The Impact of Colored Headlines on Reader Comprehension

Innovative design features like colored headlines make printed publications more attractive visually. But do such features improve reader comprehension and recall – which are the key measures to consider? After all, there is no point in introducing nice design features if readers can’t understand the information presented. So how can we find the answer?

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.

Hands-on research

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% of total readers 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 printed in large-sized fonts and 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 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.)

Image: Sample black headline from page 73 in the book, Business & Society, by Carroll and Buchholtz, 2012.

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