Using Colour — In Learning?

Using Colour — In Learning?

Ask “What is the role of colour in our lives” and you’ll get one of two responses -- “Yes, colours influence us in many ways,” and “Hmm, perhaps they do… I don’t really know.”

Ask “What is the role of colour in our lives” and you’ll get one of two responses -- “Yes, colours influence us in many ways,” and “Hmm, perhaps they do… I don’t really know.” You’ll find that the longer you stay on the topic, the more interesting it gets. People will correlate a yellow room with a certain mood. They’ll recall that they didn’t like a certain presentation because there was too much green.

In the learning context, you could ask “What is the role of colour in learning?” We don’t know much yet, but we know more than we did just a few years ago.

Let’s go with what the idea that different colours generate different reactions in people. Restricting colour associations to emotions / psychological reactions, here’s a list of colour-to-emotion mappings that are more or less consistent across cultures.

Red Arousal, challenge, desire
Blue Calmness, clarity
Green Harmony, safety
Yellow Vitality
Black Fear, drama, depth

These mappings have been applied in the psychological context, but now we have research that looks at colours from thecognitiveperspective.

Aesthetic to Psychological to Cognitive

Think about colours in presentations. For decades now, people have used these colour associations, whether consciously or not. “Red is controversial. Blue is soothing. …”

  • Decades ago, if a presentation designer were asked about his choice of colours, he’d probably explain it in terms of aesthetics.
  • In 2000, some might have used the research on marketing presentations.
  • And now we have at least one study on the cognitive impact of colours.

We’re moving from “colours look nice” to “colours help you sell” to “colours help you learn.” Put another way, we’re seeing the importance of colour in more and more detail.

Red versus Blue

In 2009, Zhu and Mehta (University of British Columbia) conducted five studies on the effect of colour on cognition, spanning hundreds of subjects. From the paper: “…red enhances performance on a detail-oriented task, whereas blue enhances performance on a creative task … these effects occur outside of individuals’ consciousness…”

Red and Blue were used in screen backgrounds (not foreground text). Here’s the link for the paper, and here’s an article about the study. In the paper, you’ll see that other explanations – apart from the direct effect of the colours – seem to have been ruled out. Very importantly, the inverse of these effects apparently doesn’t hold. Red doesnotimpair creativity, and blue doesnotimpair detail-orientedness.

Should you bother?

This is only one study, but it makes a huge point. We now know colours can make a difference beyond just mood. Should we go ahead and get excited at the possibilities?

One answer is that if you influence mood, you do influence the effectiveness of the learning. But beyond that, I'd say it’s too early to think of harnessing the power of colour in a direct way.

A New York Times article articulates this confusion well: “…Color effects may be unreliable or inconsequential …. in some contexts red is a dangerous thing, and in some contexts red is a nice thing … If you’re walking across a frozen river, blue is a dangerous thing.” In a learning situation, the variables are too many—what is the current mood of the learner? His/her motivation level? Does the learner view the subject matter as routine or challenging?

I’m suspecting that future research will help us tie in our intuitive ideas about colour to cognitive aspects. Do drop us a line about what you think!


Bellizzi, J.A., and R. E. Hite. 1992. Environmental color, consumer feelings, and purchase likelihood. Psychology & Marketing 9: 347-363.

Cahoon, R. L. 1969. Physiological arousal and time estimation. Perception and Motor Skills 28: 259-268.

“Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances.” By Ravi Mehta and Juliet Zhu. Science, Vol. 324, Issue 5915, Feb. 5, 2009.