Healthcare compliances training and discussion blog

Over the last couple weeks I’ve discussed the impact that thoughtful use of color can have on your learner’s mood and ability to learn material. This week I’m going to focus on the use of color when designing eLearning for audiences with special needs.

Your eLearning color scheme might look amazing to you, and it might tie-in perfectly with the learning you are trying to deliver. But is it possible the eLearning course could be seen internationally and convey something completely different to someone in another culture? Could your eLearning lesson be hard for someone who is colorblind to see? What about the elderly or people who are dyslexic? Read on for some color design tips for these special circumstances.

Cross-Cultural Color Design

Some color meanings are relatively universal. If you want to convey passion, red would be a good choice no matter where your design is viewed. If you want to convey evil, black is pretty universally accepted. But what about something like marriage? In Western cultures you’d probably use white, but if your design was viewed in Hindu or Chinese culture your color choice may be lost, as they associate red with marriage. To convey death? In the West, eLearning lessons targeted for the Japanese and Native American cultures should use black; in Hindu and Chinese cultures you’d be better off with white.

Keeping track of a full spectrum of colors and how they relate to an even wider array of emotions and sentiments can get overwhelming. Use this infographic to simplify the process (you can click the graphic for a larger view).

Colors in culture

(Image Source:

Design for the Color Blind, Dyslexic and Elderly

I find that rather than designing eLearning courses with every possible sight deficiency in mind, it is easier to design the course so that it looks nice and will be effective. Once I have my design in place, I analyze it to see what colors need to be altered a bit to satisfy a more diverse sight spectrum.

When I want to know if a color will have enough contrast to be visible to someone who is colorblind I often reference the illustration below. The large image is how people with normal vision see the colors and the image at the bottom left is how people with most forms of color blindness would see those same colors. (You can click the graphic for a larger view.)

Colorblind chart
(Image Source:

Another good resource when designing for someone who is colorblind is to either post your learning content online or find a website with a similar color scheme. Copy the lesson’s URL into this Colorblind Web Page Filter. Depending on which color filter you select, the page filter will show you the view seen by people with different forms of colorblindness.

Based upon her previous research showing that dyslexia is actually a “slow moving transient system that depends largely upon visual contrast,” Mary C. Williams of the University of New Orleans, ran a study with 38 dyslexic and 32 non-dyslexic children to see if their reading comprehension varied based on which color background black text was presented. The test revealed a significant elevation in reading comprehension among dyslexics when the text appeared on a blue or light gray background.

Lighthouse International, a nonprofit organization that deals with vision preservation, wrote an informative brochure on vision and old age in which they state that the loss of vision is not a guarantee with old age. There are some changes in vision that we can all expect like declining sensitivity, which is a yellowing of the eyes that can make it difficult to distinguish blue from black. If you are presenting your learning to a more mature audience, that may be a color combination to avoid.

Another color choice to avoid when designing for an older audience is pastels (particularly in cool tones) as they can appear more gray than their intended color.

Lighthouse International also produced a brochure on Designing for People with Partial Sight and Color Deficiencies that has some good color examples and thoughts on combining different hues and saturations of colors for people with sight deficiencies to reference when you are designing.

Generally speaking, it isn’t always convenient to follow these specific color guidelines. Many color combinations will suffice for all audiences. However, it’s important to always ask the question: “what is the value of bringing in a few more readers or increasing understanding from a generally underserved audience?” Here’s hoping your editor or manager agrees.

About the author: AJ George is IconLogic’s lead Technical Writer and author of both “PowerPoint 2007: The Essentials” and “PowerPoint 2008 for the Macintosh: The Essentials.” You can follow AJ on Twitter at

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