We sometimes get asked about what colors are best when designing technology for seniors. Answering this question is complicated. To understand, you need to consider four different possible and sometimes competing goals:
- Providing contrast for shape differentiation and readability
- Creating or stimulating desired emotions and feelings
- Stimulating cognitive functions
- Getting seniors to like a brand or buy a product
Different goals often result in contradictory color choices. For example, color selections will be different if you are designing an instruction manual or help forum vs. a social media app for elderly people vs. an e-commerce site targeted at seniors.
Equally important to understanding which colors to use is knowing which colors not to use when designing technology for seniors. This is because certain colors can inadvertently cause fatigue, increased stress, headaches, decreased visual perception, eyesight damage, and increased user interface errors.
Effects of Ageing on Vision
The effects of ageing on a person’s vision can be profound, and need to be considered when designing technology for seniors. From the age of about 40, the lens of the eye begins to harden and lose its flexibility, causing a condition called “presbyopia.” Presbyopia causes images to be focused behind the retina with a resulting loss in visual acuity. This is a normal part of ageing that makes it increasingly difficult to focus at short distances (hence the need for reading glasses).
With age our pupils shrink, resulting in the need for more light and a diminished capacity to adjust to changing light levels. For example, 60-year-old retinas receive only 40% of the light that 20-year-old retinas receive, and 80-year-old retinas receive only around 15%. Hence older people also have lower light sensitivity and increased sensitivity to glare.
The older eye is less able to make out low contrast patterns. According to the National Eye Institute in the US, from the age of 40, contrast sensitivity starts to decline, until at the age of 80 it may be reduced by up to 83%. This has profound implications when designing technology for seniors. For example, as illustrated below certain text color and background color combinations are extremely difficult to read for older people with low contract sensitivity.
Graphic Courtesy University of Cambridge
Compounding the effects of presbyopia, visual sharpness also worsens with declining contrast sensitivity. Declines in contrast sensitivity cause the older eye to have slower accommodation transitioning between dark and light places. Older eyes have more difficulty seeing thin lines and focusing on hard edges. Beyond affecting reading in general, this makes it difficult for seniors to distinguish between similar icons, buttons and other user interface element shapes where edges and lines are critical visual cues.
Color confusion also increases with age. The most common form of color blindness in the general population is difficulty in distinguishing between colors containing red or green. According to the National Eye Institute this affects approximately 1 in 12 men (8%) and 1 in 200 (0.5%) women in the world. These percentages increase with age, and severity also increases with age. Although, known as “red-green color blindness” this does not mean sufferers mix up red and green, it means they mix up all colors which have some red or green as part of the whole color. For example, purple is made up of blue and red. Because the eye does not see the red component, purple will look like blue.
Graphic Courtesy University of Cambridge
Did you know that the Facebook logo is blue because Mark Zuckerberg is red-green colorblind? He sees blues the best.
There is also a thickening and yellowing of the lens of the eye with age. The result is similar to viewing the world through a pale-yellow film (approximately the color of ginger ale). This makes it harder to differentiate between colors in the green and blue shades (because green is made up of blue and yellow). This yellowing also makes things in a green environment look much more yellow to an older person.
See our the Best Practices for more information on how ageing affects vision, mitigation strategies, and a list of useful tools that you can use when designing technology for seniors.
Color Contrast Ratios for Shape Differentiation and Readability
Most designers use color for aesthetic purposes when designing technology for seniors. This is good as long as the colors provide sufficient contrast for distinguishing shapes and reading text. People often assume a difference in color is what creates color contrast, but that’s not true. You might have two colors that are different but have little contrast because their tone (amount of grey in the color) is the same. This is illustrated below.
Graphic Courtesy CoSchedule
Due to the effects of ageing on vision, the older eye is less able to make out low contrast color combinations and patterns. This has profound implications when choosing text color and background color combinations that can be read by seniors with low contrast sensitivity. In addition to text, color contrast may also play an important role in differentiating graphical shapes. This is particularly important when such shapes are used as user interface targets (e.g., buttons, arrows, data entry boxes, etc.).
Color contrast ratio standards do exist. For people with normal vision a contrast ratio of 3:1 is the minimum level recommended by [ISO-9241-3] and [ANSI-HFES-100-1988] for standard text. W3C published a recommended minimum contrast ratio of 4.5:1 between text and solid background behind the text. The 4.5:1 ratio mitigates the loss in contrast that results from moderately low visual acuity, congenital or acquired color deficiencies, or the loss of contrast sensitivity that typically accompanies ageing. W3C later increased the recommended enhanced contrast ratio to 7:1 for users with vision loss equivalent to approximately 20/80 vision.
