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Enliven and Explain with Color, Part I

Posted on Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 10:51 AM

Using color to convey your message.

By Jan V. White

Your message must be noticed immediately and understood clearly. Design is not namby-pamby vaporware. It is as fundamental to effective communication as the words themselves. Just as the voice and body language of a speaker affect the way the message is received, so does the graphic surrogate for voice and body language, i.e., "design." They must speak the same language, which is simultaneously verbal as well as visual. The two are inextricable. Form and content are one.

Given the mass of information we're deluged by, the effective piece must prove its worthiness at first glance:

--what it is about.
--what's in it for the individual recipient.
--why he/she should bother to pay attention.
(BTW: This is where "tone of voice" comes in: visual shouting represents audible shouting).

To emphasize the worthwhile, material requires:

--an intellectual decision -- which great stuff deserves emphasis.
--a visual decision -- how to display it so it pops out.
(BTW: This is how the reluctant scanners are persuaded to read).

I've been in our beloved profession for nigh on half a century and have battled all these vested interests who argue, "We've always done it that way," "Leave it alone," "That's what they expect," "I like it this way." Trouble is that so many verbal people don't realize how much better their piece could be, and how much more responsive their targets could be, if they could only imagine how to handle their material better. It isn't brain surgery but plain common sense. Trust me.

Consider Color

It is merely a newspeg on which your story's improvement can be hung. It is a component of vibrant communication. Its prettiness and glamor can be used to open doors. Open doors to what? Delivering a bigger bang for the buck. Forget prettiness. Aesthetics as such are indeed namby-pamby. To be effective, concentrate on clarity.

Color is enrichment. Of course. It can be dazzling, but eye candy isn't enough. "What's in it for me?" asks the potential disinterested viewer. Use common sense.

Color's usefulness may be statistically quantifiable. Nonsense. Brightness, contrast, size, and position are just a few factors besides hue. Even focus groups can't be sure that it reduces errors by X% or increases recognition by Y%. Forget it. Use common sense.

Color looks good. Sure, it can. In the eye of the beholder. It is a hard-to-define will o' the wisp emotional response that you can't argue about or prove. Use common sense.

Colors have symbolic meaning. Purple is regal in Western culture. Red is hot. Blue is dignified. Other cultures have other meanings. So what? Use common sense.

Color is a newspeg on which the story's precision can be hung. Absolutely. It is a component of vibrant communication. Its prettiness and glamor can be used to open doors to deliver a bigger bang for the buck. Now you're talking.

Color must engage the mind of the beholder. Right! It isn't a response to "niceness" but rather to curiosity. It induces the reader to delve more deeply into the piece.

Color is a working raw material. Precisely! That's all this exhortation is about. It is a raw material that must be blended with astute page design to draw the reader's attention to the significance of the material. The overriding (obvious) fact is that color is different from the normal black. Once you realize that value, you can control it to your purpose.

Always define working color by asking:

--Why do you want to put color there?
--What is its purpose in your piece?
--What do you want it to do for you?

More to Come

Next issue I'll show you 20 services that color can do for you, and offer 20 practical tips to use color correctly.

Jan V. White is author of the classic Editing by Design, Third Edition (Allworth Press, available on Amazon). Eight of his other books are now in the public domain and available for free at http://openlibrary.org/books. He may be reached at janvw2@aol.com.

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