Message Design: Reading Reflection W2

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Reflection Week 2
By: Jennifer Maddrell
Submitted: May 23, 2008       
For: Dr. Gary Morrison, IDT 895

Reflection 1 – Pett and Wilson


Pett and Wilson (1989) provide a comprehensive literature review of color research. I found this paper to do what a literature review is supposed to do: a) clarify relevant terms to establish common definitions for research and practitioners, b) present relevant research, c) synthesize findings, d) make recommendations for future research and for practitioners in instructional technology. Their review includes important definitions related to color, as well as how color is seen (both physiological and psychological factors) and how color influences learning.


I have often heard color terminology, but I had not contemplated the definitions for the purpose of comparing and evaluating research. These definitions seem to be the most important and relevant to an understanding and evaluation of color: a) hue refers to the specific color, b) value refers to the lightness or darkness of the color, c) saturation is the degree of pure color, d) acuity is the degree of perception.

Color is it is Seen

Physiological Factors. While about 7% of males and .5% of females have some degree of color “blindness” (color deficiencies), everyone has norms and expectations related to color. The context is important to how color is perceived and can change based on other color seen at the same time. This is known as adaption and is considered at three levels 1) general adaption (occurring from one light condition to another) 2) lateral adaption (occurring when two colors are viewed at once), 3) local adaption (occurring when switching from one image to the next).  The important take-a-way is that adaption does not occur immediately. There is usually a delay and what was just viewed and what is viewed simultaneously impacts the perception of the color.

In addition, color has the ability to arouse, especially red (as compared to yellow or blue which are more than green). The arousal includes increases in heart rate, overall anxiety, and heightened perception (acuity) where research suggests increases in the middle of the spectrum than at the end (yellow and cyan are better than red or blue). Further, while lettering on a neutral background tends to be more legible, lettering size tends to me a more important factor than color with regard to legibility.

Psychological Factors.  In terms of preference, studies indicate that color preference can generally be ordered (from most to least preferred) as follows: blue, red, green, violet, orange, and yellow. In general, there is a preference for cool colors (blue and green). Further, these preferences tend to be fairly consistent across gender, culture, and age. However, research does suggest that personality traits may be related to color preference with extroverts preferring warm colors (red and yellow) an introverts preferring cool colors.

Further, colors seem to also be related to settings which may be shared across cultures, but are more likely learned. Dark colors tend be related to more somber settings, red and yellow are related to activity and happiness, and blue is related to peaceful, passive or sad events.
In terms of colors in presented materials, research suggests that when white text is presented on a color background, preference ranged (most to least) from cyan, blue, green, yellow, magenta, and red. 

Color and Learning

There is a wide body of research suggesting that while there may be a general preference for the use of color in instructional materials, colored materials do not appear to be related to increase learning. In fact, research indicates that the words for colors can effectively substitute for the colors themselves! So why is there such a preoccupation with “jazzing up” instructional materials? Is it just about increasing interest? If so, is that just a short term attention getting effect?

Research does seem to suggest that color can draw and focus attention. Further, color use in instructional material seems to elicit different degrees of responses and emotional reactions. While, it seems to also be effective at helping to group related information, the effect of color coding to be learned information is less clear. However, the use of realistic color may aid in encoding and recall of realistic images and pictures.   

In addition, research indicates that colors can impact “readability” of text. In general, solid multi-colored presentations without patterns seem to be best. Further, white on red, yellow on cyan, white on blue, yellow on green, white on magenta, yellow on black, and white on cyan are color combinations which have been shown to be associated with low error rates and high preferences from readers. On a computer screen, black on white (or yellow) provides good contrast, but black is a good background choice when colored text is used.

Influence of Paper

This paper provides a vast array of heuristics for instructional designers. It is one of the better written papers I have read. It is not only a thorough review of literature, but the paper is also well written and effectively organized. It starts by telling you what you are about to read, clearly spells out the findings, summarizes why the findings are important, highlights areas where future study is needed, and concludes with heuristics for practitioners. Home run! Both researchers and practitioners can benefit from the summary of findings across a vast body of study into color and the impact on learning.

As a designer, a key take-a-way is that (once again) content is king and color is a presentation element that can (if used improperly) hurt instead of help in the presentation of material. For example, an entire presentation is delivered with a red background and black lettering, it would be worse than a boring black text on a white background. Further, while color may help to gain and focus attention, the use of color should support the intended narrative of the content. Color that does not support (or conflicts) with the narrative may result in inappropriate encoding and retrieval.

Reflection 2 – Snowberg


Snowberg (1973) reported the results of his color research over 15 years prior to Pett and Wilson (1989) prepared the literature review above. While far smaller in scope, the findings produce strikingly similar heuristics for designers with regard to the use of color within instructional materials, specifically instructional materials projected within a classroom setting. Overall, the results suggest a white background is preferred with blue the least preferred.