We at ElderTech.Org recommend that for the broader senior population (65 +), whenever possible, you provide a minimum contrast ratio of 7:1 between text (or images of text) and solid background. The 7:1 level provides compensation for the loss in contrast sensitivity experienced by elderly users with low vision who do not use assistive technology. This higher ratio also provides contrast enhancement which helps to mitigate color blindness when designing technology for seniors. We believe that the 1:4.5 ratio is not adequate because it assumes a relatively low level of vision loss across too broad an elderly population. However, if your product is targeted for the younger segment of the senior market (say 65-75) then the 1:4.5 ratio may be adequate.
A word of caution: If the entire user interface is high color contrast, then it’s possible that nothing will stand out and it will be tiring for the eye after a while. So think carefully about what you want to emphasize and what is less important. Using combinations of black and white actually provides the highest contrast possible (24:1) for readability.
Read our full article on Understanding Recommended Color Contrast which also discusses font sizes, target sizes, use of white space and patterned backgrounds. This article also provides a list of tools you can use to objectively test the contrast ratios when designing technology for seniors.
Color to Create Emotions and Feelings
Colors affect emotions differently in different age groups. Over a hundred years ago the pioneering educationalist Rudolph Steiner believed that people could be surrounded by particular colors that had spiritual and objective effect on their emotional life, as well as their physical health and mental well-being.
According to Steiner, spaces can be made less distracting to mental concentration by surrounding children with soft pastels and rounded architectural forms at the youngest level (2-7 years), progressing to central shared learning areas with stronger more vibrant colors for older children (7-10 years), then onto larger shared work areas in which soft greens and blues were used for children from 10 into their teenage years.
Fast-forward to becoming an older adult 65+. Ageing can bring about a sense of loneliness and fear. According to Steiner’s philosophy, and numerous studies, color can be used to counteract this by providing warmth, security and harmony. Choice of color can boost interest in the world and stimulate cognitive function. These principals have been used by interior designers for many years to create living and gathering spaces for elderly people. They can also be used when designing technology for seniors.
In general, older people are drawn to soft pastels, but these may not have the vitality of colors needed to stimulate the mind and mood. Vision problems, particularly yellowing of the lens, can also impair how soft pastels are perceived by elderly people.
Blue is the number one preferred color by all age groups and all genders and all ethnicities. Navy blue, sky blue, and aquamarine are particular favorites of seniors. Blue is a restful color with a calming effect. Blues can also instill trust and confidence. Soft blues connect to the spiritual or reflective mood. Blue can reduce mental excitability and help concentration. Research suggests that the use of blue (tested by painting a room in various shades of blue) in the physical environment can lower blood pressure. Blue is interesting in that people tend to choose it as a favorite, even though it is often associated with sadness and depression. So be careful as using too much blue can create melancholia.
Green reduces central nervous system activity and is also a calming and restful color. Green gives a sense of life and new beginnings. It can be stabilizing, nurturing, healing, and revitalizing. Pale greens are soothing. Dark greens can enhance concentration. However, as examined further below, green is the preference of younger age groups and this preference drops off with age, particularly after age 70.
In this 70+ age group the preference for red increases dramatically. No empirical data could be found on why this happens. Perhaps we appreciate the positive attributes and effects of red more as we get older. Red is a stimulating color commonly associate with warmth, strength, competition, excitement, energy, speed, power, importance, and youth. Studies have shown that red can cause increased heart, respiration and metabolism rates. Red can inhibit relaxation and increase alertness. Lighter shades emphasize the energetic aspects of red. Darker shades emphasize power.
Purple can inspire and be thought-provoking. It is often described as exciting and intriguing. Mauves (mix of violet and red) are nurturing, promote intuition, meditative and insightful thinking. Lighter shades of purple bring to mind spring and romance. Darker shades of purple add mystery, and can symbolize creativity. But purple can be polarizing – it is either loved or hated more than any other primary or secondary color.
The table below provides a summary of how different colors can affect emotion and mood in the general population. This table was assembled starting with an article by Pamela Paul in Advertising Age, then augmented with additions from other sources found by googling “psychology of color”. Note that the color connotations provided below are largely for Western cultures. Variations will exist for Eastern and Asian cultures.
|Color||Attributes||Associated with||The effect|
||Exciting, daring, dynamic, sexy, intense, impulsive, active, aggressive, passionate, strong, brave, powerful, gentle, important, youthful||Blood, fire, heat, strength, comfort, competition, excitement, emotion, optimism, life, love, romance, passion, bravery, energy, speed, power, importance, youth
Violence, danger, anger, aggression
|Arousal and stimulation. Increased heart, respiration and metabolism rates. Will inhibit relaxation.
Lighter shades emphasize the energetic aspects of red. Darker shades emphasize power.
Red can change meaning in the presence of other colors.
||In your face, vibrant, playful, warm, friendly, social, gregarious, cheerful, vibrant, confident, successful||Extroversion, adventure, celebration, courage, confidence, good health, friendship, success
Stimulating but less so than red.
Deeper oranges are warming.
||Warm, cheerful, happy, perky, energetic, futuristic, clarity, attention||Sunshine, creativity, imagination, optimism, hope, joy, future, spirituality, newness, low price, warning,
Irresponsible, unstable, dishonesty, cowardice, betrayal
|Warming, cheering, and stimulating. Triggers alertness. Can cause anxiety, agitation and anger.
Bright sharp yellows can be tiring and trigger headaches. Lighter shades play on the happiness aspects, reminding users of summer and the sun. Darker shades, including gold, add more weight and give a sense of antiquity.
||Fresh, clean, restful, natural, stable, healthy, prosperous||Freshness, ecology, nature, health, balance, fertility, spring, growth, renewal, healing, earth, money, financial safety, good luck
Envy, jealousy, guilt
|Stabilizing. Nurturing, healing, revitalizing.
Pale greens are soothing. Dark greens can enhance concentration.
Green can make reading easier. Meetings in green rooms are perceived as shorter.
||Calm, tranquil, secure, peaceful, patient, loyal, trusted, holy, hopeful, inviting, cold, wet, sad,||Constancy, dependability, water, sky, holiness, protection, purity, trust, loyalty, patience, hope, order, perseverance, security, integrity, peace, loyalty, sadness and depression, the future, coldness, masculinity
|Calming, trust inspiring, and cleansing. Reduces mental excitability and therefore helps one to concentrate.
Pale blue is cooling and encourages rest, but cannot be used indiscriminately, as too much of it produces melancholia. Indigo is useful where fear is hindering activity.
||Exciting, mysterious, complex, wise, intriguing, romantic, luxurious, elegant||Passion, spirituality, creativity, wit, sensitivity, vanity, royalty, nobility, luxury, ambition, wealth, superiority, mystery, transformation
|Inspiring and thought-provoking. Mauves (mix of violet and red) are nurturing, meditative and insightful and promote intuition,
Lighter shades of purple bring to mind spring and romance. Darker shades of purple add more mystery, and can even symbolize creativity.
||Young, warm, cheerful, happy, simple, uncomplicated, sentimental, compassion-ate, tenderness, caring, weak, delicate||Love, romance, sweetness, delicacy, tenderness, refinement, sentimentality, playfulness, innocence, acceptance, femininity
|Subduing and flattering. Depending on use, pink can be either stimulating or calming.
The connotations with childhood and with sugary treats gives it a sweet, sometimes innocent appeal.
Traditionally used with love and romantic themes, alongside red and light purple.
||Earthy, comfortable, reliable, steady, sturdy, safe, secure, restful, simple, conservative, rustic, enduring||Earth, substance, stability, reliability, harmony, home, outdoors, longevity, comfort, neutrality, conservative
|Comforting, soothing, and friendly.
Denotes dependability. Can make a space feel secure and stable.
Can be depressing unless used with other colors.
||Mysterious, elegant, sophisticated, worldly, edgy, sexy, powerful, strength, intelligence,
|Authority, sophistication, simplicity, protection, formality, elegance, night, power, sexuality, mystery
Fear, unhappiness, bad luck, evil, death and mourning (West)
Rest mind and body.
Too much black can be frightening.
Depressing unless used with other colors.
||Neutral, safe, secure, solid, practical, modest, dependable, elegant, formal, calm, smart, , gloomy, futuristic||Neutrality, coolness, safety, calmness, conservatism, modesty, intelligence, futurism
Sadness, boredom, gloom, decay
Cool and rational thinking.
