Colour and Learning Design

Various shades of white are displayed along with their names and corresponding paint codes. It's positively overwhelming.

After going through all the heavy lifting of research, curation, planning and the like, asking yourself questions like “but what colours am I going to use?” can sometimes feel like the last thing you want to think about.  It can be a surprisingly nuanced decision point: thinking about use of colour too late into a project leaves you with constrained options; commit to certain colour schemes early on though, and you might find that you’ve painted yourself into some awkward looking corners. Fortunately, you can guide your thinking on the subject by focusing on different forms of application: functionally, in service of accessibility, and rhetorically. Let’s dig in!

Functionality

We can see how colour functionally drives user navigation in the 2008 Electronic Arts title Mirror’s Edge (the gif below is from a 2016 reboot). The game often has you leaping and running around rooftops, so, naturally, things can move kind of quick. For the game to function as an entertainment product, it needs to find ways to quickly communicate itself to the player while they’re performing these breakneck parkour maneuvers. This is accomplished by using colour, usually bright shades of red and orange, to guide the player through an otherwise washed-out cityscape.

A person grabs onto a cable and rides it to a nearby rooftop, letting go and touching down down with a tuck-roll.
Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst (2016) via Kotaku

It’s an example of what we would refer to as ‘signaling’: using colour and contrast to flag something for a learner, guide their attention, or highlight something of interest. Colour is a huge part of signaling, and often times during course design we’ll find ways to incorporate and combine it with other visual aspects to establish emphasis. This usually happens by way of titling, headings, or symbols and shapes that can denote course specific activities or attitudes.

Accessibility

You’ll want to make sure that your colour scheme is clear and legible. While a monochromatic or complementary colour scheme might look great, it might also make text more difficult to read—especially in large quantities. Things like the Adobe Contrast Analyzer (a tool we’ve covered before) will allow you to play around and see what works, giving you the opportunity to tweak and experiment before creating your visual resources.

While it’s important to pay attention to how you use colour, you’ll also want to consider what happens when you don’t have any of it. If critical information is being communicated exclusively through colour it likely won’t convey the intended messaging to learners that have low vision or possess some form of colour-blindness. The same goes for certain types of graphic content like diagrams or maps that rely on colour to visually distinguish key details. In these cases, you can use image alt-text to clarify information for learners with fulsome descriptions.

Rhetorically

Check out this clip from Silicon Valley that pokes fun at the kind of conversation one might expect to have at a ‘design meeting’.

It’s easy to laugh, but a large part of design really is about developing a shared, aesthetic language—not just with collaborators, but with the audience as well. If you’re creating a course that deals with somber subject matter, you might not want a lot of bright colours that could conflict with the tone or the messaging. Just as well though, leaning into convention or going too hard the other way might defang the content to the point of feeling disingenuous or hokey. It’s the kind of nuanced interplay that a learning designer will be able to help you negotiate. If you’re looking to give your own course a facelift, take the content you know you’ll be working with and see if you can spot existing patterns either in colour (a lot of my visuals come from literal fieldwork, so there’s already a lot of green) or in context (a lot of the books we’ll be reading are written by Spanish authors, the national flag of Spain has red and yellow). You can also take it a step further and start thinking more conceptually. Does the content feel warm or cold? Would it taste sweet or spicy? Thinking along these lines can help you arrive at a combination of colours from which you can start experimenting and testing.

So Now What?

Hopefully you’re excited, and I haven’t scared you away from the work of colour design! Trying stuff on and experimenting with different hues, shades, and combinations can be a fun process. While you might find certain things work better than others, rarely if ever will there be one single perfect answer when it comes to that interplay between form and function. Keeping your target audience in mind (how will they use your resources; how can you use colour to make things clearer or easier) is a great way to stay accountable while exploring the ways that you can enhance an experience.

For additional reading when it comes to colour you can check out this freely available colour theory resource from RMIT University to learn about about colour’s historical contexts and scientific underpinnings. If you want to read more musings about what it takes to design and cultivate wonderful courses, you can read about how to fail your way to success. And of course, now and forever, you can get in touch with Trent Online, the technologists, and the elearning designers whenever you like by booking an appointment.

Ontario Extend mOOC: Teaser Trailer

If you’ve been counting down the days in your calendar like I have, you’ll know that we’re exactly 19 short ones away from the Ontario Extend mOOC presented by Trent Online. For weeks now our team has been making concerted efforts: forging the right connections, sliding all the interlocking parts into place, quietly collecting micro-credentials, and consolidating the ways in which we hope to inspire you.

One thing that occurred to our team, as part of our promotional efforts, is that cool things usually have promotional teaser trailers to stir up interest and “build hype”. In keeping with the traditions of new media, we felt it prudent to contribute and verse and thus, our video was born.

Pretty snazzy, right? If the upcoming Ontario Extend mOOC is something you’re interested in, you can sign up by clicking on this link. And if you’re just here for the memes, you can share the video and say hi over on Twitter.

Stepping into the open…

A door opening with a view to a green and open space beyond

At a time when we all feel that so many of the things that we used to take for granted are “closed off”, or at least temporarily on hold, it is more important than ever to find ways to open ourselves to new and positive things. Did you know that next week is Open Education (OE) Week? Open Educational Resources (OER) and Open Educational Practices encompass a range of tools and approaches for teaching and learning that have steadily gained traction over the past decade or so, but, given the massive changes brought on by the pandemic they are now even more critical to our work as educators .  OER benefit students greatly due to the removal of cost barriers and ease of access. For faculty, OER offer ease of distribution as well as the opportunity to modify or add content to a resource based on context and unique expertise.

Want to learn more about OER and open pedagogy? Here are some primers that you might find helpful:

Looking to catch some of the excellent sessions planned across the globe in recognition of OE Week? Here are some of our top picks:

Want to know more? Feel free to stop into our “Ask us anything about Open Education” drop-in next Thursday, March 4th at 2 pm. We’ll have lots of resources and ideas on hand to share and look forward to fielding all or your burning questions!

Register here for the drop-in: “Ask us anything about Open Education” Registration

Image credit Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash

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