Although more commonly used in marketing materials than in technical writing, colors can be used to add emphasis to key points in technical and user documents. Color is more commonly used online, for example on Web pages or in help files than in printed technical documents, but it can be an effective tool if used appropriately.
Not long ago, all technical documents were designed in black and white. Color printing was simply too expensive. Even a distinctive color, for example red to enhance important arrows or pictograms, went unused due to costs. Until today, color has been seen more as an image issue than a truly necessary tool. Empirical findings support this attitude. Although people feel more addressed by color pictures, they do not necessarily contribute to better memory retention. However, colors are important in pointing out differences and supporting the identification of components.
How predictable is color psychology?
Through multimedia developments and inexpensive printing techniques, color has been used in technical documentation when it serves as an instrument of marketing or public relations. Today, we know that colors have a cognitive and emotional impact on us. But why exactly do colors make us feel or discern differently?
Several studies on color psychology and experiments are available. These have shown that color affects feelings, thinking and behavior. Unfortunately, the results also show that these effects are difficult to predict. We perceive color differently. Our brain, age, sex, cultural background and personality influence our perception.(1) Perception is one thing, but let’s address an exciting point: Are colors unconsciously influencing our behavior, like how long we want to stay in a room, how we perform at work and how we decide when we purchase? Goethe, one of Germany’s most renowned poets, received his guests in a social room with olive-green wallpaper. He said that this color inspires the conversation and the mind. To learn more about the effect, let´s take a look at two colors: red and blue.
Red symbolizes lust and love, but also prohibition and danger. Have you ever heard of a blue-light milieu? Andrew Elliot showed test subjects a picture of a woman wearing either a blue or a fire-red sweater. Two times more often, men preferred to meet the woman in the red sweater than the one in blue.(2) There are also interesting findings from sports. Norbert Hagemann showed Taekwondo judges video clips with competition scenes to be scored in points. The athletes were dressed in blue or red. The same competition scenes were rated better with the red dresses than with the blue. Apparently, referees subconsciously considered the red-dressed fighter more aggressive.(3)
In contrast to red, blue is calming and relaxing. Blue is the favorite color of many people. In tests, the color often reveals only positive associations: loyalty, consistency, wanderlust, infinity, longing, peace, harmony, serenity, cloudless skies, water or even cleanliness. The color blue also stands for seriousness and high-tech. Blue is a safe choice. There is also a lot of blue in magazines and on websites. Blue is often chosen as a corporate color. Many logos contain blue: Deutsche Bank, BMW, VW, SAP, Nokia, O2 or Facebook. In pictograms, blue is also positively uses as a reference or commandment.
Use of color
The best way to choose the right color or color combination is by checking with an association test. It should answer the most important question for using the appropriate color in your documentation: Which meanings are implied for the target group by a color? But even tests do not prevent people from perceiving a color or color combination as unsuitable or unsightly.
Coloring your documentation: advices to go
- Colors should be used to call attention to the text, not to the colors themselves
- Be consistent. Use the same color for the same function. Always.
- Dark shines on light. Dark-colored text on a light background is easier to read than light-colored text on a dark background.
- Four or fewer. In most cases, you should create your design using a color scheme of four or fewer colors. Less is more!
- Learn more about human physical limitations. Examples: be careful with light shades of blue, as these are harder to see and are not picked up by photocopiers. About 10 percent of males have color blindness. If your readers are mainly male, you should avoid color combinations such as blue and yellow, or green and red.
- Be aware of cultural connotations. Red – in Western cultures red is seen as meaning anger or importance. In China, on the other hand, it is a symbol of prosperity. And did you know that, in Japan, red is used when recording the names of the dead?
However, in the end you can say:
There is no way around it – because no one would want to be colorless.
Article “Farbe bekennen” in “technische kommunikation”, print magazine of tekom e.V.; author Prof. Dipl.-Psych. Steffen-Peter Ballstaedt as a main source for this article
 Welsch, Norbert; Liebmann, Claus (2011): Farben. Natur – Technik – Kunst. München: Elsevier.
 Elliot, Andre J.; Niesta, D. (2008): Romantic Red: Red Enhances Men’s Attraction to Women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95. P. 1150-1164.
 Hagemann, Norbert (2008): When the referee sees red. Psychological Science, 19. P. 769-771.