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Enliven and Explain with Color, Part II

Posted on Sunday, June 29, 2014 at 10:40 PM

40 practical tips to help in your use of color.

By Jan V. White

Last issue we explored using color to convey your message. Now here are 20 concrete ways it can help and 20 tips for using it cleverly.

20 Services That Color Can Do for You

1. Prioritize and create hierarchy. The more important an item is, the more startling and noticeable it deserves to be.

2. Draw attention to whatever is important, but use it with deliberation. It is special, so less is only more when there is less of it.

3. Pop up variable data of particular interest to recipients. Everyone is flattered to have themselves mentioned.

4. Make the bottom line stand out. Let the expiration date, safety warning, and other such useful items hard to miss.

5. Split off and emphasize parts of the text, such as the summary of positive results or highlights of benefits or advantages.

6. Pinpoint the main feature in text or graphics, such as data that exceed the norm or the profit and loss of the bottom line.

7. Separate specifics from background context, such as an insurance policy or back-ordered items from a parts list.

8. Alert viewers to unexpected data such as bank overdrafts or values that exceed specified tolerances.

9. Compare two or three sets of data. Red ink might mean French and blue might mean English, or this year's softball team results compared to last year's.

10. Distinguish old results from fresh ones, such as changes of procedure or alterations in specifications.

11. Link related things to each other, like the red titles with red key paragraphs, blue name with blue quotes, orange for cause with orange for effect.

12. Categorize and classify ranking, such as shortfalls in red (bad for stop) versus exceeding expectations in green (good for go).

13. Characterize information by color, putting parallel information in one color, or footnotes and sidebars in another.

14. Simplify tabulation with colors to make complexity easier to scan and understand.

15. Evoke an element realistically or an idea symbolically. Naturalistic look-alikes are simple, symbolic more difficult.

16. Indicate statistical or qualitative differences by tonal gradation: heights on maps, areas of temperatures, degrees of intensity.

17. Categorize and simplify intricate technicalities like separating plumbing from wiring in an architectural plan.

18. Separate document-oriented material from editorial substance. Put page numbers, headers, footers, cross-refs, and commands in color to contrast them from text.

19. Develop a color vocabulary to make a series of publications uniquely recognizable: red for signaling warnings, green for positive attributes. Whatever.

20. Identify special elements such as openers, summaries, indexes, self-tests. They'll be easier to recognize and access.

20 Practical Tips to Use Color Cleverly

1. Don't make fruit salad. Control color deliberately. Less is more.

2. Hue (redness, blueness, greenness) is less important than value (darkness/lightness) or saturation (intensity, brightness).

3. Hue makes a color recognizable. Value makes it stand out against the background. Saturation gives brilliance or dullness.

4. Colors that go together are hard to pick. Swipe arrangements you like from color-books.

5. Use brilliant colors in small spots, pale and quiet ones for large areas.

6. Pick pale background colors first, then add brighter accents.

7. Use vivid colors for important points, dull ones for secondary meaning.

8. Familiar colors (blue sky, green land, sand, purple wine) are easily understood.

9. Use only two colors plus black, if they are to be remembered to mean anything throughout a whole publication.

10. Use only four colors to avoid repeating color keys.

11. Strong saturated yellows and oranges play things up. Reds appear closer to you.

12. Shy, pale cool blues are recessive, appear farther away.

13. To make a large area look smaller, color it dark and quiet.

14. To make a small area look larger, color it in a light, pale color.

15. For a coherent look, use consistent pale hue as a unifying material.

16. Duplicate color with shape (e.g., a fat red line in a graph) for impact.

17. Never run a black-and-white picture in color. It looks washed-out.

18. Never run a black-and-white picture with a tint over it. It looks dull.

19. Always match "second" colors with four-color pictures. They increase power.

20. Run type in color with special care:
--Pick a simple sans serif face.
--Avoid condensed, oblique, weird, peculiar faces.
--Increase type size, weight, line spacing, and shorten the lines.
--Avoid too many all-caps.
--Set ragged right to ensure normal word spacing.
--Keep type normal -- let the color itself do the shouting.
--The darker the hue, the better the legibility.
--Never screen type smaller than 18pt.
--Never use a mottled color tone as a background for type.
--Reversing type from a color background seriously decreases legibility.

PS 1: Basic insight: Color is paler than black. Therefore, heads in color don't stand out as strongly as black ones, which is the unthinking assumption. Instead of the usual cliché practice, allow the key words to shout in black, while the surrounding words are colorful.

PS 2: Basic insight: For type in color on a colored background, ensure visibility by having a 30% difference in the tone values of the two colors. This sounds a bit esoteric. Simpler: make sure that the type-in-color is dark enough to stand out against the background color.

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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