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The Importance of colour

By Robert Barakat on 3 February 2016StrategyNSWstaffroom

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but what exactly is it about visual representations that are so powerful? Well, we have a hunch that colour may have something to do with it.

While a rainbow deck of Crayolas is a must-have in primary school, colour slowly dissipates from the agenda as you climb the school ladder. Today we’re taking this to town, arguing that colour should be utilised as an integral learning tool at all levels.

When new team members join Atomi, we use a little something called BECM to explain exactly how colour has an impact on students, and how we can best use it to make our lessons super effective.

So, without further ado, I give you BECM: Biology, Engagement, Categorisation, and Memory. Let’s lay it down (and bring in a few experts along the way):

B is for: Biological processing

A human brain’s reaction to colour is about as primal as it gets. We’re programmed to interpret and react to colours in the same way we’re programmed to identify the human face. Once upon a time this was pretty important for our survival, and today this cognitive power can be utilised to maximise and heighten the learning process, making students more sensitive to content if it is delivered in a coloured format.[1] HSC survival, if you will.

E is for: Engagement

In the [Meriam & Webster's] dictionary, Monochromatic, the term for 'only one colour' is also literally defined as:

lacking variety, creativity, or excitement

The metaphor has become the definition for a reason. Enough said.

C is for: Categorisation

A lot of what we know about this actually comes from a study conducted by the US Navy, which addressed environmental colour coordination. The introduction of colour into an environment of concentration was shown to drop accident frequency by a massive 28%. This has been corroborated by a number of smaller scale studies in recent years, in business and educational environments, which all place this number of lowered inaccuracy due to heightened attention between 25 and 28%.[1:1] Not too shabby.

It turns out that colour is a great way to categorise information in out brains. For example in these studies, warnings are consistently expressed in red. Grouping information by colour helps our brain automatically segment information into manageable groups without having to introduce new labels and hierarchies. Thank you brain.

M is for: Memory

A study from MIT has actually shown that exposure to study materials that are coloured leads to improvement of up to 10% when compared to results from black and white study materials. They say colour actually increases “the chances of environmental stimuli to be encoded, stored, and retrieved successfully”.[1:2] This is probably an impact of all the above coming together to create more engaging, structure and memorable content that we're biologically programmed to engage with. No wonder it sticks.

So, next time you reach for that black maker, you might want to think again...


  1. Further Reading: The Contributions of Color to Recognition Memory for Natural Scenes ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

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