid the pizza effect (unless you’re working on a project about rainbows) and in that sense we should try to stick to two or three dominant colors and some secondary or tertiary colors for accents. But unlike the number of fonts, we should not at all be limited to a minimum of colors on a certain page, nevertheless to the extent that the selection respects a certain logic.”

Obviously, we want to avoid the pizza effect (unless you’re working on a project about rainbows).

Michael Cerantola, Integration Manager at KnowledgeOne

Should we stay within the colors of the brand? It may be required to use the colors of the logo and the corporate visual identity to maintain harmony. Nevertheless, we can also explore other avenues. A company can take the opportunity to project a slightly different image – and complementary – of the one it normally carries. For example, if it projects a conservative image regarding its clients, it may wish to be more innovative, dynamic or hassle-free when addressing employees through a training program. “It’s possible to incorporate some of the company’s graphic elements into the training design using other colors,” says Carmelo Cipolla. Nevertheless, according to him, it is necessary to find a bit of the brand image in the training’s color palette: “The colors of the training should be related in some way to those of the company. You do not have to restrict yourself to it, but it is better to take advantage of at least the strongest color of your visual identity, and then add some which complement it and which go in the same direction as its brand style.”

Betting on good combinations. Particular concern should be given to color combinations because a bad “marriage” cannot only affect the aesthetics, but also the meaning and ergonomics of a training program. “Colors need to be complementary to each other and not jarring,” recalls Michael Cerantola.

However, our appreciation of color combinations is partly a matter of trends, and they are not limited to clothing and decoration … they also affect graphic design! Yet, as for clothing and decoration, the latest color combinations are not suitable for all and are not appropriate in all contexts. We must, therefore, ask ourselves, according to the target audience and the content of the training, where should our choice be on a scale ranging from daring to conservatism.

In another order of ideas, because of their strong symbolic connotation, certain combinations are in general to be avoided. Think of that of red and green that evoke Christmas, orange and black – Halloween, or the red and yellow of a famous fast food chain.

Regarding comfort, it is desirable for all learners to avoid combinations that accelerate visual fatigue, in particular, that of red and blue.

Photo by Zbynek BurivalFinding the right contrast. Contrast is another factor to consider when it comes to combinations: “Too much contrast is not much better than too little. You have to find a balance and know what effect you want to create,” says Emmy Huot. The contrast between background and text can have a significant impact on ergonomics. On its website, the Canadian Center for Occupational Health explains: “To simultaneously see different colors well, the eye has to focus quickly and alternatively at different distances. The further the colors are from each other in the visible spectrum, the more difficult the process is. When we try to focus at the same time on colors situated at opposite ends of the spectrum (e.g., red and blue), our eyes get more tired than when we focus on colors which are close to one another in the spectrum (e.g., green and yellow). Characters in colors situated at the extreme ends of the visible spectrum should probably be avoided unless displayed on a light or contrasting background.” The fact that the color of the text has good contrast with the background is even more crucial when the reading is done, as in this case, on a screen.

Based on the ISO standard for the ergonomics of human-system interaction, a colored image should be presented on an achromatic background (black, white or gray), and an achromatic image on a colored background (Mayhew, 1992).

Thinking of color-blind people. About 8% of men and at most 1% of women live with dysfunction of color vision: a “dyschromatopsia” – commonly known as color blindness. The most common abnormality of this, most often a hereditary condition, is a difficulty in distinguishing between red and green. “To avoid disadvantaging these learners and causing problems of comprehension, I do not recommend using a palette made up solely of red and green, or blue and yellow,” says Michael Cerantola.

Add that with age, our ability to see low wavelength colors, especially purple and dark blues, tends to decrease (Colors spectrum).

Facilitating identification. Keep in mind that, in online training, color is essential to support the perception and processing of information. It can be used to identify, highlight and classify them. In addition to choosing the colors that will create the overall impression of the training, we must also carefully select those who will outfit its functional elements – indications and clickable elements. “If you opt for gold in your palette, that does not mean that this color is suitable for clickable elements,” warns Carmelo Cipolla, adding that in principle, all these elements must be of the same color for the entire training.

Good use of color codes. Color codes can be applied to both text and graphic elements to indicate that a specific element is related to a specific category or that special attention should be paid to it. This categorization is reassuring for the learners and eliminates the need to decipher certain indications that are repeated throughout the training. To promote optimal memorization of color codes, it is better to be limit their use to 4 or 5 at most.

With these principles meant to set the tone for your online training, all you have to do is add your touch of creativity … and your nuance of subjectivity!

Symbolism of colors

Modeled by history, nature, the cycle of human life and culture, the symbolism of colors influences to some extent our perception of them. Here is an overview of what some of them evoke.

Blue: Color of water and sky, it is productive, non-invasive and inspires confidence. This is THE favorite color for all cultures!

Red: Color of love, seduction, and passion, it is also that of hatred, war, and blood. It inspires dynamism and urgency. This is one of the most popular colors in marketing. In Asia, it is the color of power, happiness, and good fortune. The red leaves no one indifferent!

Yellow: Color of the sun, youth, and optimism, but also of jealousy. Disliked by Westerners, it is the color of royalty for Asians and that of humility for Buddhists.

Green: The color of nature and freshness, it is rejuvenating and evokes balance, tranquility, and hope. Ambiguous, though, it can represent both luck and bad luck; health and disease; ecology and money (think green banknotes).

White: The Universal color of purity, innocence, but also old age and absence (as in the white night, white page, etc.). Now available in all possible and imaginable shades, it is the fetish color of modern minimalism. On the plane of the sacred, for Asians, it represents mourning, while Westerners associate it with marriage and baptism.

Black: Elegant, luxurious and mysterious, it also evokes conservatism, authority, austerity, and danger. No matter how you interpret it, it is a strong color, without nuances. For Westerners, it is the one embodying mourning and the end in general.

Colors under study

We are far from knowing all the effects that color has on us, but we have some interesting leads. Here are some that can be useful in designing online training.

  • Highlighting text with color could attract attention and encourage action. The use of color highlighting on invoices prompted an insurance company’s clients to send their payment on average two weeks earlier than before the implementation of this measure (HP Canada Study).
  • Color could improve comprehension by 73% (Johnson, 1992) and the ability to learn from 55% to 78% (Embry, 1984).
  • Green could promote creativity (Lichtenfeld, Elliot, Maier, Pekrun, 2012). It could also be a particularly convincing color. This is shown in a study where respondents were asked to indicate their degree of agreement on neutral statements but edited in different colors (Hewlett Packard, 2009).
  • A red chromatic atmosphere would promote concentration whereas a blue chromatic atmosphere would stimulate intuition (Mehta and Zhu, 2009). This study published in the prestigious journal Science, however, has its detractors.
  • Color environments, especially warm colors, would promote productivity and work pleasure (Kobayashi and Sato, 1992 – Mukae and Sato, 1992). It remains to be seen if this observation applies to digital environments as well.
Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Creative Content Writer @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi.