Graphic Design Discussion: How Color and Contrast Affect Readability

Reverse type. You see it all the time – light text on a dark background. Some designers use it to give variety to a page layout and others are looking to make their designs “pop”. But is reverse type a good design decision?

The question one should always ask when designing an ad, brochure, website or sign is “Will the user find this easy to read?” While you want people to notice your work, your goal is to have it read. To see it but not read it isn’t enough.

There has been a significant amount of research on inverted color schemes. A 1980 study from London found “dark characters on a light background are superior to light characters on a dark background… participants were 26% more accurate in reading text when they read it with dark characters on a light background.”

A study at Austin State University found “in every color combination surveyed, the darker text on a lighter background was rated more readable than its inverse (e.g. blue text on white background ranked higher than white text on blue background).”

Even advertising guru David Ogilvy, who did research in the 1970s, found that ads with black on white text had a three times higher response rate than ads with white on black text.

According to a 1989 study by the J Am Optom Assocation, 45% of the population has an astigmatism. This huge group finds it harder to read white text on black than black on white. That’s a lot of people who might not be able to read an ad, a webpage, a sign, because the designer did not consider readability.

And there are other factors. Consider reading something on your laptop or cellphone. If the user is in a bright room or outdoors, then white type on black background can become unreadable.

There are exceptions to every rule. Using light text on a dark background can help direct one’s attention to a single element, as in a single word heading, a title or a label. But as a general rule, if you want your copy to be read, make it easy for the reader to do so. Dark type on a light background is more likely to be read than light on dark.

If you need help designing an ad, brochure, website or sign, give Suzanne a call at 518.392.0846 or email [email protected].

2 thoughts on “Graphic Design Discussion: How Color and Contrast Affect Readability”

  1. Excellent column! I’m going to forward this to my cable company, which has made their station guide almost impossible to read by using a back background with (small) white print. Complaints from users, which started in June 2016, go unheeded. Very frustrating!
    Penny Van Amburg
    Tucson AZ, USA

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