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Paula Hanson


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How effective is printing colored text on white paper?

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Creative people like to explore alternatives to printing plain old black text on white paper. But does colored body text pass the ultimate test – do readers have a high rate of comprehension of the text?

Colin Wheildon, editor of the largest Australian motoring publication, wanted the answers to this because he knew that readership and reader comprehension levels would be affected. With one million readers, he wanted to maximize the effectiveness of his publication.

Wheildon set up a test in which text was printed in black and several colors on both matt and gloss white paper. The size of the headings and text were all standardized. Articles were presented to readers with six color variations of body text printed on white paper:

  • Text printed in black

  • PMS 259 (deep purple)

  • PMS 286 (French blue)

  • PMS 399 (muted olive green)

  • Warm red

  • Process blue (cyan)

When the text was printed in black, comprehension levels were similar to previous tests, ie good comprehension was achieved by around 70% of readers. (An interesting observation is that 70% comprehension of text seems to be the maximum possible level for any text of reasonable length.)

Readers reported that the colored text made the page look more attractive compared with black. However, paradoxically, reader comprehension of the content of the text suffered from the use of any color but black, as shown in the table:

Colored text printed on white paper Comprehension level
  Good Fair Poor
Text printed in black 70 19 11
Low intensity color (deep purple – PMS 259) 51 13 36
Medium intensity color (French blue – PMS 286) 29 22 49
Muted color (olive green – PMS399) 10 13 77
High intensity color (cyan or warm red) 10 9 81


Bright colors caused contrast problems and dark colors caused concentration problems. The lesson from this is to use black for printing all body text of reasonable length. Colored text could be used for highlight boxes and sidebars to emphasize certain parts of the message.

(Although Colin Wheildon’s original book, Communicating or just making pretty shapes, 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)


This article is one of a series on publication design and typography in

Next issue: effectivness of text printed on tinted backgrounds.

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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