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Can Color influence Learning?

Over the Thanksgiving break, I was designing a poster presentation for an upcoming conference – and was stuck with picking out the right color palette. In Academia, this is supposedly a ‘wasteful dilemma’ because the color, formatting, design etc are weighted much less than the research itself, but this was still a dilemma that could not escape my training in Visual Design.

This lead me to explore how Color can be studied in a more scholarly way, with relation to Learning. Majority of the studies I could find on color, were about it’s perception in psychology, or it’s effects on moods, in advertising, product design, automobile design etc. In the field of Education, however, there are very few studies exploring Color’s influence on learning.

The overlap between Color Science and Learning Science

Munsell Color Science Laboratory at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) defines Color Sciences as “a fundamental field of science dedicated to understanding the creation of colored stimuli, sources of illumination, and ultimately the human perception of color. It builds upon, and crosses the disciplinary boundaries of, chemistry, physics, life sciences, mathematics, and psychology.” RIT is one of the many institutes that offers courses on Color Science, and it’s something we can pay attention to, in terms of getting over our initial hesitations on looking at color from a Learning Science Research lens – “But, it’s just Color! Is it really that important?”

The Cambridge Handbook of Learning Sciences (Sawyer, 2005) says “Learning sciences is an interdisciplinary field that studies teaching and learning. The sciences of learning include cognitive science, educational psychology, computer science, anthropology, sociology, neuroscience, and other fields.”

The definitions of the two Sciences themselves bring our focus to a few commonalities – Both are inter-disciplinary in nature, both cannot be precisely defined or compartmentalized in just a few research domains. Both can use a diverse perspective to get the best research done.

So what can be the biggest overlap between Color Science and Learning Science?

  • Visual Research Methods
  • Cognitive Science
  • Psychology

Color Scientists may use Visual Research Methods such as Calibration (color perception experiment mapping graphics calls on a device to its monitor, light emissions measured using radiometers), Color constancy (stable color appearance of an object across changes in contexts, such as background graphic, logo etc) or mapping color coordinates on CIELAB (perceptually uniform color space) to measure/analyze how color influences XYZ

Learning Scientists sometimes use Visual Research methods such as Photography, drawing, maps, construction materials, collages or moodboards (Groundwater-Smith, Dockett, & Bottrell, 2015) or Kinetic Family Drawing-Revised (KFD-R), where children are asked to draw their family in action, doing something ( Rodriguez‐Escobar, 2008), or the the Pictorial Assessment of Interpersonal Relationships (PAIR) (Bombi, Pinto, Cannoni, 2007) to understand how subjects learn about XYZ. 

Taking a brief look at some of the Visual research methods described above – we can see that although the goals of these disciplines is to study two very different things, there is a clear overlap in the use of visuals to reach what they aim for. My hypothesis, then, is that if both disciplines (sometimes) rely on color to conduct their studies, can we establish a co-relation between color and learning?

Emerging themes

Ideas for future research based on gaps in literature on Color in context of Learning Science :

  • Will an educational game that is designed in certain color palettes yield more interest and learning over another?
  • Are warm colors more effective to teach children over cool colors?
  • When subjects use visual interventions like Photography, drawing, maps, construction materials, collages or moodboards – does their color represent something special in terms of learning?
  • Can response to colors in learning activities be measured using Funcitonal magnetic response imaging? (fMRI)
  • Will offering learning content in a few different color palettes/skins (options to change background color, font color etc to read content) – help Dyslexic students learn better?
  • In education requiring visual-spatial skills (such as Geometry, Engineering etc) – would it help to use certain colors to block manipulative elements in Digital learning environments?
  • Do the colors and other visual details of infographics make a difference in learning outcomes? (A/B group randomized testing, one group receives simple flowcharts, the other group sees a colorful infographic, do both groups understand the content equally well? Perhaps follow up after a week and see if both groups were able to remember/recall etc

These are just some questions I have on the top of my mind. I’m sure over time there will be more emerging ideas, and I’ll be up for collaboration with Color Scientists and other researchers who’re interested in this broad theme!

Properties of Color that can be measured or evaluated in co-relation to Learning

Hue pure color, ranges from 0° to 359° when measured in degrees. This is a quantifiable property, so if we want to study the influence of color on learning – it could be a quantitative or mixed-method study.

Tint hue+white

Shade hue+black

Tone – hue + neutral/grayscale or white and black. All tints and shades are also considered to be tones. “tonal difference” – amounts of white and/or black used to determine a certain color.

Saturation range from pure color (100%) to gray (0%) at a constant lightness level. A pure color is fully saturated.

Lightness range from dark (0%) to fully illuminated (100%)

Chromatic Signal / Chromaticity / Chroma – Component of color perception that is not achromatic, i.e. any deviation from neutral-color perception (dark, grayscale, illuminated).

