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Most hardcopy technical communications will be printed in black and white (or, more accurately, monochrome or greyscale), which effectively removes the option of using color in the communication. In some cases, color reproduction may be an option, and of course color is almost always an option for on-line communications. If color is available, then consider the possible applications. However, never use color gratuitously, or just 'because you can'. Make sure that each use of color is justified, and actively supports the communication.

You should also always be conscious of the following:

  • Color associations;
  • Cultural differences.

Using color

Color can be used to:

  • Attract attention
  • Add emphasis
  • Aid navigability
  • Influence interpretation

Bear in mind that 'color' does not necessarily mean 'full-color'. Even a single color can significantly improve a communication. Limiting yourself to one color may not be necessary when reproduction will be done on a full-color office printer, but if you are using commercial printing services, the use of one color will be significantly cheaper than the cost of full-color.

Color in illustrations


Color in text

Often, color is only considered for illustrations. However, it has its uses in textual communications as well. Color can be used to aid navigation, draw attention to specific information, and add meaning through color associations.

However, it is important to stress that color should not generally be used simply for decoration (although unobtrusive use, such as coloring bullet points in a list - as in this wiki - is acceptable). The use of color should always be functional, and add value to the communication.

Some common applications for color are:

  • To print warnings in red - this will draw the reader's attention to them with greater effect than a black and white icon.
  • To print headings in color - this will improve the navigability of the communication.
  • For multi-language communications, to print each language in a different color - this will allow readers more easily to locate the sections in their language.

Color combinations

When choosing color combinations (for example, on a graph or chart), be careful to choose colors that will contrast well when reproduced in black and white. For example, red and blue contrast perfectly in color, but when printed in black and white, the two are almost indistinguishable.

Use colors of a similar saturation (depth of color) - don't use a pastel blue with deep, dark red (use a pastel red as well).

Special considerations when using color

Color associations

When choosing colors for specific elements within a communication, consider any common associations that may exist for certain colors. For example:

  • Red is often used for warnings, or a negative state or action
  • Yellow is often used for hazards
  • Green typically suggests 'ecological' connotations, or a positive state or action

It is important to consider color associations from both sides: consider using colors where you do want the associative inference (for example, using green for a leaflet on ecology), and avoid using associative colors where an inference would be incorrect (for example, using red for an internal memo on vacation schedules).

Cultural differences

See International communication.


Much has been made of the need to be sensitive to color-blindness in the target audience. With 8% of males and 0.5% of females being color-blind to some degree (Source: Human Interface Guidelines: The Apple Desktop Interface, Apple Computer, 1987), it is fairly safe to assume that almost every technical communication will be read by a color-blind reader at some stage.

However, this does not mean that color must not be used. Color can be used, but the communication should not depend on the use of color. For example, if commands are always printed in green, then the 'greenness' should not be the only factor differentiating commands from other text. In this scenario, you could make commands small caps and green. That way, color-blind people can recognize the text as a command because it is in small caps; non-color-blind people can recognize the text as a command either because it is in small caps or because it is green. Think of it as providing additional help to non-color-blind people, rather than not providing help to color-blind people.

In summary, it is not necessary to design for the lowest common denominator, as long as all readers can understand the communication one way or another. Specifically, color should not be the sole distinguishing factor; it should be used only to add emphasis.

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