If we only had 100 color choices, choosing a palette might not be a problem. But many scientists agree that people can see millions of colors, which makes the possible choices overwhelming. Out of this seemingly infinite range of colors, how can you possibly narrow down the list and decide which ones to use?
For starters, there are at least four things you will want to get from a color scheme. Your color palette should:
- promote a positive experience,
- avoid causing eye fatigue,
- project the appropriate mood or psychological effect, and
- be appropriate for the audience and content.
With these guidelines in mind, here are eight ways you can go about choosing a color palette for eLearning and other learning materials. One or more of these approaches should work for every project. Try choosing two to three key colors and one or two accent colors. Also select a neutral or pale color for the background or other uses. Dark text on a light background is the easiest to read online.
You may have little choice in a color scheme if you are required to use the branding colors of your organization or that of your client. As you know, branding colors are selected to convey a particular message. The leadership may be hesitant to stray from this color identity. If you find the colors distasteful or inappropriate for learning materials, perhaps you can present a case demonstrating how learning content has different requirements than marketing content.
Another approach, shown below, is to try modifying the palette with lighter or darker versions of the branding colors and slowly slip away from the distasteful ones. For example, in the first palette shown below, you may find the color combinations a bit harsh. The modified palette, shown in the second version, softens the blow a bit.
2. Based on audience and content
Use your knowledge of the audience to choose a color palette. If the course is for daycare teachers and assistants, it might be appropriate to use a palette that includes bright primary colors. These colors are associated with young children. You can avoid overwhelming the audience by balancing the color scheme with neutral colors and limiting the areas where you use vivid colors. On the other hand, if the materials are for employees of a conservative financial institution, you might choose a muted palette.
3. Based on photos
Perhaps you have a set of photographs that will make up the bulk of your content, such as images of warehouse employees. In that case, you can choose a palette based on the key colors in your photos. For example, in the photo below, the palette might contain a shade or tint of blue from the work clothes, yellow from the hard hat, orange from the safety vest and a neutral tan pulled from the boxes.To get the exact color, use a graphic program or utility color picker to select the colors from a photo.
You can also automate the process by uploading photos to an online palette generator, which will then create a palette based on your photo. I used picatculous.com to get the palette below. I’m not sure I like it though, in which case, I would change a color or two.
4. Psychological impact
Consider choosing a palette for the psychological effect you would like to have on the audience. For example, if you are creating materials about caring for people with a serious illness, then you would need to show sensitivity in your palette. A bright and cheery color scheme would be misplaced. In this case, a palette of soft pastels might be the best choice.
Colors are associated with meanings that vary by culture. If symbolic color has emotional relevance to your audience, consider selecting colors that will add meaning to the learning materials. An obvious example would be to take advantage of the symbolism of traffic light colors when designing a safety course for laboratory technicians. Using green for safe procedures and red for those that are unsafe would be one way to approach the palette.
6. Industry conventions
Some industries use a conventional color palette that you may want to adopt because it will feel familiar and comfortable to the audience. For example, the healthcare and finance industries often use a blue palette, political organizations often use the colors of their country flag, and environmental companies often use green. You get the idea.
7. Borrow from nature
People usually find the colors in a flowery meadow or the hues of the sky, ocean and sand aesthetically appealing. We tend to find nature’s color palette pleasing and harmonious. If you’re not sure which colors to pick for a palette, look to the colors in the natural environment for inspiration. Then modify the palette as needed.
Below is a palette generated from a photograph of a mountain scene, using Kuler. (To do this at the Kuler site, scroll down to the bottom of the web page and select “Create From Image.”)
8. Use a color wheel
A color wheel provides a framework for understanding color theory and for selecting a color scheme. The diagrammatic representation of colors in a wheel makes it easy to select a palette based on formal rules of color harmony. This is too big of a topic to be covered in this article, but you can find many examples of color harmonies online. One example is the Analogous Color Palette. This one uses colors that are adjacent in the wheel.
One More Note
Ideally, when you choose a color palette, you will stick with it to provide a consistent and professional look. Although you may need to modify a color selection here or there, it’s best to identify the palette at the start of a design and then work within your chosen color scheme for the rest of the project.
This article is a modified excerpt from my new book on visual design for learning professionals. The book is still in progress.
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