The ‘micro’ considerations of instructional design: A focus on color

Having established the "Macro principles" of course design in an earlier post, let’s now examine the finer details of building your course and designing the individual slides. There are numerous factors that can be deemed to be micro considerations of instructional design, from color choice, font choice, graphic styles, course style, navigation styles, and other elements . Today, we focus on Color.

The use of color in course design

Learner engagement will be greatly determined by the ‘look’ of your course. Your choice of color is an important visual influencer in terms of design and warrants careful consideration from the outset. Colors evoke emotions, impact mood, and influence learner behavior and memory retention. Your choice of color should be an intentional design decision and fit the context of your course. What is the purpose of your course? Is it an induction course welcoming new employees? Is it a factual course? Are you teaching a complex process? Clarity around your overall course intent will help inform your color choice. The psychology of color is a book within itself but in this section we’ll touch on the main points of consideration when choosing a color scheme for your course to ensure it complements your message and course intent.  


The color wheel in figure 2.14 depicts the original primary colors that we would all be familiar with, red, yellow and blue (RYB) . As the picture shows secondary colors are obtained when the primary ones are mixed, and tertiary colors are obtained when a primary color is mixed with its nearest secondary color .


However with the advances of science and technology came a greater understanding of colors and light and the differences between additive and subtractive color mixing. Historically the RYB model was used for painting. However in the late 19th century it became clear that mixing of colored light in the eye is a different process than mixing dyes. In essence it was discovered that color perception by the human eye is best described in a different set of primary colors - red, green and blue, and hence the evolution of the RGB color model .

The RGB model is used in the digital sphere, e .g . on monitors, TVs projectors etc. The technological advances with printing saw the evolution of the CMYK model, which is also used to describe the printing process itself. Figures 2 .15a and 2 .15b provide a brief overview of the RGB and CMYK color models and highlights the warm and cool colors and what they convey .


RGB Color Model: Red, green and blue are often referred to as the ‘digital’ colors. They lend to the description of an additive color model, where when all colors are added together you get white.  The human eye has three different types of cone cells that each sees a different color of light, typically red, green and blue. By mixing these colors together we create all the other colors our eyes can see. It is often referred to as the ‘light’ model.

CMYK Color Model: Cyan, magenta, yellow and K (representing black), are the primary colors used in this model, which are in fact the secondary colors of the RGB model. It is also a subtractive color model and the one used for printing. This model is used for printing as the K (black) in this case is both easier and cheaper to get a true black in than mixing red, yellow and blue. As the description would suggest, it is often referred to as the ‘print’ model.  


Warm colors are the approximate colors from red through yellow. These colors tend to be more welcoming and arousing. However overuse can result in a loud or overpowering feel.

Cool colors are the approximate colors from blue/green through blue/violet. These colors tend to be relaxing or soothing but overuse can result in a cold or clinical feel.

Communicating with Color

To further expand on the use of colors and what they communicate to your learners take a look at the list below which explains each color and advises on when to use them.

Red: is a stimulant which can evoke passion and excitement and can really grab attention. When to use: to draw attention to key points. It’s good for highlighting what should not be done.

Blue: encourages serenity and lowers the pulse and is considered the color of trust and peace . It is the most widely liked color. When to use: to calm learners when presenting complicated and overwhelming information.

Yellow: is a brain stimulant and promotes memory . It can be fatiguing on the eyes so use sparingly . When to use: to highlight points that should be memorised or are often forgotten. Good to use in assessment sections .  

Orange: is considered the color of communication and optimism . It is an antidepressant and can be used as a stimulant that is warm and welcoming . When to use: when you’re aiming to appear more personable to your learners, particularly with content that can be perceived as boring .  

Green: brings tranquility and peacefulness. It’s refreshing and easiest on the eye. When to use: whenever you want and as frequently as desired.

Black: elicits feelings of power, formality, mystery and fear . When to use: for fonts. It’s often the best choice for the bulk of text (or a dark grey). It tends not to be really focused on or noted .

White: is seen as pure and clean . When to use: use it everywhere. White space can be very powerful and help learners to stay focused.

Purple: is the color of the imagination and is associated with royalty and luxury. It is often considered to reflect creativity and wisdom. It can be paired with other colors to emphasize a mood (with red it is a stimulant, with blue it is calming) . When to use: it’s a well rounded color that can express lightheartedness and fun in learning, to sophistication in a company or brand

Brand color consistency

Understanding more about colors and how they can be perceived by learners should make it easier for you when choosing a color scheme to fit the context of your course.  However it can still be a daunting task to choose an exact scheme or palette. Fortunately there are numerous color palette tools you can choose from when designing your course. If you don’t already use a color assistive tool table 2.4 demonstrates a few. It doesn’t advocate one over the other but you’ll have fun just exploring them and applying them to your own course.


You may already have a company or corporate color scheme you use for your website and stationery. Replicating this scheme in your eLearning course materials can be an efficient use of your time. By doing this you create brand consistency and create a subconscious connection with your products. You may already have a specific brand color palette and font type that you use. Replicating this and saving it as a color scheme within your eLearning authoring software can save you valuable time in subsequent course developments. 

In Conclusion

So that is our consideration of color in course design. In future posts we will discuss other micro considerations of instructional design, such as font and navigation choices. Hopefully these will help you understand some of the basic principles in course design and how they impact learning. If you would like to delve into even more detail Download the full free eBook here