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How effective is printing colored text on white paper?

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 in articles was printed in black and several colors on both matt and gloss white paper. The size of the headings and text were all standardized.

Image: 5 examples of colored text set on a white background. Difficult to reproduce on a computer screen the actual appearance of the colors when printed on white paper, but at least they do give an idea of the effect of different colors.

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 in the articles 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 levels %

Text printed in black  Good 70, Fair 19, Poor 11
Low intensity color (deep purple – PMS 259) Good 51, Fair 13, Poor 36
Medium intensity color (French blue – PMS 286) Good 29, Fair 22, Poor 49
Muted color (olive green – PMS399) Good 10, Fair 13, Poor 77
High intensity color (cyan or warm red) Good 10, Fair 9, Poor 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, short introduction text and sidebars to emphasize certain parts of the message.

(Although Colin Wheildon’s original book is out of print, a more recent version is available under the title: Type & Layout: are you communicating or just making pretty shapes? Author Colin Wheildon, publisher The Worsley Press, Melbourne, Australia, 2007.)

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