Re: typeface colors and contrast: how light is too light?

Subject: Re: typeface colors and contrast: how light is too light?
From: Ned Bedinger <doc -at- edwordsmith -dot- com>
To: Pamela Denchfield <PamelaD -at- onyx -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 23 May 2008 14:54:25 -0700

Pamela Denchfield wrote:
> Our group was asked to apply a corporate color palette
> to the headings in an .html readme template. The darkest
> color uses the RGB Values of R 65, G 97, B 119.

This color is blue-black, i.e., primary blue shaded with a lot of black.

> This and the other available colors appear to my eyes to
> have less than "conventional" amounts of contrast on
> white backgrounds, but maybe that's just me.

The heavy black component of the dark color
contrasts with white, but not with the other
colors, right?

> (I can read it easily, but I wonder what the norm is.)

Norm? Haha. Your mind knows things that make typical normative
considerations seem pale in comparison. A recent Scientific American
special edition on Optical Illusions has an image demonstrating how we
perceive one shade of gray, in one image, as both black and white.
Anyway, factors of luminence and contrast, as well as color selection,
are bound to be in play in your question. I'm not the SME you're looking
for. But I think it safe to say that crafting a color scheme for good
readability can or may involve more cognitive skills than tech writers
have on tap.

Some of it can be worked with intuitive awareness (using my favorite
colors) instead of calling on design theory or color analysis, but color
attributes alone (hue, tint, tone, shade, saturation, luminence, output
device characteristics, ...) are only one part of the range of
considerations that professional designers bring into play. If you need
help, you might be able to find a local design shop with someone willing
to spend a couple of hours consulting with you about your concerns.

>
> Where can I find out about ideal contrast levels for type? How light is too light?

That's a very specialized question! I wish I knew the answer, but I'm
not much of an expert after all. Still, that won't prevent me from
eventually framing that subject matter in the much wider fields of art
and psychology. You've been warned.

A color wheel from your local hobby store provides a lot of information
about color schemes and what colors contrast. Go get one and play with
it to get a handle on what you're working with.

Looking at my color wheel, I can tell you that if your other two colors
lie in the red-orange to yellow-orange part of the spectrum, you'd have
a scheme that contrast most with blue colors. But if they all were
shaded with black to the extent your darkest color is, they would not
contrast as well. Some designers seem caught up using colors all from
the same range of tint, shade, tone, etc, and that particular lack of
imagination might be contributing to the contrast problem you're
perceiving. Also, keep in mind that color considerations can change when
you move from print to video display. A print color scheme that depends
on reflecting ambient light into your eye might work to a different
effect when the colors are illuminated from within as glowing phosphors
or diodes.

Some of the problem you're picking up on also might be artifacts of your
monitor settings--contact the manufacturer for a procedure to adjust
color temperature, brightness, and contrast settings like a graphics
pro. But bear in mind that people viewing your website will still be
looking at it thru monitors adjusted without your corporate colors in mind.

Depending on the amount of time you want to spend with this, you might
pack a thermos of sugary espresso and head off to a university art
department library on Saturday morning to read about type design, color
theory, etc. Don't worry if you get absorbed in biography of individual
designers--you are a student of their work already if you think about
serif fonts, sans serifs, etc. Frutiger (Univers type face) is a
beautiful guy to read, his insights and inspirations are articulate and
thinkable. Readability and design are different critters, but he fuses
them in his philosophy.

Save Sunday for the psych library and cognitive studies in readability,
perception, ad infinitum. If you really get the bug, take out a student
loan and go for a valuable higher degree combining these subjects.
Nothing else comes close for speaking directly to the usable designs for
our usual range of output, which otter include instruction design
products, if you ask me.

These are ultimately people things you're studying, technical writing
benefits from depth of knowledge about people's senses and cognitive
abilities, but that's become a sort of optional quality consideration
that corporations lose sight of ("lay off") at the first sign of people
willing to do the nominatively same work for less money, less expertise.

Tech writers need to pump these things back into communication. That
seems to be our important mission for the foreseeable future. It doesn't
modify our function--you'll still be a technical writer--but revives a
moribund universe of purpose and know-how that tech writers are involved
with, but too beat down to insist on.

>
> Have any of you been asked to apply corporate colors to templates?
> What creative methods have you come up with to use the colors,
> other than typeface?
>

3-D faces with colored drop shadows? Google-style toy-colored logo?
Psychedelic poster style?

Maybe someone else knows how to think about this, I'm never asked to
color, only to size the logo appropriately, and only rarely even that.
I'd expect legal department involvement and trademark considerations if
the logo color changed. Feh.


Have fun,

Ned Bedinger
doc -at- edwordsmith -dot- com


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References:
typeface colors and contrast: how light is too light?: From: Pamela Denchfield

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