Benefits and pitfalls of using color in your technical writing

In my writing classes, I am often asked about using color in documents, presentation slides, and websites or blogs. I’ll share what I know about this topic in this article. While I am not an expert in the science of color, you can certainly find technical resources (often whole books) if you’d like to know more about the technical aspects of color. In this article, I’ll cover why people use color; why you might want to avoid using color; and how to use color intelligently.

Why use color?

Color can emphasize text (headings, warnings, main points). Some use color to provide variety (black can be SO boring). And finally, others might use color because it is expected of them.

Why not use color?

  1. 1. Almost 10% of males have some type of deficiency in their color vision. This generally manifests in an inability to see red or green or both. Some have trouble with blue/yellow color combinations. If you are using color for emphasis, you won’t get the result you want with 10% of your male audience.
  2. Color doesn’t work with a cross-cultural audience, perhaps because color is so culturally associated with emotion. In Western culture, red can signify joy, anger, or danger/warning. In Korea, the color red is reserved to write the names of those who have died. Just as you cannot control who will read your document, you likewise cannot control how your reader will interpret your use of color.
  3. If your document will be printed in black and white, you will lose the impact of the emphasis or variety that you intended by using color.
  4. If you don’t know what you are doing, you might be very tacky in your use of color.

Some intelligent principles if you must use color

  1. Light text on a dark background is 16% harder to read.
  2. Blue is hard to see because blue cones (receptors of color) are absent from the center of the fovea, the part of the retina where visual acuity is greatest. Consider using bold or a different typeface for the text of your link.
  3. Don’t trust MS Word palettes.


How will your slide or website be perceived? Visit these links to see how a color-deficient reader would perceive your image or website:

Some resources to learn more about color

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