The Curse of Reversed-Out Type

by Patrick Quinn

I know nothing about design. I do, however, know a little about typography, since I started my working life 200 years ago as a hot-metal compositor. And in design terms, I also know what I like. With these caveats, I’d like to say a general word or two about a certain design anomaly in ads and websites that has me more bemused than usual.

Clearly, the more appealing an ad, a brochure or a website looks, the better it will be received by its target audience. Of course, appeal is in the eye of the beholder, but my definition of ad appeal is that the presentation should be clean, uncluttered and, above all, readable.

Why is it, then, that so much promotional work is neither clean, uncluttered, nor readable? All right, unclean and uncluttered one might, in order not to upset the sensibilities of designers and art directors worldwide, be able to live with. But unreadable?

Why, then, do advertisers and webmasters persist in spending good money to produce material that is a nightmare to read because the type is positioned on a dark background; or sometimes, as a faint gesture towards legibility, reversed-out white on a black or deep tone background? There is, I admit, little wrong with this latter device if the type is of a substantial point size. In the normal course of events, however, such reversed type is slapped down in 8-point Myopic – which means that only a well-practiced hawk can read it.

This sort of folly is usually the fault of quasi-designers who are trying to be terribly artistic and who don’t really give a damn whether the stuff can be read or not, just as long as it looks fancy in their own portfolios. Such people would be better gratifying their instincts in a garret rather than fouling up pieces of commercial print.

I recently came across two particularly egregious examples of this practice. The first had a pic of a sultry woman in a black dress; behind her, was a waiter who was about to top her glass with champagne. (What either of them was doing in an ad for tachometers is a question I’d rather you didn’t ask.) Anyway, the headline type ran across her black-haltered bosom, so it was reversed out white. Ah, but it also ran across the white napkin the waiter was holding, so that it virtually disappeared. The result was a piece of copy that I wouldn’t mind betting was read by only one person apart from those directly concerned with it. Me.

The second example was error twice compounded. It was a type only web page in four colours – yellow, orange and a sort of subdued cyclamen, all on a black background. Have you ever tried to read cyclamen coloured type on black?

Apart from that, this garish combination of colours produced what I believe the French call a trompe l’oeil which made me recoil and then hastily hit the back button. I would name the website, but I haven’t a pair of tinted glasses handy.

There are a couple of morals here, for those of you who are short of them. One is that if you, as someone in charge of accepting or rejecting a layout, are confronted with something which involves type on any kind of coloured or tinted background, think hard before giving it the nod. And the longer the copy is, the harder you should think.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I always think that if you’re going to have words in a publication, it’s not a bad idea to present them so that they can be easily read.

What do you think?

© Markethill Publishing 2006.

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Helping copywriters attract top earnings with words that sell without struggling for years. Transforming frustrating jobs into extraordinary freedom with sales persuasion insights. Inspired by world-renowned copywriter Patrick Quinn.