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Discover the impact of reverse type on reader comprehension

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Reverse type is used by graphic designers to improve the design of a printed page. They love using it in glossy, multi-color magazines, brochures and annual reports. But what impact does reverse type have on reader comprehension? This is the crucial issue. It is absolutely pointless designing an attractive looking page that is hard to read. 

Colin Wheildon, editor of the largest Australian motoring publication, wanted the answers to this because he knew that a nice layout means nothing if readers have to work hard to read the words and afterwards can’t remember what the message was about. With one million readers, he wanted to maximize the effectiveness of his words.

Advertising guru, David Ogilvy, said that advertising copy should never be set in reverse type. Colin Wheildon set out to test this maxim. Here are Wheildon’s results for serif type printed in reverse compared with the same text printed black on white:

Color combination Comprehension level
  Good % Fair % Poor %
Text printed black on white 70 19 11
Text printed white on black 0 12 88
Text printed white on PMS 259 (purple) 2 16 82
Text printed white on PMS 286 (royal blue) 0 4 96


Reader comprehension for black text printed on white paper was exactly the same as in previous tests, ie 70% of readers had good comprehension. (This figure seems to be the ceiling for good comprehension of any text.)

However, all three versions of white text on a colored background produced horrendous reader comprehension! Readers complained of experiencing a form of light vibration, which seemed to make the lines of type move and merge into one another.

Some people say that reversing is only problematic if serif type is used. The argument is that the fine strokes and serifs tend to disappear when the text is reversed because it is extremely difficult to line up printing plates exactly when screens of colors are used and because printer’s ink tends to fill in spaces a little on paper (depending on the quality of the paper). Under this assumption, reader comprehension of sans serif text should improve.

To test this hypothesis, Wheildon prepared the same articles set in 10 point Univers, a common sans serif typeface similar to Arial. With the text printed black on white, comprehension levels were comparable with previous tests of serif versus sans serif body type, ie good comprehension of the sans serif type was 14%, fair comprehension was 25% and poor comprehension was 61%.

These results were bad enough, but when he tested reverse type in sans serif, the results were even worse! Good comprehension plunged to 4%, fair comprehension was 13% and poor comprehension rose to 83%.

The big lesson is that for any reasonable expanse of body text, reverse type has a disastrous impact on reader comprehension, even if though it may look attractive in design terms.

(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 the "Core PR skills" area of


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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