Color is a key component of your elearning brand and the content you create. Understanding color gives you the skills you need to develop presentations that look great and promote your elearning brand.

What is color?

Color is the way in which the human eye sees wavelengths of light. The visible spectrum ranges from red to violet, and we are able to notice even the slightest variations in color. There are even online tests like Munsell Hue Test that demonstrate the vastness of the color spectrum.

That being said, color plays a critical role not only in visual content, but in our everyday lives as well. Because it is so central to how we interact with and enjoy the world, color may make or break your learners’ relationship with your brand and satisfaction with your content.


As an elearning developer, you create digital content that is displayed on screen. Picking the right colors for your presentations must come from an understanding of how color works on computer and mobile device screens.

There are two color systems that you’ll probably hear about. RGB (red, green, and blue) is an additive system. This means that it adds lighter colors to the base ones in order to create lighter hues. CMYK (cyan, magenta, and yellow) is subtractive. It subtracts lighter colors from the base ones to get darker hues.

The major differences between the two are their uses. CMYK is used for printing. Subtracting lighter colors to produce darker ones works better for ink than the other way around. Adding lighter colors to darker ones would be somewhat like coloring over a black magic marker with a yellow one. RGB is best for displaying colors on screen, because red, green, and blue pixels can be arranged additively to display any color when viewed on a large scale.

Colors are represented on computers through a system of hexadecimals that you can visualize here. The system represents over 16 million colors with unique hexadecimal codes.

Color theory

Now you know the mechanisms by which color is displayed on and off screen. The next step is to learn the basics of color theory, the logical structure of relationships between colors. By learning color theory, you will be able to use color schemes appropriately for your brand and content.

Color theory has three central tenets: the color wheel, color harmony, and context. Color schemes are applications of color theory that predict visually appealing color palettes.

The color wheel is the most useful visualization of the color spectrum. It best represents the relationships between colors and how they interact with one another. The types of colors are as follows:

Primary colors: Red, yellow, blue

Secondary colors, made by mixing primary colors: Orange, green, violet

Tertiary colors, made by mixing primary and secondary colors: Red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet

The color wheel is organized in such a way that complementary colors (like red and green) are directly across from each other. Complementary colors are an example of a color scheme. You can take any color on the wheel and pair it with the color directly across from it on the wheel, and it should look good. In this sense, color schemes are universal “templates” that predict certain color wheel arrangements as being harmonious.

Color harmony is a necessary part of any color scheme. It describes the visually pleasing interplay of different colors. Certain color schemes tend to look “better” than others by virtue of their relative points on the color wheel. Color harmony can often be seen in the natural world, which is often modeled for color schemes. While there is a subjective aspect to color harmony, there are objective sides that make harmonious color schemes so predictable.

The final component of color theory is context. Context describes the juxtaposition of different colors and how the same color can look radically different when transposed on different backgrounds. It presents a more objective side of color schemes in which the human eye will always be tricked by such optical illusions:

The phenomenon is important to keep in mind when creating backgrounds or overlapping colors. Otherwise appealing color schemes can come out less than ideal if you overlook the effects of context.

Together, the central tenets of color theory come together to produce color schemes. Color schemes are based off the color wheel and take into account the principles of color harmony and context.

Some of the most common models are shown here:

Color schemes allow you to be creative without sacrificing the objective reality that some color arrangements just don’t look nice together. By using color schemes to pick colors for your brand and content, you are more likely to settle on a scheme that really does look great.

Choosing colors

Now comes the hard part -- applying this knowledge of color to your elearning content. A word of advice: Use a simple color scheme. You don’t need an elaborate mess of colors to engage your learners and promote your brand, although you do need to put some thought into it.

Start by reflecting on what kind of content are you creating. Is there a color popularly associated with your content, like how green is symbolic of the environment? Color choice can have a thematic purpose as well as a visual one. Wanting a certain meaning behind the colors you pick can make your ultimate decision more intentional and appropriate.

Once you have some colors in mind, take each one and insert them into some color schemes like in the picture above. What other colors occur in the schemes when you start with one specific color? Do the new colors match your theme?

There are also websites to try out your color ideas, such as Adobe Color CC.

However you go about picking the colors for your brand, understanding color is the first step to making the right decisions. Now that you’ve learned the basics of color, you have the right skills you need to choose the best color scheme for your brand.

About the author

Ben is a third-year university student from Stafford, Connecticut who attends McGill University in Montreal. He enjoys Halloween, writing, and going on adventures with friends. Ben’s interests lie in the fields of linguistics and gender studies, and he currently aspires to stay in Montreal post-graduation to work with gender advocacy organizations.