How is color used in document design?

  • What kinds of problems are faced when designing documents that the use of color is often a solution to?
  • What kinds of problems are faced when actually using color in documents?

I’m trying to provide guidance for the next major version of a mature piece of document design and typesetting software. We have a good idea of where much of the project needs to be in this next version, but color support needs to be re-worked to solve real-world problems in the industry.

Since the color portion of the software is something of a wireframe at this point (more like a rectangle drawn with a worn crayon), I would like to learn more about how color is used in this domain. I’ve thought about it and have done some internet research for most of the night, but I haven’t come up with more than three uses:

  • To draw special attention to various parts of the page
  • To allow for quick navigation either on the page or across pages
  • To implement anti-photocopy measures

These are all a little contrived from my personal, very limited experiences, and some don’t prompt answers to the core question I’m trying to ask myself:

  • What kinds of problems are faced when designing documents that the use of color is often a solution to?
  • What kinds of problems are faced when actually using color in documents?

I likely don’t even know what I don’t know in this domain, so external references to textbooks/essays/articles are also welcome.


I do a lot of typesetting with LaTeX and use colour quite extensively in most of my documents. For my purposes, I use it in the following ways:

  • Branding: This is probably the most common reason that I use colour, as frequently the documents I am writing are tied very specifically to an organisation. Especially with widely distributed documents, I want the reader to have a strong association as to where the document originated.
  • Emphasis: I often use a particular colour (within a palette chosen for branding) to emphasise certain text elements (or wrap them in a coloured block) in a consistent way throughout a document. This could be for example: quotes, methodology, remarks, case studies (think medical book), etc.
  • Easier Navigation: I work with a lot of .pdf documents that make extensive use of hypertext links throughout the document, including references to figures, sections, citations, and back-references from the citations. I will often use colour to highlight what text and/or numbers are hypertext, to distinguish them quickly from the rest of the text for the reader. In my bibliographies, I often use two distinct colours: (1) for hyperlinks indicating urls or doi numbers and (2) for back-refs, to allow the reader to either quickly follow a document link or get quickly back to their position in the text, visually. Colour can be useful in this way to allow the reader to save time when they know what they are looking for. This is both emphasis and distinction.
    • For example 1, a recent document that I completed has different coloured boxes (within the branding palette) for research methodology (at the beginning of each chapter), for a case study that was done to apply a theoretical framework (highlighted as appropriate throughout the document, to set it apart from the text and note that it was a case study), and for definitions (to highlight that a new term was being introduced), as well as for quotes from field interviews.
    • For example 2, a large document was divided into parts, then chapters, then sections, then subsections, and then subsubsections. Apart from page numbers, the .pdf navigation pane, etc. I wanted to have a quick visual way for a reader to quickly find a new “part” of the document. The parts were divided with a page that was made completely one colour with the part number giant on the page in a separate colour. Then a reader scrolling quickly through the .pdf or flipping through a paper copy will get a flash of colour to know they’re in the new part.
  • Figures and Diagrams: Fairly obvious, but figures and diagrams are typically a lot more understandable – and can convey more information – when done in colour.
  • Visual Appeal: Documents simply look better with a nicely chosen, consistent, and well implemented colour scheme.

For problems with using colour. I would highlight a few things:

  • Bad Design: Improper use, inconsistent use, overuse, or a poor choice of colours can make a document much worse visually. This could distract the reader from what is actually important, which is the content, or it could detract from the reading experience in general, or cause the reader to just avoid the document entirely.
  • Cost: Printing documents in colour can be expensive
  • Complexity: Choosing a proper palette and design elements that convey a sense of the brand, that are visually appealing, that work for as wide a readership as possible, that can be printed properly, that work well on paper and on screen, that assist in comprehension, etc. just adds more challenge and complexity to document preparation.

Source : Link , Question Author : Sean Allred , Answer Author : Daniel

Leave a Comment