Do your graphic designers speak in a secret language? Do you wish you could let terms like hue, saturation and value roll off your tongue?
Why You Should Care
Aside from impressing your friends, there are practical reasons for learning more about the use of color in visual communication. eLearning and slides are visual mediums. Learning about color will help you become more discriminating and sophisticated in your visual choices. You’ll better understand how to use color to facilitate learning. And it will enhance your collaboration with graphic designers, illustrators, artists, animators, photographers and videographers.
Color and Learning
Color is always a good place to start because it’s a key component of visual communication. Color helps us represent reality, provide focus, express emotion, connect information, increase legibility and create psychological impact.
Color also has an influence on the learning process. One of the main goals of designing learning and informational materials is to reduce the cognitive effort required to understand them. Color can help with this because people derive meaning from colors, providing another dimension for sense-making. Some ways that color enhances meaning and improves learning are listed below.
- Improves visual discrimination. In situations where novices are learning to visually discriminate, such as materials that teach how to read radiographs, you can highlight hard-to-see markings with a very distinct color.
- Color coding works as a signal. Use color coding to coordinate text explanations with corresponding graphics. A small shape of color, rather than colored text works best. To accommodate people who are color blind, use an additional visual signal, such as an icon.
- Enhances storytelling. Color is valuable for enhancing the meaning of stories. As an example, in an illustrated story, a red face conveys embarrassment or anger. Using color to convey an emotional response can improve comprehension of the story.
- Evokes emotion. Color has an emotional impact on a viewer. Warm colors (red, yellow, orange) are known to excite and stimulate and cool colors (blue and green) are calming. Make color choices with an awareness of their affect on the audience.
The perception of color varies among individuals. Color perception is affected by the brightness of ambient light, the colors that surround it and how an individual’s eyes and brain process visual information. It’s always good to remember that a certain percentage of the population is color-blind, meaning they have difficulty discriminating certain colors, usually red and green hues.
In order to accommodate anyone who is color-blind, use a secondary approach when using color as a signal. For example, when using color-coding, also use matching icons to indicate what goes together.
Your Color Vocabulary
Color has many dimensions and understanding a basic color vocabulary will help you communicate about color in terms that most visual communicators understand.
Hue: Hue is the identity of the color, such as red, green or violet. It is the quality that allows us to discriminate colors. When we perceive a hue, it means its wavelength is in our visible spectrum, which ranges from red (long wavelength) to violet (short wavelength).
Saturation: Saturation (or chroma) refers to the purity, intensity or strength of a color. The vivid blue on the left has a high saturation and the dull blue on the right is desaturated. Neutral colors are desaturated.
Value: Value refers to the relative darkness or lightness of a color and makes sense when colors are being compared. Increasing the percentage of black to the orange hue on the left transformed it to the brown on the right.
Color Tips and Ideas
Once you understand the dimensions of hue, saturation and value, you can begin to understand the way colors affect each other. Playing around with varied saturation and values in a graphic editor will give you a better sense of these dimensions. See Five Free Image Editors Worth Trying if you need a way to modify and create graphics.
Here are some color tips you can use, now that you’re an expert.
- How to make richer colors: To make a color richer, increase its saturation by darkening the value (increasing the percentage of black) up to a point. Too much black will detract from the color’s intensity.
- How to find alternatives to gray scale: When you turn a color photograph to black and white, you are removing the hue but keeping the values in tones of gray. For a different effect, use another single color, such as sepia or blue to create a photo of monochromatic tones.
- How to increase contrast: Study the color spectrum or a standard color wheel. Note that colors next to each other in the spectrum can be difficult to discriminate. If you want to be sure viewers can discriminate between two adjacent regions, such as areas of a map or bars in a bar chart, then don’t select colors that are next to each other in the spectrum. Select colors that have one or two steps in between.
- How to remove salience: If you don’t want any one object or item to stand out among the rest, tone down the brightness and desaturate the colors. This will convey that all the objects are of equal value. Of course, the reverse is true. Increase the brightness and richness of a color if it’s meant to stand out.
- How to avoid color chaos: Before selecting or approving a color scheme, think in terms of color relationships. Test the foreground colors on the proposed background colors. Because background colors can make a foreground color appear brighter or duller, make sure you like the effect of juxtaposed colors. See 8 Ways to Choose a Color Palette for ideas.
- Malamed, Connie. Visual Design Solutions. Wiley, 2015.