colorBlack is still best

In ty­pog­ra­phy, color is a term with two meanings.

First, ty­pog­ra­phers will some­times speak of a font as cre­at­ing a cer­tain color on the page—even when it’s black. Used this way, the word en­cap­su­lates a set of hard-to-quan­tify char­ac­ter­is­tics like dark­ness, con­trast, rhythm, and texture.

The sec­ond mean­ing is the usual one—color as the op­po­site of black & white. This was once an ir­rel­e­vant topic, as most of us had to be sat­is­fied with mono­chrome laser print­ers. These days, color print­ers are ubiq­ui­tous and more writ­ing is de­liv­ered on screen. So color has be­come a prac­ti­cal consideration.

  1. In a page of text, noth­ing draws the eye more pow­er­fully than a con­trast be­tween light and dark col­ors. This is why a bold font cre­ates more em­pha­sis than an italic font. (See also bold or italic.)

  2. The per­ceived in­ten­sity of col­ored type de­pends not just on the color, but also the size and weight of the font. So a thin or small font can take a more in­tense color than a heavy or large font.

  3. I’m not say­ing it can never be done well. But when some­one puts col­ored type on a col­ored back­ground, I usu­ally wish they hadn’t.

in print

body text in printed doc­u­ments (e.g., résumés, re­search pa­pers, let­ters) must al­ways be set in black type. No exceptions.

At typ­i­cal body-text sizes, color isn’t ef­fec­tive as a form of em­pha­sis. Let­ter­forms don’t cover much sur­face area on the page, so col­ored text isn’t no­ticed un­less it’s loud.

Pro­fes­sion­ally printed doc­u­ments (e.g., let­ter­head, busi­ness cards) can in­clude text set in color, but use it ju­di­ciously. Mul­ti­ple shades of one color are usu­ally bet­ter than mul­ti­ple con­trast­ing colors.

In laser-printed doc­u­ments, avoid white text on a dark back­ground, known as knock­out type. Knock­out type uses about 20 times more toner than reg­u­lar text, mak­ing it a very ex­pen­sive ef­fect on an of­fice printer.

on the web

The horse may be long out of the barn on this one, but on the web, the same rule of re­straint ap­plies: less color is more ef­fec­tive. When every­thing is em­pha­sized, noth­ing is emphasized.

But con­sider mak­ing body text on screen dark gray rather than black. Screens have more se­vere con­trast than pa­per, and thus are more tir­ing to read at full con­trast. This is be­cause screens pro­duce color by emit­ting light di­rectly, whereas pa­per pro­duces color by ab­sorb­ing and re­flect­ing am­bi­ent light.

Color re­mains the id­iomatic way to de­note click­a­bil­ity on the web. So feel free to use color (with or with­out un­der­lin­ing) for hy­per­links. But be care­ful us­ing it on non-click­able text, as it may con­fuse readers.

in PDFs

PDFs are read on both screen and pa­per, so which set of rules you fol­low de­pends on how you ex­pect the PDF to be used. If there’s a rea­son­able chance the PDF will be printed, don’t bother with dark-gray body text—it’ll look gritty and strange when printed.

Color in pre­sen­ta­tions is cov­ered in that section.

by the way
  • The hu­man eye can more eas­ily dis­tin­guish light col­ors than dark. This is why a paint store will have 50 shades of white and only two shades of black. So if you’re us­ing light col­ors, make gen­tle ad­just­ments; dark col­ors need big­ger adjustments.

  • Litur­gi­cal rubrics are so named be­cause they were orig­i­nally printed in red. Red has been the fa­vored sec­ond color in ty­pog­ra­phy for hun­dreds of years. To get the most vi­brant-look­ing red, use an old printer’s trick—make it slightly orange.

  • Color on a printed page is made by two tech­niques. With spot color, one ink is used to make the color. With process color, four inks are com­bined (cyan, ma­genta, yel­low, and black).

    Spot color is tra­di­tion­ally pre­ferred for projects that in­volve one or two col­ors, like let­ter­head and busi­ness cards. Spot color pro­duces the most pure and sat­u­rated col­ors. It also per­mits spe­cial ink ef­fects (e.g., flu­o­res­cents, metallics, varnishes).

    Process color is used for print­ing color pho­tographs and other con­tin­u­ous-tone im­ages (jobs for which spot color is in­ef­fec­tive). Process color used to be an ex­pen­sive tech­nique, mostly re­stricted to com­mer­cial mag­a­zines and cat­a­logs. But In­ter­net print­ing ser­vices like MOO and have made process color avail­able to anyone.

    So why not print every­thing in process color? The prob­lem is that process color works by lay­er­ing mul­ti­ple col­ors, and chang­ing the bal­ance of those col­ors by ap­ply­ing a halftone pat­tern to each. The halftone pat­tern isn’t vis­i­ble in color pho­tographs. But it’s vis­i­ble in type, be­cause it’s a solid color. Halftone pat­terns also cre­ate a gritty edge on small text, which af­fects leg­i­bil­ity. There­fore, process color isn’t ideal for let­ter­head or busi­ness cards.

  • Pro de­sign­ers some­times un­fairly ma­lign gra­di­ent fills as a sig­ni­fier of am­a­teur de­sign. As with any de­sign tool, they can be used well—or poorly. In the phys­i­cal world, most of the color we see is es­sen­tially a gra­di­ent, be­cause any di­rec­tional light cre­ates a change in bright­ness. So with type, a back­ground gra­di­ent that gen­tly changes bright­ness can give a nat­u­ral­is­tic sense of light and dimensionality.

  • In a pre­vi­ous era, web de­sign­ers were en­cour­aged to con­fine them­selves to a palette of web-safe col­ors. These col­ors weresafe” in the sense that 8-bit mon­i­tors could pro­duce them with­out dither­ing. But that era, and those mon­i­tors, are long gone. To­day, every color is safe.