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Functional Color as an Editorial Tool

Posted on Monday, October 31, 2011 at 10:39 AM

Color is thought to make pages pretty. Using it only as superficial cosmetic wastes its power. It is not an artistic material, but an editorial tool whose logical application is controlled by the editor. Color makes information clear, lucid, fast.

By Jan V. White

One of the myths of publishing is that "readers" are readers. They start out as viewers. Searchers who flip, scan, hunt and peck, looking for the nuggets they want. In a hurry, saturated with "information," and perhaps a bit lazy, they need to be lured into reading. "Persuaded" might be a better word, because luring implies bamboozling, and duplicity has no place in publishing. The least trace of trickery is self-defeating, because it destroys the potential reader's trust. Persuasion that is credible exposes the valuable content. Making value accessible makes the publication useful and liked. Combining accessibility (i.e., making things easy to find) with speed (i.e., at first glance) makes the publication a useful, dependable tool.

Where do people begin reading?

Rarely at the beginning. Usually where something catches their interest. If there is a picture, the first thing they look at is the image. A caption, a word, a phrase, a concept, even a title can catch their eye and fascinate them into paying attention. The trick is to find the valuable highlights that you know will be helpful to your audience and deliberately display them. That is how to make publications helpful and, thus, irresistible.

Don't ever use design to create prettiness; create only usefulness. Readers want information fast and clear. I know I am repeating myself here. But the best way to generate enthusiasm is to make your product easy to slip into, easy to understand and absorb. Make it clear and simple, and display its usefulness at first glance. This kind of design is not "art," but clever, canny editing. Publication design is an integral arm of editing that helps the editor choose, stress, shout, whisper, point out, expose, explain, and guide the viewer. Let the content dictate the form. Page design is not an artform but a lubricant for ideas.

There are no formulas, nor is there any such thing as "right" or "wrong," "correct" or "incorrect." Yes, it is confusing and scary, especially if, like many word-people, you have little expertise in designing. Alas, axioms masquerade as revealed truths. Pat answers are an easy substitute for analytical thought. Throw out received wisdom. Instead, look at your product through the eyes of the aforementioned searchers. Determine what they need and whether the design works for them. If it works, it is "correct" even if it is ugly. If it doesn't, then it is "wrong"-even if it looks gorgeous.

Making things "pleasing to the eye" is a vague will o' the wisp of false expectations. Don't obfuscate the clarity and thus the utility of the piece. Visual blandishments can become an obstacle between the reader and the message. Design misapplied as page decoration is not only misleading, it is destructive. The medium can steal the message -- but the message, and only the message, can ever be the message.

Color helps or hinders

Unfortunately, color is so beset with silly misunderstandings and imagined magic that it can become the editor's worst temptation. It is such an alluring material -- cheerful, different, such fun. Look around at all that stuff bubbling with visual excitement. What an opportunity to be creative! That kind of thinking is a trap. The serious publication has no place for evanescent trendiness. Besides, today's readers are so inundated with visual excess that color is old hat and flashiness carries little attraction anymore.

Less is more, but there are no rules, and each editor stands alone in judgment. Is red better than blue? It depends on what you are trying to do. Should the background be in color and the foreground in black, or should the background be in black and the foreground picked out in color? It depends on what you are trying to do. Everything always depends on what you are trying to do. Color, like everything else, should never be based on subjective "liking" but always on fulfilling specific needs and purposes. (Incidentally, it is immaterial whether the editor or a professional designer is doing the design. The judgment and final responsibility falls on the editor.)

What colors can do

1. Focus attention
Color is different from black. Because most of the surroundings are usually black-and-white, anything that departs from the expected attracts attention to itself. Is that element worthy of the allure color gives it? Why are headings often colored? They are already different because of their size and blackness. What quality does color add? Perhaps it might add value if you-

2. Understand color-keyed associations
If headings in color show that they are a subset in ranking, quality, subject, or grouping, then their color is a mark of differentiation. They remain headings, but color makes them special. But this recognition only works if you-

3. Establish consistent identity
Apples are sorted by color at first glance: golden delicious, red delicious, granny smith. . . Headlines can't be sorted out by red, blue, and green just for visual exuberance. This would merely confuse. Establish logical consistency. (Incidentally, black plus three colors is the maximum that most people can remember as distinguishing characteristics for purposes of sorting, unless you provide a frequently repeated color key as a reminder.)

4. Rank value by visual identification
Everyone understands that bold type screams and tiny type whispers. It ranks information and attracts attention. Color has a parallel: some hues jump off the page while others hide. It is not just a question of brightness ("chroma"). Proportions and relationships to surroundings create the effect of color. A huge blob of bright color repels because it is so loud. A small spot of the identical hue may be just right. A tiny dab of a wan color may not be noticed at all, whereas in a large area it may be perfect as identifying background for a box. Become aware of the comparative degrees of urgency your colors create, and apply them in such a way that the viewer is guided by them to understanding the information in the appropriate sequence.

5. Clarify the structure
Break long pieces into segments so that they become less daunting. Use color to subdivide. Print the glossary on blue stock, the index on green, and the introduction on yellow. What is now left looks less user-unfriendly. Then give chapter openers all a full spread and run red full bleed all around. When the document is held in the hand, the slivers of red are visible on the outer edge. Insist on color on the edges of both left-hand and right-hand pages so they are noticeable in both directions.