Too much grey can be dulling and demotivating.
||Clean, fresh, pure, open, clear, easy, receptive, modern, neat, precise, virtue||Goodness, innocence, purity, cleanliness, calmness, freshness, healthiness, precision, virginity (West)
Isolation, emptiness, death and mourning (China and India)
Helps the mind to be open clear and receptive.
Cheering when used with red, yellow, or orange.
Too bright white can produce eyestrain and headaches.
Color to Stimulate Cognition in Elderly People
Colors can also be used to stimulate memory and other cognitive functions. For example, the color of medications can help elderly people remember to take them. Researchers are studying the effect of linking pill color to the condition being treated, for example, calming blue pills for pain medication. Similar color linkages can be used when designing technology for seniors.
Red increases brain wave activity and can stimulate the production of adrenaline into the blood stream. Red and yellow are sometimes used in dining rooms to stimulate dementia patents to remember to eat. Note however, that dark and severe reds have the ability to overstimulate and agitate. Purple does not appear to have consistent effects on the nervous system.
A few articles have been published on color perception in people with dementia. These conclude that people with dementia do significantly worse on tests of contrast sensitivity, visual attention and color naming compared with people without dementia. But otherwise basic visual functioning (acuity and motion direction discrimination) is similar for people with and without dementia. Color preferences (i.e., how much we “like” or “dislike” color) are also similar for people with and without dementia (blue and green being most preferred).
Color in Branding and Marketing to Seniors
The color psychology considerations for stimulating desired feelings and emotions play an important role in branding and marketing. Consider the following chart when designing technology for seniors:
Graphic Courtesy of The Logo Company
However, personal color “preferences” are also important. For example, how much we “like” or “dislike” the color yellow can impact our attitude toward a yellow brand logo or a product packaged in yellow. These preferences are of course related to how colors affect our feelings and emotions, and they need to be considered when designing technology for seniors.
To provide some insight we analyzed data from an ongoing color preference survey being conducted by Scott Design Inc. The data was for 3200 participants representing a cross section of genders and age groups as of March 1, 2017. The vast majority of participants were from Western cultures. Below is a summary of “favorite” and “least favorite” colors of all 3200 participants.
Data Courtesy of Scott Design Inc
Below are the preference results broken down for different age groups. These represent 1157 people 0-18 years old, 581 people 19-24 years old, 463 people 25-35 years old, 563 people 36-50 years old, 400 people 51-69 years old and 38 people 70 years or older. We plan to revisit this survey sometime in the future when the sample size of the 70+ age group is larger.
Data Courtesy of Scott Design Inc
It is clear that some color preferences change as we age. Most striking is how the preference for green appears to drop off in preference for red in the oldest age group. This may be related to yellowing of the lens of the eye with age. This yellowing makes it harder to differentiate between greens and blues (because green is made up of blue and yellow). Simply put, it becomes harder to perceive and appreciate green as we age.
It is uncertain why the drop in green is compensated for by an increased preference for red rather than an increased preference for blue. Perhaps, as we age we appreciate the stimulative effects of red more than the calming effects of blue.
Below are the results broken down for women vs. men for all age groups. These represent 1700 women and 1500 men. While differences exist, they are not dramatic. We also examined the women vs. men preferences by age group and also found no significant differences between the genders.
Data Courtesy of Scott Design Inc
One significant omission in the Scott Designs survey is the color pink. Published articles regularly rank pink significantly more favorable for women and less favorable for men.
We also examined the survey results reported by Pamela Paul in Advertising Age for different ethnicities. The details of her data set are unknown, but her results are interesting when designing technology for seniors . Note that her data set did include the color pink, as well as all the colors from the Scott Design survey.
Data Courtesy of Advertising Age
According to an article in Empowered by Color, branding and marketing color preferences can also be affected by social class, education and even climate:
- Working class and blue collar workers tend to prefer the bright and warm primary and secondary colors.
- Wealthier people tend to prefer the more complex and sophisticated colors – tertiary colors, and shades and tints of primary and secondary colors.
- Well educated people respond well to tertiary colors and those given unusual names.
- Less educated people tend to prefer the simpler basic primary and secondary colors.
- People tend to prefer colors that duplicate the colors relating to their climate.
- People from warm tropical climates respond best to bright, warm colors, while people from colder climates tend to prefer cooler and more subdued colors.
- In the Scandinavian countries, fresh and bright blues, yellows and whites are popular.
- In South America, warm reds, oranges, yellows and bright pinks are popular.
