Is it worthwhile to print text on a tinted background?
It makes sense from a design perspective to vary the traditional black print on a white page to create more visual interest. 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 and comprehension level %
Black on cyan tint (process blue)
- 10 % tint: Good 68, Fair 24, Poor 8
- 20% tint: Good 56, Fair 21, Poor 23
- 30% tint: Good 38, Fair 19, Poor 43
- 40% tint: Good 22, Fair 12, Poor 66
PMS 259 purple on purple tint
- 10% tint: Good 50, Fair 14, Poor 36
- 20% tint: Good 32, Fair 10, Poor 58
PMS 286 royal blue on royal blue tint
- 10% tint: Good 27, Fair 16, Poor 57
- 20% tint: Good 12, Fair 10, Poor 78
Cyan on cyan tint (process blue)
- 10% tint: Good 6, Fair 7, Poor 87
- 20% tint: Good 0, Fair 2, Poor 98
Black on PMS 399 tint (olive)
- 10% tint: Good 68, Fair 26, Poor 6
- 20% tint: Good 53, Fair 21, Poor 26
- 30% tint: Good 32, Fair 19, Poor 49
- 40% tint: Good 22, Fair 13, Poor 65
PMS 399 on PMS 399 tint (olive)
- 10% tint: Good 8, Fair 8, Poor 84
- 20% tint: Good 2, Fair 6, Poor 92
- 30% tint: Good 0, Fair 3, Poor 97
Black on white
- 0% tint: Good 70, Fair 19, Poor 11
Black on grey
- 10% tint: Good 63, Fair 22, Poor 15
- 20% tint: Good 33, Fair 18, Poor 49
- 30% tint: Good 3, Fair 10, Poor 87
Reader comprehension results
Interpretation of 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 can 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 is out of print, his latest 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.)