When Close Enough Isn’t Close Enough

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

In baseball, you get three strikes before you’re out. But in graphic design, there are times when two strikes are all you get. Sometimes only one.

Consider outside signage, for instance. It will be viewed in variable lighting conditions. It may have to fight to be seen amid all sorts of visual distraction. The viewer may be moving fast and have only a split second to absorb the message. I would call outside signage a one-strike situation.

What are other factors that reduce the amount of leeway a designer has? A challenging type font or an unfamiliar or difficult name in the identity can certainly up the ante. Corporate identity is one area where you can strike out with one bad decision, especially when it involves poor contrast.

Anyone who has ever printed from a computer knows that what you see on the screen is often different from what appears on the printed page. Colors can appear too dark, too light, too warm, too cool, too washed-out, compared with their appearance on the computer monitor. Too often beginners think that the contrast in their design, as viewed on the computer monitor, is “close enough.”

That approach is courting design disaster. One should always consider that the printing (or the viewer’s monitor) will eat up some of your “good enough” margin.

But the difference between what is seen on the monitor and what ends up on the page is still variable. You can’t afford to play near the edge of legibility.

Those who think they are exempt from this issue because they design for the web are also mistaken because of the inherent difference between Mac and PC monitor gamma (native brightness).

But corporate identity design must be legible in every conceivable output and when viewed in every possible circumstance. A wise designer will always aim for excellent contrast, which is a 60% minimum contrast differential or greater.

Don’t fudge on those parameters.

These principles are important in all areas of graphic design but are absolutely imperative in corporate identity design.

Printer Color Variation

I took three computer files created by my students and printed them on three different color printers. The outputs varied wildly. Almost every color printed differently in hue and/or saturation and/or value on each machine, even though they were printed from the same computer file and on the same brand of printer. No doubt the students assigning these colors thought the contrast as they saw it on their computer monitors was “good enough.” You can see for yourself how wrong they were. In each row there are blocks that have type that becomes close to illegible. These contrast errors are magnified when viewed at a distance. Just try stepping back from this page a few feet and see that the words with marginal contrasts become even harder to read.

Adapted from Logo Design Theory: How Branding Design Really Works

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