The Effect of Reverse Type on Reader Comprehension: A Crucial Analysis

Reverse type is used by graphic designers to improve the design of a printed page. They love using it for expanses of text in glossy 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 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.

Image: Examples of reverse type

Dramatic results!

Here are Wheildon’s results for serif type printed in reverse compared with the same text printed black on white:

Color combination – comprehension level

  • Text printed black on white: Good 70%, Fair 19%, Poor 11%
  • Text printed white on black: Good 0%, Fair 12%, Poor 88%
  • Text printed white on PMS 259 (purple): Good 2%, Fair 16%, Poor 82%
  • Text printed white on PMS 286 (royal blue): Good 0%, Fair 4%, Poor 96%.

Reader comprehension for black text printed on white paper was exactly the same as 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 printed 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 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.

However, the problem still exists with blocks of sans serif typeface comprising white type reversed against a light background. An example is the Nike ‘About Us’ page, above. Another example is the cover of a famous autobiographical book, Becoming Michelle Obama. As you can see, her name is not shown clearly against the selected light-colored background of clothing. But as the typeface is a very bold sans serif, the publisher gets away with this combination of colors.

Terrible reverse sans serif test results

To test this hypothesis, Wheildon prepared the same printed articles set in 10 point Univers, a common sans serif typeface similar to Ariel. 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

White reverse type has a disastrous impact on reader comprehension for any reasonable expanse of body text in printed material, even if though it may look attractive in design terms. So don’t let the designers destroy reader comprehension! A print layout that looks pretty is totally useless if only 4% of readers understand the body text. It is essential for readers to understand the content. Only then can they understand the information, and form opinions and any actions they want to take from reading it.

(Nevertheless, white reverse type can still be useful in large type and in the design of small areas such as sidebars and highlights, as long as there is enough contrast between the white and the color of the background text.)

(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.)

Top photo: This example of reverse type used in Nike’s ‘About Us’ page shows how care should be taken to ensure the background is sufficiently dark to clearly contrast with the white typeface. Plus, this is terrible use of typography. A blunt all-capitals heading of 10 words spread over 4 lines is clumsy, to say the least, and has poor readability, which in turn leads to poor comprehension by readers.

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