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The Role of Color in Employee Training Content

— by Dave Anderson

Learning is all about processing, storing, and retrieving information. Training professionals and instructional designers are always striving to optimize those three stages so their audience acquires as much knowledge as possible, as quickly as possible.

There is a lot that goes into creating engaging employee training content but one commonly overlooked factor is the role color plays. It may seem trivial since most of us think of color as only an aesthetic factor. You just pick the right ones so your training content is pleasant to look at or in alignment with your organization’s branding. 

However, let’s start with a basic scientific definition. Color is the brain’s perception of light. Wavelengths of energy are absorbed through our eyesight and processed in the mind as the different colors we’re all so familiar with. In the words of Color Scientist Dominic Glynn, “light is out in the real world, color only exists inside your brain.” So when you think about color that way, it’s clear it impacts cognitive function.

Marketers and branding experts have long been familiar with the impact different colors have on buying psychology. The right colors help consumers differentiate brands and can influence assumptions about quality, value, and functionality. For example, researchers discovered that changing prices from black to red made people think they were getting a bargain. 

Furthermore, doctors have found that color plays an integral role in treating autism and dyslexia. Anomalies in eye structure are effects of both disorders so the right colors promote focus and decrease anxiety, which creates an optimal learning state of mind. 

There are plenty of similar anecdotes on color’s impact on thinking, decision making, and mental stimulation. In this article, we’ll dive into the role it plays in employee training and adult learning.

Color aids in pattern recognition and memory recall

Chunking has proven to be an effective learning technique. The idea is we can learn small bits of information at a time and then piece them together to form a large concept.

A key part of chunking is connecting the pieces of information once they have each been processed into the memory. Multiple studies have found that color can help with pattern recognition and recalling previously learned details. A 1977 study discovered that when both colored and black and white images were presented to subjects, they had a far easier time remembering the sequence of the colored ones. 

Additionally, a 2008 study from Zhejiang University in China found grouping related concepts by color was more beneficial for learning than using lines or shapes. So while drawing an arrow from point A to B might seem like a good way to demonstrate relation, highlighting both points in the same color is a better technique to use in your employee training.

The combination of color and multimedia

Liking chunking, absorbing information through multiple senses is also a productive way to learn. Multimedia courses consisting of images, text, and narration stimulate different areas of the brain, leading to more efficient processing and storing of information.

And of course, the right colors can enhance the visual components. A 1976 study found colored learning materials had a greater impact on attention and memory than black and white materials. The researchers then used the same colored presentation together with auditory and written learning content and found that cognitive performance improved even more. 

Given there are eight distinct learning styles, it’s important to make your employee training content consumable for everyone. So while color is an important factor, it should be used as a way to optimize a single element of a multifaceted training program.

Colors stimulate emotions and states of minds

So far, we’ve covered the broad benefits of using color in employee training. But you’re likely wondering which colors you should use.

The truth is there is no one perfect color for optimizing your employee training content. Every color leads to different feelings, thoughts, and mindsets. And since some colors are slight variations of others (e.g. purple’s relation to blue and red), some have similar effects. Let’s explore common emotions different colors stimulate and how they benefit specific employee training scenarios:

Calmness colors (blue, purple, and green)

The colors of nature promote relaxation, comfort, and free-flowing thinking. Blue and purple are ideal for conceptual learning where there aren’t definite answers. Green is one of the least strenuous colors to look at so it’s great to include in lengthy, detailed courses. 

Excitement colors (red and orange, to some extent)

Red is known for boosting motivation and energy. It’s great for kinetic learning environments with a lot of activity. Orange is synonymous with positivity. It enhances attention but isn’t as anxiety-fueled as red. 

Creativity colors (yellow, orange)

Bright, happy colors get our creative juices flowing. Yellow has a calming effect and boosts confidence so we can think without inhibitions. Since orange promotes focus and creativity, it helps trainees envision how they’ll apply lessons in a real-world setting. 

Balance color with whitespace

While color is an important component in employee training materials, it’s one that should be used sparingly. Too much color not only looks cartoonish and unprofessional. It can overstimulate the mind and distract from the core concepts you need employees to learn.

Even though the takeaway of this article is color enhances employee training, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the role of the absence of color, known as whitespace. 

Color balanced with whitespace creates simplicity and helps focus trainees’ attention on the right information. For example, Apple has always used copious amounts of neutral colors in their product designs. Steve Jobs believed a simple, straightforward interface was intuitively easy for new users to grasp. 

While color-coding related concepts helps with retention, using whitespace to separate unrelated concepts reduces cognitive load. It helps us prioritize learning topics and process details one at a time. Like paragraphs in a book, the spacing signals to the mind that we’re transitioning onto a new topic

Additionally, combining a little color with a lot of whitespace is an excellent way to emphasize an important point. Consider devoting an entire slide to a key takeaway featuring an image with a white background so the trainee identifies it as a key piece of information quickly visually too. 

Colors used in tandem with an absence of color (white) make your blues, reds, purples, yellows, and oranges more powerful. So be sure to incorporate your favorite ones into your employee training materials while keeping in mind that a little goes a long way. 

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