A little practical science on how to make your story, or any marketing message, 10 times more memorable.

Don’t use reverse type – IE White type on a black background, as in the image and my headline above.

It’s 10 times harder to read, 10 times harder to understand and 10 times harder to remember.

The Original Mad Man Knew This

The original Mad Man and father of modern advertising, David Ogilvy, was notorious for berating designers and creative directors for using reverse type: And with good reason.

Ogilvy’s own research had proved that reverse type is 10 times harder to read than normal type.

If it’s 10 times harder to read, then it’s that much harder to understand. If people can’t read it or understand it, then there’s no way they are going to remember it.

Basically using reverse type instantly prevents 90% of your potential audience from understanding your story.

Grand Prix Teams Used to Know This

Back in the eighties Formula One Grand Prix teams discovered that the easiest thing to read on a car travelling at 300kmh was black type on a white background.

They promptly redesigned the car’s livery so that where ever they needed to paste a sponsor’s message it was black text on a white background.

This of course gave the sponsor a better return than if their message had been say black text on a red background, or even worse white text on a black one.

But like a lot of things, people keep forgetting the lessons of the past. Formula One racing teams are no exception as you’ll quickly see if you look at most modern Grand Prix cars.

Our Ancestors Knew This

But even Ogilvy wasn’t the first to make this discovery about the benefits of dark text on a white background. After all, our books, magazines and newspapers have been printed this way for centuries.

We also have whiteboards, vehicle license plates, street signs, dashboards and modern computer screens that stick to this convention. As some of you will remember none of them started out this way.

Today we have Apple iPhones with black text on white screens while many other phone makers still insist on black screens with white text.

Steve Jobs was a lifelong student of design and typography, so it’s no accident that Apple was the first to use white screens and black text across all of it’s devices.

Even the cavemen put black smokey lines on the white roofs of their caves.

There’s a reason we've always done it this way, it works better.

Latest Research

Recently Colin Wheildon, editor of the largest Australian motoring publication, wanted to test for himself the validity of the “reverse type” problem.

His results proved conclusively that reverse type is a bad idea.

Comprehension level

  • Text printed black on white: Good 70%, Fair 19%, Poor 11%
  • Text printed white on black: Good 0%, Fair 12%, Poor 88%

You can read his full article here...

Your Speed Reading Customers

Your customers are speed-readers whether that be online or off.

The speed at which they browse your stories and messages is akin to how quickly someone views a Formula One car flashing by.

Research keeps showing that viewers will spend just a few seconds on any message unless it really catches their attention. So if you want to make sure you have the best chance of catching their eyes then black text on a white background is the best chance you’ve got.

In previous research, US based firm Marketing Experiments did a test that proved yet again that reverse type is inferior when it comes to generating conversions and sales.

Black vs white copy

The result was over a 10% increase in lead generation.


You can see the full presentation from Marketing Experiments below

As I keep saying, many sales organisations would be ecstatic with a 10% lift, yet many marketers continually ignore easy and fundamental changes that can produce these sorts of results.

In this case, just changing the text and background colour.

Get a Permanent Lift in Leads and Conversions

Plus, the increase in leads is permanent and perpetual. That is, you don’t have to keep spending money every month to maintain it as you do with other marketing campaigns.

There Are Exceptions

 The Original Mad Man Knew This


There always are, but you have to know the rules before you can break them, so here are a few situations where using reverse type is acceptable.

1: When Style is More Important than Substance

In industries such as fashion and pop culture where how you look and the impression you create is more important than the actual product, then reverse type can be acceptable.

2: Luxury Goods

In a similar vein, luxury goods makers will often use reverse type to create a sense of style and exclusivity. Just think of all those "black label" styled products

From a visual perspective it does look good and it does create a sense of sophistication and luxury and all those things, which is why many design oriented people like to use it.

But use it sparingly.

3: When You Have a Dark Background or Photo Background

If you have a dark background that you can’t change or are using an image as a background, then you often have no choice but to use reverse type.

Even so, there are still a few things you can do to lessen the inherent problems of reverse type.

Firstly, you can put the text or headline under the image, which was David Olgivy’s preferred option.

The second trick is to make the text bigger, and the bigger the better. This is because it increases the contrast between the text and it’s background; the bigger the text the better the contrast and easier it is to read.

You can also use a tint on the background and adjust the opacity to give the text even better contrast. But we’re getting into professional skills here and you’ll need a good graphic designer to do this for you.

4: To Distinguish Less Important Elements

Obviously, you want people to read the main part of your story/page/message but you may have other elements on the page such as menus, sidebars, footers, boxes etc.

Most of these will be secondary to your main story so you can lessen their visual importance by using reverse type. Again, use judiciously.

5: When the Text is Big Enough

As we mentioned in point two, the bigger the text becomes the less of a problem it is to read, but I’m talking really big text here. So for example when we get to outdoor signage and billboards etc it becomes a different game.

There may be a few other circumstances where reverse type is acceptable, or you just have to compromise because of conflicting design elements, but for the most part stick to simple dark text on a white background.

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