Choose colors based on desired results

With Valentine’s Day coming up, I thought it would be appropriate to review new research that specifically dealt with the effect of the color red. And blue.

In an article in the New York Times, “Reinvent Wheel? Blue Room. Defusing a Bomb? Red Room.,” journalist Pam Belluck describes a new study that showed that red can make people’s work more accurate, while blue encourages creativity. The study was published in the journal Science. (You can read a short abstract here, but to read the full study you need to pay, or have a subscription.)

colors red-blue

The study, done by Ravi Mehta and Rui (Julia) Zhu at the Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia, studied 600 people to see if there was an effect on cognitive performance when people performed tasks with red, blue, or white backgrounds on a computer screen.

The results?

Red: People did better on tests of recall and attention to detail, such as remembering words, or checking spelling and punctuation.

Blue: People did better on tests requiring imagination, such as coming up with creative uses for a brick or creating toys from shapes.

The article discussed some previous studies as well:

In a 2004 study on Olympic uniforms, researchers at Durham University in England found that evenly-matched athletes who wore red in certain events defeated those wearing blue 60% of the time.

In a study on cocktail parties in red, blue, or yellow rooms, people tended to choose the yellow and red rooms, but those who chose the blue rooms stayed longer. Those in the red and yellow rooms were more social and active. Those in red rooms reported feeling hungrier and thirstier, but those in the yellow room ate twice as much.

In a study by Andrew Elliot of the University of Rochester, people shown red test covers before I.Q. tests did worse than people shown green or neutral colors.

Why does color affect us?

Why does color elicit these strong effects? Researchers have the following suggestions:

colors stop signNorbert Schwarz, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, suggests that colors affect mood, which affects performance. The concept is that the color red is connected to problematic things, so you’re “more likely to pay attention to detail, which helps you with processing tasks but interferes with creative types of things.” But blue has more positive associations, so “people in a happy mood are more creative and less analytic.”

John A. Bargh, a psychology professor at Yale University notes that red has associations to stop, fire, alarm, and warning. He also says, “Blue seems a weaker effect than red, but blue skies, blue water are calm and positive.”

colors-blue sky

Dr. Eliot noted that blue’s positive emotional associations are considered less consistent than red’s negative ones.

Another study showed that students taking tests did better on blue paper than on red, but Dr. Schwarz said that the study used depressing blue and upbeat red. Other studies have shown no effect, but some used mostly pastels or less distinctive tasks.

In the University of British Columbia study, most subjects said that red represented caution, danger, or mistakes to them. They said that blue represented peace and openness.

Being done at a business school, the study also tested responses to advertising. Ads listing product details or emphasizing avoidance (like cavity prevention) were more appealing on red backgrounds. Ads using creative designs or emphasizing positive actions (like tooth whitening) were more appealing on blue backgrounds.

Research results

Here are the results of the test for word recall:
colors words recalled
Here are the results of the test for creativity:
colors words recalled
The article mentioned that the study did not involve other cultures, like China, where red symbolized prosperity and luck. Nothing in the article mentioned the generally positive association of red with Valentine’s Day or Christmas.

How about other colors?

In my book, How to Do Everything with PowerPoint 2007, I include a sidebar called, “The Effect of Color.” There, I give the following color guidelines:

  • Red: Handle with care. It can elicit such emotions as desire and competitiveness. However, it also carries negative connotations, such as financial loss. Red works best as an occasional accent color to make an item stand out.
  • Black: Suggests finality and simplicity. However, in certain circumstances, it is associated with mourning and death.
  • Purple Can imply immaturity and unimportance.
  • Brown: Connotes uneasiness and passivity.
  • Green: Has positive associations when used as a background color. Researchers believe that it stimulates interaction, which makes greens and teals good colors for trainers, educators, and those whose presentations are intended to generate discussion.
  • Blue: Commonly associated with a calming and conservative effect. However, due to blue’s popularity for business presentations, some business audiences now equate blue backgrounds with staleness and unoriginal thinking. When corporations specify blue backgrounds, professional presentation designers typically try to infuse them with some originality and texture.

If you’re making a presentation to an international audience, remember that colors have differing connotations in different countries, so do some research.

While background colors help set the emotional tone for your presentation, the colors you use for text, tables, charts, and other graphic elements have a bearing on how well the audience understands and remembers your message. Research has shown that the effective use of selective contrast, known as the von Restorff effect (or isolation effect), makes audiences remember the outstanding item—and even your entire message—better. An example of this technique is to make certain text larger or brighter than most text or to put it in a shape. Most experts agree that your theme colors should include one or two bright colors for emphasis—but to preserve the power of these colors, use them with restraint.”

How does this research apply to my presentations?

colors words recalledNo one is saying that you should use blue hearts for a Valentine’s Day presentation. That just doesn’t make sense.

But you should be wary of using too much red for a general business presentation. Selectively used, red stands out, and it can help your audience remember facts and figures. That’s good.

colors words recalledRed is often used in advertisements, because icolors words recalledt attracts attention and may increase desire. If you pay attention, you’ll see red used as an accent color in many ads.

But for a bad-news presentation, red would probably increase anxiety. In that situation, you would want to go for calming blue or green.

Blue has become a standard color for business presentations; it’s considered conservative. But in situations where you want your audience to pay attention, it may be too laid-back. It would be excellent for brainstorming sessions.

Remember that your goal may not be to have your audience recall words or come up with creative uses for bricks. But putting attention on color will enhance your results.

Do your own research

If you give the same presentation to many audiences, try changing the main color on your slides and see if you can find any difference in your results. If you’re selling, you have an easy way to test results. If not, you could try a questionnaire that attendees fill out afterwards. If you do this, I’d be interested in hearing the results.

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