Digital Communication Systems
Business Education Teacher
Southern Alamance High School
After years of teaching a high school business technology course, I questioned the effectiveness of state-mandated, course curriculum materials, specifically digital presentations since most lack relevant illustrations and basic enhancements in addition to bland backgrounds. In short, the Power Points were definitely uninspiring from an educator's perspective. Student reactions to visual displays ranged from polite disinterest to open aversion, especially with monochromatic background types. My personal observations regarding color and instruction were strongly reinforced during the capstone project working with PowerPoint software. The article "Color Research and Its Application to the Design of Instructional Materials" by Dennis Pett and Trudy Wilson further reinforces the necessity and careful use of color in printed educational materials.
However, the impact of color is not limited to the educational setting, but it is the subject of intensive study in other fields. The article "Using Neuroimaging to Measure Mental Representations: Finding Color-Opponent Neurons in Visual Cortex" by Stephen A. Engel studies the physiological and behavioral impact of visual stimuli using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Although his research did not move much beyond determining the localized brain area for color-opponent neurons, it did illustrate via neuroimaging the brain's strong response to color. Another research team examined the individual's ability to enhance or suppress their reaction to visual stimuli in the article "The Power of Human Brain Magnetoencephalographic Signals Can Be Modulated Up or Down by Changes in an Attentive Visual Task" by Yanging Chen, Anil Seth, Joseph Gally, and Gerald Edelman. "The Stress of Stroop Performance: Physiological and Emotional Responses to Color–Word Interference, Task Pacing, and Pacing Speed" by Y. Hoshikawa and Y. Yamamoto is an article further elaborating on the original stroop test. Participant's increase in heart rate, self-reported anxiety, and processing ability despite word color acts as a diagnostic tool to identify ADD and/or ADHD. For an example, see the "Stroop Test".
Color even impacts consumer behavior as related by the article "Impact of Color on Marketing" by Satyendra Singh from University of Winnipeg in Canda, and advertisers with color awareness market their products more effectively. A more specific example is illustrated in the article "Effects of Fast Food Branding on Young Children's Taste Preferences" by Thomas N. Robinson, MD, MPH; Dina L. G. Borzekowski, EdD; Donna M. Matheson, PhD; Helena C. Kraemer, PhD. These researchers determined the "the effects of cumulative, real-world marketing and brand exposures on young children by testing the influence of branding from a heavily marketed source on taste preferences." In the study, children chose between identical food and beverage products whose only difference was the unbranded versus branded packaging. Results indicated a strong taste preference for red and yellow McDonald's brand of fast food despite package color having nothing to do with the quality/taste of the product. Instead, it was more of a measure of marketing influence and power. (Click here to download the full article.)
Since research from multiple areas indicate color's influence over physical, psychological, and behavioral actions, why are we not marketing our digital educational materials to a student target audience to increase attention span, interest, and possibly prolong retention?
Students as a Target Audience
Although current classroom materials reflect curriculum objectives, the computer presentations do not utilize simple and powerful marketing techniques, such as, reaching the target audience (our students) with age-appropriate color and sound. In a computer class, it is all too easy to alter both the presentations and the e-books to a more appealing color choice. The article "Social Marketing: Application to Medical Education" by Sean P. David, MD, SM and David S. Greer, MD clearly supports this adaptation by stating:
"If the skillful use of symbols, color, metaphors, and other marketing devices would make us more effective as educators, we should adapt them to our professional objectives. Medical educators have begun to realize the limitations of traditional lecture formats and are using multimedia presentations (14), standardized patients (15), and computer and Internet-based modules (16), all with demonstrable benefits in retention of information and learner satisfaction."
Advertising media has already capitalized on these subliminal color aspects with successful product branding through careful shelf packaging and commercial choices. Could marketing be applied to our educational materials and presentations? Imagine your standard high school class. How would it be different if Nickelodeon or MTV taught it versus traditional educators?
Even though many teachers use digital presentations, are the existing Power Points aimed at the wrong target audience--the educators? A typical state-issued Power Point has excessive wordiness, poor graphics (if included at all), and no animations/transitions. An older generation would find the complete explanations and no distracting visual display enhancements ideal for learning, but a younger, multi-tasking generation prefers much more entertainment, less words, and more interaction.
The website "Six Revisions" explores color marketing for different target audiences in the article a "Look into Color Theory in Web Design" by Shannon Noack. Although changed often, Nike's website typically features black backgrounds to symbolize power in quality products. In contrast, the White House web page is more formal and less dramatic with white and light gray backgrounds. Obviously, there are American accents of red and blue, but the peaceful blue is used much more often than a passionate red. Indeed, many top corporate websites use blue, because it "looks clean" and "promotes stability and trustworthiness". Some well-known examples include Amazon, Best Buy, and Schwab. All three appeal to a similar middle class target audience based on web page color, graphic, and font differences. The stereotypical nature of similar websites actually enhances communication and message dissemination to the intended participants.
Elementary Target Audience
The blue, red, and yellow colors have long been associated in our culture with elementary school children. This is not a coincidence, because younger children do indeed prefer these primary colors. In fact, research supports these findings in the articles "The Color Preferences of Children" by F. S. Breed and S. E. Katz and "The Color Preference of 1032 Young Children" by Thomas Garth and Electa Porter. Hypothesized reasons for stronger primary color preference includes higher color saturation and subsequent increased visual response to stimuli.
Although the physiological mysteries surrounding color impact remain, there is no doubt that color is a well-recognized marketing tool. As provided in the article "Children and Advertising: Interview with Paul Kurnit" by William M. O'Barr, marketing techniques in television media promote products to our youth utilizing the psychology of color and hidden messages. This color marketing principle could easily be applied to more educational materials like digital presentations where attractive color enhancement increases attention spans and potentially retention. Note sample PowerPoint template from Microsoft above left.
Adult Target Audience
Mature individuals exhibit a much higher level of reasoning, experience, and focus; therefore, it should surprise no one that preferred color choices for an adult target audience are dramatically different than those of young children. As discussed in the article "How Color Affects Marketing" by Channa Leichtling, almost all kids are drawn by bright colors, but adult responses tend to be less enthusiastic. In an adult education setting, subdued colors are preferred so much so that the use of primary colors would be considered distracting if not insulting. Even companies consider interior color choices to match employee work goals. For example, an office environment requiring long-term concentration utilizes neutral colors versus restaurants utilizing reds.
Color preferences continue to evolve through out an adult's lifetime as related in the article "Changing colour preferences with ageing: a comparative study of younger and older native Germans aged 19-90 years" by M. Dittmar. Preferred color for male adults was blue, black, brown, green in the article "A Note on Adults' Color-Emotion Assocations" by M. Hemphill. It is interesting that these are also the accepted professional colors for the corporate, male-dominated business world.
Click here to see the sample PowerPoint template
"Teamwork" from Microsoft.
High School Target Audience
While color theory is easily applied to the younger and older age groups, there is little research regarding tweens and teens with regards to color and digital educational materials. This study explores the possibilities.
General Research Questions
- Do teenagers exhibit a preference for a specific color or presentation template?
- Would simple format changes to color, animation, and font based on marketing theory dramatically improve student learning and data retention?
- If so, what format changes are the most effective?
- Background color choices
- Font style and/or color
- Information placement