Intensity / Luminosity / Luma – magnitude, degree or strength

Brightness / (relative) Luminance – color’s lightness. Some colors can be brighter by increasing their intensity (eg yellow, mint), in other cases it’s influenced by it’s hue (magenta, fuschia)

Grayscale – neutral colors, ranging from black to white, or vice versa, gradually.

Color is Unimodal– it can only be perceived with the visual modality)

Color is less important to object identification than shape (Tanaka, Weiskopf, & Williams, 2001)

Color is Less important to object identification than orientation (Harris & Dux, 2005)

Color vision is the ability of an organism or machine to distinguish objects based on the wavelengths (or frequencies) of the light they reflect, emit, or transmit.

Visual Working Memory (Luck & Vogel (2013) – “active maintenance of visual information to serve the needs of ongoing tasks.” ←— This could be an extension to Rick’s Research on Working Memory? Or perhaps a group project for GAs “Role of color in Visual Working Memory during Learning”

A note on Impact of Color in Storytelling

In Film school, my favorite thing to study was Art Direction, particularly the color palettes used in iconic films. As a Learning Scientist or Education Researcher, now I try to look at that experience from a different angle. If colors in Film are able to contribute so much to the storytelling, making or breaking characters, expressing emotions, sailing or twisting plot lines – why wouldn’t colors influence the storytelling experience in learning? After all, learning is another form of storytelling, informed by facts, built by knowledge.

For instance, here is Wes Anderson’s brilliant use of color to support his storylines :

Now imagine The Grand Budapest Hotel without it’s will the contrast of fragile, emotional characters with those who are aggressive and violent – be portrayed so beautifully?

Or the Royal Tenenbaums without their matching red outfits. How will the humor of a character who’s reflecting his own lifestyle on his kids, literally, come across without this play of color?


Imagine the change in his own personality Oscar Schindler experiences (from one of my favorite movies, Shindler’s List) – when he sees this little girl in her red coat.


Or in terms of Gaming, here’s an image from my favorite game of all time – Monument Valley : The colors and Gradients are so iconic, soothing to the eyes and hinting at the gameplay itself. I cannot imagine playing this game, if it was designed in any other way, simply by saying “This game helps players learn spatial temporal correlations using Digital Manipulatives”. This research-y presentation will still have all the core ideas of the game, but minus the visual “experience” – the study will be somewhat incomplete and not fully living up to its potential.

How can color support learning for Dyslexics?

Many researchers have supported the idea that Dyslexics are high Visual-Spatial thinkers (Geschwind, 1982; Gor- don, 1983; Rourke & Finlayson, 1978; Silverman, in press; Vail, 1990; West, 1991; Winner & Casey, 1993; Winner, Casey, DaSilva, & Hayes, 1991). 

Spatial ability or visuo-spatial ability is the capacity to understand, reason and remember the spatial relations among objects or space. Put simply, Visual-Spatial thinkers understand in visuals better than in words, are able to visualize better to see the bigger picture or broader connections. The use of color to aid Visual-Spatial enhancing toys such as Rubik’s cube, Tangrams, Legos, Magnetic tiles etc – has been a common practice for Toy Companies.


Bae, G.-Y., Olkkonen, M., Allred, S. R., & Flombaum, J. I. (2015). Why some colors appear more memorable than others: A model combining categories and particulars in color working memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(4), 744-763.

Károlyi C., Winner E., Gray W., Sherman G.F. (2003), Dyslexia linked to talent: Global visual-spatial ability, Brain and Language, Volume 85, Issue 3, Pages 427-431, ISSN 0093-934X,

Csurka G., Skaff S. , Marchesotti L. , Saunders C. (2010) Learning moods and emotions from color combinations, Proceedings of the Seventh Indian Conference on Computer Vision, Graphics and Image Processing, p.298-305, Chennai, India [doi>10.1145/1924559.1924599]

Rello, L., Bigham, J.P. (2017). Good Background Colors for Readers: A Study of People with and without Dyslexia. In Proceedings of the 19th International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility (ASSETS ’17). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 72-80. DOI:

Groundwater-Smith, S., Dockett, S., & Bottrell, D. (2015). Innovative Methods. In Participatory research with children and young people. (pp. 101-138). London, : SAGE Publications Ltd. doi: 10.4135/9781473910751

Rollins, J. (2018). Being Participatory through Play. In I. Coyne & B. Carter (Eds.), Being Participatory: Researching with Children and Young People Co-constructing Knowledge Using Creative Techniques (pp.79-102). Switzerland : Springer International Publishing. doi : 10.1007/978-3-319-71228-4