How colors can enhance memory performance?

In previous post How does memory work?, we saw that memory in its core is a cognitive process. Cognitive psychologists discovered different design principles to enhance memory performance and in that way remembering the information. Retrieving process depends on many variables and one of them is color. Color is the most powerful stimulus for the brain. It opens up other areas of the brain and allows greater and easier learning and remembering.

As stated in the last postinformation enters our brain through eyes and ears and it is stored in the so called sensory memory. But we can pay attention only to a small amount of information. Once something has attracted our attention, it moves into our working memory. The brain notices and remembers color first!

Farely and Grant found out that colored multimedia presentations resulted in better attention and memory performance.  Greene, Bell and Boyer further explained that warm types of colors such as yellow, red and orange have greater effect on attention, compared to the cool type of colors like brown and gray. The right combination of colors is also important, because it can produce higher level of contrast. Higher level of contrast attracts more attention and better visibility which influences memory retention (Dzulkifli and Mustafar).

What is the right combination of colors?

1. First let’s see when to use which color:

When to use which color?

You can find out more about meaning of colors in Color Theory for Designers .

2. Secondly let’s take a look at traditional color schemes which help us understand how to combine colors.

You can use as many colors as you want, but keep in mind, too many colors can cause chaos. Start with a palette of no more than three colors. Rather use tones, shades and tints within a specific hue.

On picture 1, four main color starting schemes are presented.

Picture 1: Color schemes (adapted from Chapman 2010)

Picture 1: Color schemes (adapted from Chapman 2010)

3. Now that we know the basics of color theory, let’s see some tips for enhancing memory performance:

  • Use complementary or triadic color scheme, when you want to highlight the difference between things.
  • Using analogous color scheme creates harmony. Let one color be the dominating and other two supporting colors. It is perfect when we want something to stand out.
  • Use monochromatic color scheme for grouping similar object or facts. Monochromatic color schemes are also great for presenting a structure of a piece of information.
  • Use lighter background that contributes to a higher readability level.


The right use of colors is even more important when creating Learning Maps

Learning Map by its form is a strong visual tool. But with incorrect combination of colors it can quickly cause an indigestible learning experience.

Learning Maps usually consists of 4-5 main nodes and no more than 3 sub-nodes on every main node. If one node with its sub-nodes represents one chapter, we should use monochromatic color scheme for this chapter, starting with darker and proceed to lighter ones. Thus you present the structure of the topic. See the example below:

Picture 2: An example of using monochromatic color scheme for each group of nodes

Picture 2: An example of using monochromatic color scheme for each group of nodes


Colors from the same scheme could also be used for node’s title or summary/instruction text.

Picture 3: An example of using the same color scheme for node’s title

Picture 3: An example of using the same color scheme for node’s title


We also mustn’t forget branches – same color as nodes. Thus we create the consistent look that helps students to connect and remember information. Students can recall information more easily when they are supported with color.

Picture 4: An example of using the same color scheme for branches

Picture 4: An example of using the same color scheme for branches


When using Learning Map for presenting steps of some procedure, than analogous color scheme would be the best choice.

Picture 5: An example of using analogous color scheme for presenting steps

Picture 5: An example of using analogous color scheme for presenting steps


I would also recommend avoiding pure hues for main nodes, and using desaturated ones instead. They are not so harsh for the eyes.

Don’t forget on backgrounds of the Learning Map. White or light gray can be a little bit dull and unfriendly. Use other neutral background to create more domestic, warm environment.

Colors visually guide students to locate, compare, understand and recall information faster. So choose colors carefully to help your students to achieve the goal.



About Jana Jan

Jana Jan is a co-founder of Edynco – a tool for creating interactive Learning Maps. She has more than 10 years of experience in developing of pedagogical support and quality assurance in educational process in higher education. She is also a co-author of numerous e-textbook and online courses. Now she is a member of developing team of Edynco passionate in researching different learning design approaches.

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This entry was posted in Cognitive theory, Instructional design and tagged , , , .
  • LikeaMouseTips

    Excellent summary. I’m continually amazed how many pros ignore the communication impact of color. As a Disney training leader, I saw how color affected people daily.

  • Catherine Davis

    I enjoyed your article, Jana. I really appreciate the straight to the point info-graphic on using warm and cool colors enhance basic text. This “no-budget” tip is a must-share with my ID team!

    • Jana Jan

      Thank you, Catherine! I’m glad you find the article useful. I wish you a lot of color-effective design.

  • Margo’s Math and More

    This color information has been very practical and confirming. It supports the basis for the Color Coded Multiplication of Margo’s Math and More.