I like to ponder what makes print designs work, and legibility tops my list. Printing techniques can contribute greatly to their success, but there are many other factors to consider in creating designs that communicate as intended.

Color perception, value, and contrast are key. You can use small type and low-contrast color combinations for an audience of 18- to 30-year-olds, but if your target audience is 40 to 65 (and there are a lot of us!), different choices are in order.

Color perception, or which of these colors is red?

As Josef Albers pointed out, color perception is subjective and individual. What color is red, anyway? How does a color change in juxtaposition to another? In art school, I spent a quarter coloring and cutting out little squares of paper and creating color studies from them. It was tedious, but I learned a great deal about color perception.

Color perception is cultural. A fascinating 2004 global color study done by Cheskin with MSI-ITM and CMCD Visual Symbols Library, tells about the world’s favorite color (it’s blue), what yellow means in different countries, and more. It also explains how to avoid communicating something unintentional with color selections for specific countries.

Color perception is physiological. According to Lighthouse International, “The ability to read and perceive color changes with partial sight, aging and congenital color deficits.”

High vs. low value combinations

Lighthouse has published guidelines for making text legible that offer many suggestions for improving accessibility of type-oriented communications.

Value, the relative darkness or lightness of a color, plays a big role in legibility. It’s easy to see the progression of values from darkest to lightest in the gray-scale tint chart below:


Notice how a low-contrast combination like 40% tint type on a 60% background is harder to read than large-contrast combination like an 80% tint on a 20% tint background.

Fake biz card

The most common “information error” I encounter as a production manager is the use of teensy, low-contrast type, as in this fake business card example. Warm Gray 7 is a lovely color, but when combined with 7-point Helvetica Neue Light, it makes anyone older than 40 squint and grumble!

Mid-range value images that incorporate type can be challenging to work with, too:


High vs. low contrast color combinations

Lighthouse International has also published guidelines for creating effective color contrast. This guide covers some obvious and not-so-obvious adjustments designers can make to help all kinds of viewers/readers get their message. Reviewing these considerations can help designers make informed choices when selecting colors for type and backgrounds.

Contrast in this context is the degree of difference between colors. The Lighthouse article goes into detail about how to choose the most easily perceived color combinations. The diagram below shows both color contrast and tint values. Notice which combinations of type and background are the most legible and have the most contrast:


Knowing color theory can be helpful. For example, colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel, such as red type on a green background, will vibrate, especially at 100% green + 100% red. Colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel, such as blue + green, will read as low contrast.

There’s more, of course.

Color perception, value and contrast in combining colors are just a few of the factors designers consider. I never cease to be amazed at how talented graphic designers experiment with the contrast of the ink color with the background, combined with the subtleties of type size, type shape, type weight, and tracking (how close the letters are to each other) to achieve both legibility and style.

Do you have other thoughts about making design more accessible and communicative? If so, please comment below.

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