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Is it worthwhile to print text on a tinted background?

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

It makes sense from a design perspective to vary the traditional black print on a white page to create more interest for readers. Colored backgrounds would be more attractive to the eye. But what about the impact of colored backgrounds on readability and comprehension? These factors are more important than an attractive design.

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 publication.

No research had ever been conducted on this topic – people had merely relied on their intuition – so Wheildon set up a pioneering series of tests to find out the truth. Six separate series of tests were conducted, using black text printed on process blue tints; PMS 259 printed on its tints; PMS 286 on its tints; process blue on its tints; black on tints of olive green (PMS 399) and PMS 399 on its tints.

Readers were given samples with text printed on tints of 10% of the base color, and increased in strength in increments of 10%.

Results of the tint tests

Color combination Comprehension level
Good Fair Poor
Black on cyan tint
(process blue)
10 68 24 8
20 56 21 23
30 38 19 43
40 22 12 66
PMS 259 on tint
10 50 14 36
20 32 10 58
PMS 286 on tint
(royal blue)
10 27 16 57
20 12 10 78
Black on PMS 399 tint
10 68 26 6
20 53 21 26
30 32 19 49
40 22 13 65
Black on white 0 70 19 11
Black on grey 10 63 22 15
Black on grey 20 33 18 49
Black on grey 30 3 10 87


The inference to be drawn from these results is that black is the most effective color for body text and that reader comprehension is high when white or a light tint is used as a background to the black text.

Reader comprehension becomes poorer as the tint is darkened. There needs to be a good amount of contrast between the intensity of the text and the background color.

Black text on white background gives the best results (boring, but hard to escape this fact!). Black text on a light tint also gives a very good result – readers reported they liked the attractiveness of black on a 10% tint of cyan and also black on a 10% tint of olive green. Black on light grey (10% of black) provided a good result as well.

However, printing colors on their own tints makes the text extremely hard to read because there is not enough contrast between the text and the background color. Black is an exception to this.

You ignore the above information at your peril. For instance, printing on a 20% tint instead of a light (10%) tint cuts reader comprehension by at least 20% in one stroke. It’s like throwing away one fifth of the copies of your publication!.

(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

Next issue: How effective is printing text in reverse type?


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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