Signage and color contrast

Within signage & wayfinding design the way of color and contrast are important factors to effectively communicate a message. Colors have different meanings and work in various ways in contrast together. This article will explain the meaning of color and will show various examples of contrast.

Contrast between the foreground and background is one of the most important factors for the ease of reading. If coloured text is used on a bright background the contrast will be weak, for optimal contrast results is white text against dark colored backgrounds. In signage & wayfinding design color is the combining factor to harmonize the sign with the environment. Color programs will distinguish signs from each other and can offer an indication of the message without having to be able to understand the language of the sign.

Basics of color groups: Color wheel

farbkreis_itten_1961Swiss painter and designer Johannes Itten created a color wheel that is a organization of 12 color hues around in a circle showing relationships between the colors. The colors are presented in the following way:

  • Primary colors: Blue, red & yellow
  • Secondary colors: Green, orange & violet
  • Complementary colors: Red–orange, red–violet, yellow–orange, yellow–green, blue–violet & blue–green.

Most color wheels are based on Goethe’s Theory of Colours, the first systematic study of the physiological effects of color (1810). His observations on the effect of opposed colors led him to a symmetric arrangement of his color wheel, “for the colours diametrically opposed to each other… are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye.” (via wikipedia)

The color wheel can be a basis for the color scheme for the design you are about to create. Using the wheel you can easily find the combinations between the colors and see what works best. See the opposite colors and combine the colors into a signage color scheme.

Meaning of color

  • color-blackBlack is not actually a color but is often used as background surface in sign design, black can offer a attraction in a visual crowed environment. Meaning of black: Black is associated with power, elegance, formality, death, evil, and mystery.
  • color-whiteWhite as background surface has the ability to absorb dark lettering into its surroundings, in order to make white work good in sign design use a matted surface with glossy lettering. Meaning of white: White is associated with light, goodness, innocence, purity, and virginity. It is considered to be the color of perfection.
  • color-redRed is a signal color, as background red is mostly used for warning signs. Meaning of red: Red is the color of fire and blood, so it is associated with energy, war, danger, strength, power, determination as well as passion, desire, and love.
  • color-yellowYellow in sign design is used as background, yellow has a function of sending out a message and works good in a spacial environment, it stands out. Meaning of yellow: Yellow is the color of sunshine. It’s associated with joy, happiness, intellect, and energy.
  • color-blueBlue is one of mankind favourite color, but for design blue will not always have the best results, try using various hues of blue to find the best matching results. Meaning of blue: Blue is the color of the sky and sea. It is often associated with depth and stability. It symbolizes trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, truth, and heaven.
  • Resource the meaning of color further on this page.

Black background

contrast-blackIn sign & wayfinding design contrast will let you read the signs at ease. Below you will find various examples of good and bad contrast in order to make the design work.

With a black background the lettering tends to stand out more onto to background than with other colored backgrounds. Black is one of the few surfaces that lets other colored text work great together. Beware of too small lettering with too high contrast (white lettering), these will lead to less legibility of the text because of overwhelming background. With large lettering white on black works great. Also yellow on black is a good combination.

Advisable work areas: Airport signage, office building signs, visual overwhelming environments, hotel signage, indoor usage.

White background

contrast-blackWhite background surface gives the most workable combinations, but beware of that white can absorb its environment. Black lettering tends to be squeezed into the background making it hard to read. Lower contrast lettering gives better results like blue, orange and red.

White backgrounds can be used specific sign projects where design plays a bigger part than the actual wayfinding. For instance using silver lettering on a white background can give fabulous results, due the shadow of the silver lettering the text becomes readable on the white surface.

Advisable work areas: Museum signage, office building signs, pylon signage, retail signage, hospital signage, indoor & outdoor usage.

Yellow background

contrast-yellowYellow background works best in visual crowded environments, for architectural and psychological factors yellow is often used. Yellow with black lettering sends out a clear information message which is needed in such an environment. Using yellow also makes in easy to use orange, red and green which all work great together in a signage system.

Yellow is a much used background color for airport signage, originally started by Paul Mijksenaar for Schiphol Airport signage, nowadays yellow is seen in many airports around the world. Yellow in combination with black lettering gives ease to read and at the same time a clear information message in its surroundings.

Also for traffic signs yellow works good as background color in combination with black lettering. In a outdoor situation, yellow stands out from its background giving a clear message. In many European countries yellow is chosen as background color.

Advisable work areas: Airport signage, road signs, public spaces, indoor & outdoor usage.

Red background

contrast-redRed is often used for warning signs, red sends out a signal of warning, danger. Many of the warning signs consist of a red background with yellow or white lettering, by using pictograms as warning the signs are multi-language and don’t need explanation, even if you cannot read the text.

Red is a very powerful color which stands out in a visual crowded environment. I have seen various other signs produced with red but in my opinion red is a signal color. Works great with black, white and yellow lettering.

Advisable work areas: Warning signs, public spaces, indoor & outdoor usage.

Blue background

contrast-blueBlue is one of mankind favourite color, as is represents sky, heaven, trust and faith. The color blue is good recognized with white lettering as information sign. In the Netherlands all highway signs are with blue background as well as the railway signs.

To use blue in sign systems beware of create enough contrast in order to make the signs work best. For instance with light blue a higher contrast lettering will be needed such as black and for dark blue white lettering will work best.

Advisable work areas: Highway signs, railway signs, hotel signage, retail signage, public spaces, indoor & outdoor usage.

Purple background

contrast-purplePurple will not be your direct usage of background color for signage color systems, but purple is a fashion color which is asked by clients to use. Purple works great with lighter colored lettering such as white or yellow.

Purple can be used in signage systems but beware of its architectural environment, as purple is a very powerful color it can easily fade into the background making the sign unreadable.

Use the color wheel to create the hue of colors around the color purple. Purple represents royalty and spirituality, it was Pantones color of the year 2008. PANTONE® 18-3943 BLUE IRIS.

Advisable work areas: Museum signage, hotel signage, retail signage, indoor usage.

Silver (brushed) background

contrast-silverSilver (metal) is an often used color as background in sign systems. With metal signs you are able to gain a robust look & feel for the signage system. Metal has a different surface when looking at it from different angles, making it not always a good contrast with the lettering.

On a silver background almost all colors work well, even white. In future articles I will go deeper into using silver as background.

Metal signs are frequently used in office signage, with black lettering it will create a very stylish look and feel.

Advisable work areas: Office signage, nameplate design, public spaces, indoor & outdoor usage.

Typography & color contrast

Not only is the contrast important also the chosen typeface will make the difference in a good or bad sign. When using too bold weighted typefaces the text will look like its expanding of the sign, when using too light weighted typefaces the text will fall back into its background. Medium or Regular weights are usually the best options to choose for a good and readable sign.


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