A copywriter can spend hours creating a message that captures the essence of your business and persuades readers to enquire or buy. But even the best brochure or website copy can be negated by ineffective graphic design. An example is reverse type. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, reverse type is when light coloured text is used on a dark background – for example, white text on a black background.
Advertising pioneer and innovator David Ogilvy believed that reverse type should not be used. In Ogilvy on Advertising he wrote, ‘Advertising agencies waste their clients’ money repeating the same mistakes. I recently counted 49 advertisements set in reverse type in one issue of a magazine, long years after research demonstrated that reverse type is difficult to read.’
Robert Bly, copywriting authority and author of The Copywriter’s Handbook, agreed with Ogilvy when he wrote, ‘Never do anything to make the copy difficult to read. Type should be set in black against a clear white background – not a tint, not white on black, not in color.’
Ogilvy’s and Bly’s opinions on reverse type are supported by research. Colin Wheildon, editor of an Australian motoring magazine, tested the assertion that reverse type is difficult to read and lowers comprehension. He published his findings in Type & Layout: how typography and design can get your message across – or get in the way.
Here are Wheildon’s results that show how much reverse type can lower comprehension.
Colour combination Comprehension (percentage of readers)
Good Fair Poor
Text printed black on white 70 19 11
Text printed white on black 0 12 88
Text printed white on purple 2 16 82
Text printed white on royal blue 0 4 96
From these results you can see that reverse type lowers comprehension levels of text – so if you want readers to understand your message, don’t use reverse type for large amounts of text.
Another test conducted by Williams Sonoma, a major US gourmet food and cookware catalogue, found that its sales increased by 33 per cent after simply switching the type in one catalogue from reverse to black text on a white background.
After listening to the experts and reviewing the research, it is clear that it’s best to not use reverse type in your printed publications and websites. Although it might look stylish, it decreases the effectiveness of your copywriting.