6. Control color's connotation
Cultural associations are based on common sense and knowing the culture of the demographic segment you are reaching. Bananas are yellow, but when flecked with brown they are ripening, but all-brown bananas are over-ripe, while black are rotten. A pale-green banana is unripe, a blue one frozen. A purple banana is a child's version of bananahood. A silver banana is inedible because it is a piece of sculpture, while a polka-dotted one is a joke. A red banana is not a banana but a plantain. Use the color that tells the right story. Don't pick dollar numbers in red to avoid "being in the red." Green also means "go," amber "caution," red "stop." Beware when picking a hue just because you like it.

7. Fit into the corporate idiom
High-priced designers originally intended the palette to create a marketing and advertising identity. Then it was extended to signage, then vehicles, and then someone remembered print. It is senseless to rail against such restrictions. In the practical world, it is far better to accept them and work within them.

8. Give order to information chaos
Does color explain relationships by the way segments relate to one to another? Does it analyze data visually so they are obvious to the casual looker? Does it make lookers interested, involved, and perhaps even compel them to start reading? Does it help them to understand the information? Does it enliven the atmosphere of the product while making the information clearer? Does color add intellectual value?


The first and most obvious reaction when looking at a page is whether it is pretty or not, irrespective of whether it works. Color is too often used for cosmetic purposes. Avoid that trap. Use color to make the ideas on the pages clear, regardless of its prettiness. If you apply color functionally, you will discover to your amazement that it is visually satisfying and perhaps even beautiful. If you pursue clarity, you will find that beauty is a welcome byproduct.

Now that you've found the answer, standardize it, because repetition gives clues to viewers. They learn to react to the elements you are presenting. Repetition also helps create personality for your product, a vital characteristic in the marketplace. So don't embroider or make changes for the fun of it because you fear the viewers will get bored. They won't, because they don't live with your product as long as you do. Most important, don't show off or be original for the sake of being original. On the contrary, guard your precious system carefully against erosion or dilution. None of this is designing for art's sake.

You need not be afraid of color. All it does is to exploit the capacity of design to help the user. As such, it is an integral part of editing for the reader -- the purpose of our profession.

Color used functionally to discern


In the above example, the red color makes the ten-ness pop out. If ten-ness is what you want emphasized, fine! But does the essence of hot-doggery lie in ten-ness? Nine might be just as good, though more is often better, so perhaps a dozen might be more impressive. Ten-ness is significant when compared to other tens, like Commandments, the ten best-dressed, ten fingers, the ten whatevers. Yes, it does look dramatic and striking. The question is not whether it looks better, but in what it leads the viewer to understand. But here, the color is applied to the wrong thing.

Color is so much more fun to look at! Doesn't the above look endearing and as cute as a kid's book? When did you last see a tabulated list of elements handled in such a cool way? But we could take it further. How about setting each line in a different typeface as well as in a different color? Now wouldn't that be creative? Oh, but could we get away with it? Nobody has ever done it before, so it would certainly make people notice!

Is that all we want and need? Does it matter that the form outshouts its message? This format is cute, but meaningless.

Here, we have the same words as the two earlier examples - just a list of characteristics of hot-doggery, but here color is used to emphasize the characteristics of hot dogs. The list of attributes in red is faster to scan (because the repeated words of each line can be skipped), so the less-than-interested reader may be hooked. It is more persuasive, because it concentrates on service; we've done the thinking for them. The reader/viewer will appreciate its obvious usefulness and therefore will "like" our product better. Celebration in Publisherland! In this illustration, color helps to reveal the point.

Color used functionally to interpret

This silly text is written as a straightforward report under a normal title. When it is finished, the question of color comes up: Where can we add it? But it is too late to make functional use of color. It can only be used to dress up the piece, usually by running the title in color -- adding nothing to understanding, emphasis, or interpretation. Blueness might as well not be there at all, for all the good it does.

The wording above is identical to the first example, but the key words denoting the benefits have been emphasized. This is better than the monotonous, monochromatic version, but it is still hard to scan, and there is a lot of reading to be done. The visual salesmanship is not as hard-hitting as the verbal salesmanship of the text. But the blue does link the headline to the emphasized words.

This text has been rewritten to allow the six key benefits to be presented as parallel constructions, each as a separate paragraph. Blue helps the eye to find the items, aids the mind to recognize the parallel listing, and clearly ties the benefits to the headline. The verbal and visual implications reinforce one another. It would be better if a sliver of white space were inserted between the items.

Here the benefits are exposed as hanging indents, giving them maximal noticeability. The visual pattern makes the most of the verbal repetition. Writing, layout, and color have been blended to show off the "what's in it for me" factor using that magic word, "you." Dramatically deep indenting uses up more space, but since this version receives highest readership, that additional space is a good investment.

Jan White lectures worldwide on the relationship of editing to design. He tries to persuade word people to think visually and visual people to think verbally. He is the author of Editing by Design, 3rd Ed, and a dozen books on publishing techniques. Contact him at janvw2@aol.com.

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