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"Kim, just wanted to say thanks for a fantastically informative site."

Paula Hanson


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Colored headlines - use any color as long as its black!

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

The way words are presented is almost as important as their content. In this series of articles we are investigating the impact of layout and typography on reader comprehension, and therefore on the effectiveness of printed publications. After all, there is no point in producing a striking design for a publication if readers have to make an effort to read and recall the words!

Today we examine the effect on reader comprehension of using color in headlines. Using colored text for headlines is appealing because color is a magnet to the eye and creates a feeling of excitement. This greater impact is why spot color is added to one-color print advertisements. Spot colors are individual solid colors used in printed material, usually for headlines. Spot color is also used as a special color in logos, eg Coca-Cola red, IBM blue, and McDonald’s red and yellow arches.

The use of color in headlines was important to Colin Wheildon, editor of Australia’s largest motoring publication. With one million readers, he wanted to ensure he was using the best design and typography to maximize reader comprehension, which is the ultimate test of a publication’s effectiveness. As the existing literature didn’t offer much practical insight, he pioneered his own hands-on research with a test group of 224 readers. 

As part of his research, Colin Wheildon tested the use of color in headlines to find out the impact of different colors. He found a paradox – to be valuable as an eye-catching device, a colored headline needs to be in a vibrant color, but this tends to disqualify it as an effective means of communication!

Bright-colored (high-intensity color) headlines attracted the eye of readers – but the headlines were hard to read. Sixty one percent of readers found the high-intensity colors most attractive, drawing their attention quickly to the text. However, 47% then found the headings hard to read and 64% found the color intruding while they were trying to read the text. (The paper used for all tests was matt, ie non-glossy.)

Research Results

Layout with black headlines

67% good comprehension

Layout using bright color headlines

17% good comprehension

Layout using dark color headlines

52% good comprehension


The key finding – the darker the headline, the greater the comprehension level. Black was found to be the most effective color for headlines. However, colored headlines can be a valuable feature if they are used sparingly for greater impact. Great care should be taken that the color does not get in the way of the message.

(Although Colin Wheildon’s original book is out of print, a new edition has been recently published and is available at under the title: Type & Layout: how typography and design can get your message across - or get in the way. Author Colin Wheildon, editor Mal Warwick.The Worsley Press, Publishers. Second edition, March 2005. Soft cover, 176 pages. Price: US$36.95. ISBN: 1875750223)


Next issue: the effectiveness of colored body text on white paper in printed publications


About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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