- Australian Aborigines respond well to the earthy reds, oranges, blues and greens that are seen in the outback regions.
Recommendations When Designing Technology for Seniors.
When designing technology for seniors, always remember that the manner in which colors are perceived will be affected by screen technology, screen brightness settings, and ambient lighting. So if you do your color designs on a large bright Mac display in a dim room, they may look very different when rendered on the target device under less than optimal lighting.
Also, as we age, the lens of our eye hardens and thickens. Because of this colors appear more gray and subtle tone variations are harder to see. Older peoples’ lenses also yellow. The result is as if you’re looking at everything through ginger ale colored sunglasses. Color blindness can also be a factor.
The bottom line is that the way elderly people perceive your choice of colors will probably be significantly different from how you perceive them. So it’s important to test your colors with seniors who represent a cross-section of age groups and visual impairments. Our full article on Vision Best Practices lists some useful tools that can be used for examining colors on different devices for certain visual impairments.
Color is a powerful tool when designing technology for seniors. But using it to obtain the desired effects in a user interface can be an exercise in making trade-offs. It’s important to have clarity on what you are trying to accomplish, as well as clear priorities when it comes to making trade-offs because of the pros and cons for using a certain color.
Confused yet? Maybe these simplified tips will help:
- Be clear on what you are trying to accomplish with the use of color. Set priorities for trade-offs when color selection principals conflict.
- Prioritize providing contrast for shape differentiation and readability over aesthetics. Important information must be readable and user interface targets must be recognizable.
- Use color to emphasize what’s important, for example, navigation and orientation cues, activity areas or important text.
- De-emphasize what’s not important. Don’t unintentionally use color in ways that draw attention to elements that should be “in the background”.
- Be aware of age, gender, ethnicity, class, education, and climate related color preferences for branding and marketing.
- Use known color psychology principles. For each part of your user interface, decide what emotions or feelings you want to evoke. Consider using different color schemes for different parts of the UI, depending on the purpose of each part.
- Consider the effects of dementia where appropriate when designing technology for seniors.
 Colours for Living and Learning, Carolyn Atkinson, 2004. Provides an excellent overview of how colors affect different age groups differently. http://www.resene.co.nz/homeown/use_colr/colors-for-living.htm
 Color and Senior Care. Provides a good overview of how colors are used in senior care facilities. https://www.sherwin-williams.com/architects-specifiers-designers/inspiration/styles-and-techniques/SW-ART-STIR-COLOR-ELDER
 Color by Numbers, Pamela Paul, 2002. Provides an excellent overview and statistics on how colors affect different age groups and ethnicities. http://adage.com/article/american-demographics/color-numbers/43815/
 Color Meanings & Symbolism in Art Therapy. Explores the meanings and symbolism of various colors. http://www.arttherapyblog.com/online/color-meanings-symbolism/#.WKRq4H9IjZt
 The Psychology of Colors and Their Meanings. Provides in-depth analysis of each color. http://www.colorpsychology.org/
 The Ultimate Guide To Using Color Psychology In Marketing. This is an excellent overview focused on marketing. http://coschedule.com/blog/color-psychology-marketing/
 Using Color as a Therapeutic Tool, Margaret P. Calkins, 2010 http://www.ideasinstitute.org/article_021103_b.asp
 Color Preferences of the Korean Elderly 2007. Provides detailed test data on color preferences of different elderly age groups when designing technology for seniors. https://www.sd.polyu.edu.hk/iasdr/proceeding/papers/Color%20preference%20of%20the%20Korean%20elderly.pdf
 Using Color Psychology to Attract Your Target Markets. Provides insight on how to use color when designing technology for seniors. http://www.empower-yourself-with-color-psychology.com/target-markets.html
 The Psychology of Color in Marketing and Branding, Gregory Ciotti , 2016. Explores how imprecise the science of color psychology is when applied to branding and marketing. https://www.helpscout.net/blog/psychology-of-color/
 Ongoing survey of color preferences across gender and age group being conducted by Scott Design Inc. Over 3200 data points as of March 2017. https://www.hotdesign.com/marketing/whats-your-favorite-color/
 Color preferences across gender and age group. Survey conducted by Joe Halcock in 2003. Approximately 232 data points. http://www.joehallock.com/edu/COM498/preferences.html
 Meanings of color and color symbolism for different cultures. http://www.empower-yourself-with-color-psychology.com/cultural-color.html