By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Learning music carries some pretty profound cognitive benefits, so along with my seven-year-old daughter, I’m currently learning to play the guitar. Communicating the correct string or strings to pick carries some challenges, though. You could say the “D String,” but that doesn’t always yield quick recall from the seven-year-old (plus, it is complicated because it depends on tuning, and even in the standard tuning, there are two different “E Strings”). Or you could say, “the third string from the top,” but that isn’t immediate either because it requires counting. Then along comes a nifty computer program called Rocksmith, with the idea of saving the numbers for fingers and frets, and simply representing the strings in different colors. Now I can just say, “the blue string” and my daughter knows immediately where it is. The string, of course, isn’t really blue, but we have learned that association very quickly by playing some video games that are part of the program. The color coding is one of those genius hacks that make you wonder, “Why didn’t anyone think of this before?”
The idea of building an association between a color and a particular meaning is a useful idea for litigators developing graphics for trial. Based on some recent and surprising research, that association speaks to a deeper cognitive role being played by color. Using color isn’t just a way to brighten up your trial graphics, it can be an important part of your visual strategy. A good designer knows that consistently using different colors in distinct ways can be a way to build an immediate and useful association for the jurors or judges viewing the exhibits. Much has been written about the meanings of different colors (e.g., Red is “intense” and blue is “calm,” etc.), and this post is not about those attributions (which, to me at least, seem highly individual or situational). Instead, this post is about the ways that we can, like the Rocksmith designers, make colors mean something just by building a consistent association.