This article is an introduction to signage colour and contrast. You will read about the contrast ratio for displaying text on a coloured background for signs.
The article will explore the meaning of colour and how to differentiate colour in information layers.
The contrast between the foreground and background is one of the most critical factors for the ease of reading. If the coloured text is used on a bright background, the contrast will be weak, for optimal contrast results is white text against dark-coloured backgrounds. In signage & wayfinding design colour is the combining factor to harmonise the sign with the environment. Colour programs will distinguish symptoms from each other and can offer an indication of the message without having to be able to understand the language of the sign.
Basics of Color Groups: Color wheel
Swiss painter and designer Johannes Itten created a colour wheel that is an organisation of 12 colour hues around in a circle showing relationships between the colours. The colours are presented in the following way:
- Primary colors: Blue, red & yellow
- Secondary colors: Green, orange & violet
- Complementary colors: Red–orange, red–violet, yellow–orange, yellow–green, blue–violet & blue–green.
A Color Wheel is an abstract illustrative organisation of colour hues around a circle that shows relationships between primary colours, secondary colours and complementary colours. Knowing the relationship between colours is the first step in developing a colour scheme for signage and wayfinding systems.
Color Contrast by Science
Arthur & Passini described in their book Wayfinding from 1992 a reliable calculating method to calculate the contrast difference between two colours. The formula is based on the light reflectance (LR) readings in percentages for each of the two colours involved. By subtracting the darker colour from the lighter colour, divided by the difference by the lighter, and multiplying by 100, we get brightness differential. When the brightness differential is 70 percent, or higher the legibility is assured. When it is less, the legibility cannot be assured, and those colours should not be used in that combination.
Color Examples and Meaning
Black is associated with power, elegance, formality, death, evil, and mystery.
With a black background, the lettering tends to stand out more onto to background than with other coloured backgrounds. Black is one of the few surfaces that lets other coloured texts work great together. Beware of too small lettering with too high contrast (white lettering); these will lead to less legibility of the book because of overwhelming background. With large lettering white on black works great. Also yellow on black is a very effective combination.
White is associated with light, goodness, innocence, purity, and virginity. It is considered to be the colour of perfection.
White background surface gives the most useful combinations, but beware of that white can absorb its environment. Black lettering tends to be squeezed into the background making it hard to read. Lower contrast lettering gives better results like blue, orange and red.
White backgrounds can be used for specific sign projects where design plays a more significant part than the actual wayfinding. For instance, using silver lettering on a white background can give fabulous results, due the shadow of the silver lettering the text becomes readable on the white surface.
Advisable work areas: Museum signage, office building signs, pylon signage, retail signage, hospital signage, indoor & outdoor usage.
Red is the colour of fire and blood, so it is associated with energy, war, danger, strength, power, determination as well as passion, desire, and love.
Red is often used for warning signs; red sends out a signal of warning, danger. Many of the warning signs consist of a red background with yellow or white lettering, by using pictograms as warning the signs are multi-language and don’t need explanation, even if you cannot read the text.
Red is a potent colour which stands out in a crowded visual environment. I have seen various other signs produced with red, but in my opinion, red is a signal colour. Works great with black, white and yellow lettering.
Advisable work areas: Warning signs, public spaces, indoor & outdoor usage.
Yellow is the colour of sunshine. It is associated with joy, happiness, intellect, and energy.
Yellow background works best in crowded visual environments, for architectural and psychological factors yellow is often used. Yellow with black lettering sends out a clear information message which is needed in such an environment. Using yellow also makes in easy to use orange, red and green which all work great together in a signage system.
Also for traffic signs yellow works well as a background colour in combination with black lettering. In an outdoor situation, yellow stands out from its background giving a clear message. In many European countries yellow is chosen as a background colour.
Advisable work areas: Airport signage, road signs, public spaces, indoor & outdoor usage.
Blue is the colour of the sky and sea. It is often associated with depth and stability. It symbolises trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, truth, and heaven.
Blue is one of the most preferred colour, as is represents the sky, heaven, trust and faith. The colour blue works well as a background to white lettering as information sign. In Australia, street signs have a blue background with white lettering.
To use blue in sign systems beware of creating enough contrast to make the signs work best. For instance, with light blue, a higher contrast lettering will be needed such as black, and for dark blue; white lettering will work best.
Advisable work areas: Highway signs, railway signs, hotel signage, retail signage, public spaces, indoor & outdoor usage
Silver (metal) is an often used colour as background in sign systems. With metal signs, you can gain a healthy look & feel for the signage system. Metal has a different surface when looking at it from different angles, making it not always a good contrast with the lettering.
Advisable work areas: Office signage, nameplate design, public spaces, indoor & outdoor usage.
Typography & Color Contrast
Not only is the contrast important also the chosen typeface will make the difference in a good or bad sign. When using too bold weighted typefaces, the text will look like its expanding of the sign, when using too light weighted typefaces the text will fall back into its background. Medium or Regular weights are usually the best options to choose for a good and readable sign.
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