Is Reverse Type a No-No?

May 20th, 2005 by Bob Bly

An art director showed me a promotion she was designing — and it was all in reverse type (white lettering on a black background).

When I told her not to use it because reverse type is hard to read, she said, “You can’t prove it by me.”

So I’m asking for your opinion … and your help. Do you use or avoid reverse type? Why? Any results or proof to back up your opinions and preferences?

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73 responses about “Is Reverse Type a No-No?”

  1. Niall Cook said:

    Bob,

    Context is key I think. Cranking my brain back to my typographic days, legibility of typefaces and formatting was as much about function as it was about form.

    For example, reversed type would be pretty illegible in a novel, but probably OK on a poster. But again, this may even come down to the number of words, whether it runs over two lines, etc., etc. How the rest of the design is treated will probably also play a part (e.g. is this the only text on the item? Are there any images, etc.)

    The ultimate test might be to post the design and let us vote on how legible we think it is!

  2. Peter said:

    It’s highly contextual. Keep in mind there are quite a few ‘famous’ designers whose trademarks are ‘knockout’ text color combinations. Hey, I don’t make the rules…

  3. Joel Heffner said:

    I think I’d look at this question differently. I’d ask her how many campaigns that she knows about have been successful using reverse type. If reverse type was effective others would be using it.

    Joel

  4. Michel Fortin said:

    Bob, as a fanatical tester, it’s proven in direct-response copy that reverse type decreases response. It lowers readership, fatigues the eyes and causes strain. Websites with copy formatted in reverse type saw a decrease in response anywhere from 35% to 65%. But, a small caveat: I’m currently testing reverse type on banners, headers and call-to-action boxes in my copy. The results look promsing.

    However, one intepretation is plausible: People never read copy at first. They never do. They scan, skim and scroll. Reverse type for small phrases, strategically located in the copy (such as a Johnson box, picture captions, etc), help to stop the reader from scanning and either force her to read — or to pay attention to what follows (which may be a call to action, for instance).

    An example is my own newsletter at The Profit Pill (i.e., white on red).

  5. Mike Sigers said:

    Bob,

    Whenever I see reverse type, I assume the writer didn’t really care about me or the actual content, just his/her desire to be different.

    I could not care less ablout the color scheme, just the content.

    Simple will make you money; Not simple costs you money.

    Complications lose customers; Simplifications gets customers.

  6. Bob McCarthy said:

    I’ve never tested it before so I can’t support this with hard numbers. But from personal experience, I find reverse type very difficult to read in longer text with smaller type.

    Graphically, I like using some reverse type in headlines or short side-bars but it needs to be used sparingly.

    If it’s all reverse type, send it back.

    Bob McCarthy
    McCarthy & King Marketing, Inc.

  7. Richard Leader said:

    It is – as most people here say – contextual.
    Personally, I use reverse type online in headlines, menu bars etc – but test everything (though my blog site is a good example of bad reverse text – I’ll sort it one of these days and choose a new template!).
    Headlines and the like tend to work well because they are usually bigger than body text.
    And I think online, reverse text can work better than offline – there’s no print bleed and the screen is illuminated, generally making it easier to read.
    Thinking on-the-hoof of good examples, isn’t the Coca-Cola logo reversed out???

  8. Bruce DeBoer said:

    I’m in the context camp myself. I’m not sure you see too much body copy in 8 point type that is reversed and readable. However, large reversed type on a poster or full page as an announcement or perhaps a black envelope with a reversed headline would work just fine. Design is a great way to catch your customer’s eye, even with direct mail. I don’t believe in limiting designers any more than I have to.

  9. steven streight aka vaspers the grate said:

    I will use reverse type only if the background is very dark and the type is very light, and then only for very short heads and subheads.

    But in my Art Test Explosion digital art blog, I have a template that provides a black background and white or near white type. This is due to the fact that the art looks good against black, and what rare text I include with an artwork upload is generally very short, excerpts from Proust being the lengthiest material.

    This is personal preference mixed with d. mktg. principles based on testing.

    :^)

  10. Steve Wexler said:

    You’re correct Bob. While reverse type works well for headlines and large typeface… It’s sue to kill any promotion when used for body copy. Sounds like that artist is destined to work at a McDonalds soon!

  11. Jim Murphy said:

    Colin Wheildon, an Australian editor who has researched typography for many years, and did a report spanning 1984 to 89-90, came up with the following results:
    David Ogilvy says that advertising copy should never be set in reverse,
    nor over grey or coloured tint. He says that the old school “believed
    these devices forced people to read the copy; we now know that
    they make reading physically impossible”.
    The results of tests on text set in black on light colour tints oppose
    his view; the tests on black text set on shades of grey are more on his
    side; and the tests on text printed in reverse on black or dark colours
    support his view to the hilt.
    Comments made on the completion of the reverse tests were that a
    form of light vibration, similar to, but worse than, that encountered
    when text was printed in high intensity colours, seemed to make the
    lines of type move and merge into one another. Eighty per cent reported
    this phenomenon.
    Results were:
    Table 16 Comprehension level
    Good Fair Poor
    Text printed black on white 70 19 11
    Text printed white on black 0 12 88
    Text printed white on PMS259 2 16 82
    Text printed white on PMS286 0 4 96
    There is a school of thought which agrees that reversing can be
    fraught with danger, but only if serif type is used. The argument is that
    the fine strokes and serifs disappear when the material is reversed.
    31. IF YOU WOULD LIKE A PDF OF THE REPORT, PLEASE LET ME KNOW.

    I don’t think there is much of a debate!

  12. Elizabeth Schoch said:

    I hate reverse type! And anything else that’s hard to read, such as all caps. I say “use it at your peril.”

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  61. Flyn said:

    I guess I would just point you to the top internet marketer’s pages.

    If you check out the pages of Dan Kennedy, Frank Kern, John Carlton, Jeff Walker these guys never use reverse text to my knowledge.

    Additionally, for kicks I just scanned Ogilvy on
    Advertising and non of the ads use reverse type and many you can tell the put white backgrounds where white type would have worked…

    I think that is enough proof for me. I have also looked at a ton of John Carlton ads and don’t remember seeing it there either.

    If there’s any doubt left, I think I’d just follow the guys who are making millions.

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  66. Mike O'Horo said:

    I’m surprised that this debate still exists. No less an authority than David Ogilvy, arguably “the father of advertising,” tested reverse type exhaustively and concluded that it should never be used (context be damned) because it fatigues the eyes, slows comprehension and stimulates fewer responses.

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  71. Angeline Marie said:

    Bob: I agree with you on this one. I think this is especially true if your target market falls into the 40 years old and over crowd. People get so bombarded daily with promotions as it is. They aren’t going to stick around to try and figure out what you are saying! Easy reading is the way to go and in my opinion it doesn’t include reverse type.

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