Research and Findings

The research centered on a two questions. What colors, transmissions, and brightness provide the best viewing conditions? What background colors are most legible? Therefore the independent variables were color (based on specific wavelengths), transmission, brightness, target size. The study attempted to assess the impact of these variables on the viewers’ response accuracy (the dependent variable).  The researchers took great pains to calibrate the testing projection equipment, including the colored filters which altered the screen background. A consistent set of 10 letters (Z, N, H, R, V, K, D, C, O, and S) in san serif font were used to test for visual acuity. Further, 10 slides provided 10 different treatments of the variables which isolated the five colors (red, blue, green, yellow, and white) and two projection conditions (both standardized luminance, and standardized transmission).  The slides included five lines of the 10 letters with each line at a different size as in an eye chart.

The results indicate a significant response difference among background colors. The order of significance in terms of mean response accuracy (highest to lowest) was white, yellow, green, red, and blue. However, letter size and brightness level greatly impacted the results. Overall, the results suggest a white background is preferred with blue the least preferred.

Influence of Paper

This study seemed to have a clearly defined focus and appears to be well executed.  The greatest strength I see in this paper is its influence as a stepping stone for future research. This study was fairly limited in scope in terms of the type and color of material included in the visual presentation. Only 10 random letters in a black san serif font were used and no images were presented.  For example, studies described by Pett and Wilson (1989) seem to suggest colored images may be better presented on backgrounds other than white.

In addition, would the results be different using more modern technologies, such as the use of PowerPoint in a classroom? It would seem the research could easily be replicated using current technologies. However, it is hard to image what features and characteristics of the modern technologies would significantly change the results.
Reflection 3 – Winn


Winn (1996) seems the odd man out in terms of this week’s readings. It does not directly focus on features of message design. However, it does offer a wonderful overview of learning and instructional theories, as well as an historical assessment of the evolution of cognitive perspectives.

Views of Cognition

As noted, Winn (1996) takes great pains to highlight the evolution of cognitive theory, including the evolution of his own perspectives since first writing the first edition of this book. In outlining how perspectives have changed, Winn describes how cognition was once considered from a “computational” perspective in which the physical world is represented within the mind. He then describes how and why some now find it hard to conceive of the internal processes without also considering the context of the environment, specifically environmental elements which influence what we do and think. The notion of creating a mental representation of the physical world implies a goal of striving for an “ideal or correct” understanding of the external world. Yet, some question if such an understanding can or should exist and take a more pragmatic view; one in which our representation can and should be influenced and guided by our own individual experiences and needs.

These theoretical conceptions of how representations can and should be made in turn influence conceptions of instruction. What do we “teach”? What is the yardstick we use to measure attainment of learning?

Winn (1996) also highlights the historical views which preceded cognitive theory, including Gestalt psychology which studies how people perceive the whole in comparison to the parts and Behavioral Theory which is presented by Winn as almost a reactionary objectivist backlash against Gestalt theory and research practices. In turn, cognitive psychology is shown as a reaction against behaviorism which some feel fails to address the influence of subjective (and often unobservable) factors.

The bulk of the paper focuses on the way mental representations and processes are conceived within cognitive theory and the influence on instructional theory educational technology. It is in these final sections that Winn (1996) links learning theory with instructional theory. Overall, the cognitive perceptions of how information is encoded and retrieved within memory have greatly influenced our current instructional theories and practices. For example, our conceptions of the limited capacity of short term memory have propelled strategies to chunk information. Further, our conceptions of schema have influenced our strategies to link new information within the context of existing information.

In addition, Winn (1996) assesses where key instructional challenges lie from a cognitivist standpoint. First, instructional theory is incomplete and, as such, cannot provide prescriptions for all student behavior. Further, individual differences mean individual learning outcomes. Also, you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink. In other words, individuals are free minded and there are no guarantees recommended strategies will be adopted. Finally, individuals never have a perfect and known context within which to perceive and make decisions. Therefore, there will always be variability among learners and from some guiding objective.

Influence of the Paper

As noted, this paper provides a comprehensive overview of the evolution of cognitive theory. It also provides a rare link between learning theory and instructional theory. However, Winn (1996) covers very little new ground within this paper. Instead, he chooses to focus on synthesis of a vast body of theory and build a bridge between learning theory and instruction. It is almost a glimpse into the metacognitive processing of a man who has devoted his life to this theoretical foundation. It is almost as if Winn is reflecting upon and answering questions in his own mind. What are the foundations of my conceptions? How have my conceptions of learning and cognition evolved? How do these conceptions impact my behaviors as an educator? While designers may not find new information to guide practice and researchers will not find recommendations for future inquiry, the paper provides a concise, but comprehensive map of where cognitive science came from and where it now stands.


Snowberg, R. L. (1973). Bases for the selection of background colors for transparencies. AVCR, 21(2), 191-207.

Pett, D. & Wilson, T. (1989). Color research and its application to the design of instructional materials. ETR&D, 44(3), 19-35.

Winn, W. (2004). Cognitive perspectives in psychology. In D. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, 2nd Ed. Chapter 4, pp. 179-112