Using Color Theory in Instructional Design

Have you ever been in class or in a training session and your professor or instructor starts a slideshow they made on powerpoint and you have difficulty focusing on the actual material because the overall composition is distracting? The color is especially throwing you off as the teacher has put white text over a bright red screen so the information is hard to read. If only someone would have talked to your professor about effective strategies on relaying their knowledge to their students.

Color Theory explores this exact idea, as described by Janie Kliever a writer for Canva, an online program used to create graphic design, “Traditional color theory can help you understand which colors might work well together (or not) and what kind of effect different combinations will create within your design” (Kliever).  In other words, the idea of color theory is as much a scientific theory as an art theory. It combines psychological science as well as fine art to create an aesthetically pleasing color palette to the human eye. Color theory in conjunction with design can help your projects tremendously through just understanding the way it works.

Color Theory Basics: The Color Wheel

If you’ve ever taken an art class, you have almost always encountered the color wheel. It explains the transition each color makes, from red to orange, to yellow to green, it is a visual way to understand color. It even shows color harmonies, which are groupings based on where colors sit on the color wheel.

Color Wheel

Color Theory: Psychology

Psychology is the study of the human mind and their functions. The mind may function differently depending on the color that it is seeing. Different colors mean different things:

Red: Red means a wide variety of things, it can range from love or lust to violence, and anything in between. For example: even warmth has a connection to red because on the color wheel it is a warm color. In training or a tutorial about the dynamics between two characters in a particular book who love one another, you might consider including red accents, to further enhance your points.

Alternative Cultural Meanings: In places like India, red is used in weddings, as it stands for prosperity and fertility.


Orange: Closely associated with autumn and warmth, orange is not as versatile as red in meaning, but still can articulate quite a bit through the use of it’s color. This could mean that in a powerpoint on the topic of October and autumn, one might include orange as a color accent to reinforce the idea of warmth and seasonal cheer in the October time-frame.

Alternative Cultural Meanings: In countries like Japan, orange symbolizes love and in India, it is sacred.


Yellow: As yellow is oftentimes considered a bright, cheery, happy, and even an energetic color, it is often used as a warning color. When creating a tutorial about the dangers of a toxic spill, yellow is the perfect color to assist in the visual message of keeping caution when around toxic elements.

Alternative Cultural Meanings: Yellow is a color of mourning in places like Latin America and Africa.


Green: This color is quite prevalent in the spring and summer time, so it can mean the rebirth of life, or life in general. Green is a natural color found in nature, so it is closely associated with health and revival. It can also mean money, wealth, jealousy, and greed depending on the shade, as the more darker versions tend to communicate more negative aspects. In a module about keeping the Earth clean and healthy, one might include green to further help their idea along.

Alternative Cultural Meanings: In Mexico, green is the color of independence and in the middle east it is the color of luck.


Blue: Is a cool color on the color wheel, sometimes associated with sadness, it can also depict electrical energy. Depending on the shade, it can be a calmer more thought-provoking color.  If you were to discuss technology in your class you might consider using blue to reinforce the subject visually.

Alternative Cultural Meanings: Around the world blue is considered a positive color, as it repels evil spirits and it is associated with immortality and spiritism in many countries in the Middle East.


Purple: As purple is not an everyday color, and is also quite hard to find in nature, it is linked with royalty and uniqueness. It can also be more of a spiritual color as it is linked with wizardry and the like. In a module about spirituality, one might think to add purple to complete the visual aesthetics of the idea.

Alternative Cultural Meanings: As this color is widely a spiritual color all over the world as well, it is associated with mourning in Brazil and Thailand (Wang).


Black: Black is commonly linked with evil and death,  but also linked to power and wealth and as stated by Janie Kliever from Canva, “In apparel, black generally communicates formality (“black tie” parties) or mourning/sorrow (as the color traditionally worn to funerals)” (Kliever). Using black generously can create a sense of evil depending on the context, but using it conservatively as with text, is generally a common practice with no meaning as it is the default.

Alternative Cultural Meanings: In South America, Asia, and Africa, black is the color of masculinity.  Black is the color of mystery and rebirth in the Middle East (Wang).


White: White is the opposite of black, it means purity, innocence and cleanliness such as a sterile hospital room. Just like black, using white is generally the standard, but the excessive use of white in a module, tutorial, or even a powerpoint can create a sense of cleanliness and purity when speaking about hospitals, for example.

Alternative Cultural Meanings: In Asian countries, white is associated with funerals, death, and mourning, so white is worn to funerals.


*From country to country, the meaning of color changes, so be aware of the dual meanings when traveling from the United States to other places around the globe. Keep in mind your target audience. If you are speaking to an audience from Asia about funeral’s and use black to reinforce the idea, it will be proven unsuccessful, because as previously noted, in Asian cultures, white is worn to funerals instead of black.


Although you still might want to use that bright red color as a background for one of your slides, make sure your use of the color reinforces the information being presented. You may be making it easier for your students to learn, if you keep color theory in mind, and in fact, they’ll thank you for considering it. Evaluate the need for the color, and if it doesn’t reinforce your ideas, instead of using a bright red background try white, or even a pastel blue next time!  


When it comes to color theory, what are some good and bad experiences that you might have had with instructors who used color theory effectively and ineffectively to teach? Leave a comment below telling us what it was!





Kliever, Janie. “Color Theory – Tips and Inspiration.” Canva. Design School, n.d. Web. 20 Sept.


Wang, Christina. “Symbolism Of Colors and Color Meanings Around The World.” The

Shutterstock Blog. Shutterstock, 03 Apr. 2015. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.

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