Why do we mostly print black on white?

The most commonly used paper is white – the most common colour for printing on white paper is black.

But why?

Black and white are of course the most strongly contrasted colours but there also exists a feeling (especially among designers) that colour should be used where ever possible.

But is colour printing or printing on coloured paper actually better?

The answer is (as with so many things when you look into them in detail) “up to a point”. The key factor with the way in which we perceive printed material with colour on it as opposed to the classic black on white is that it all depends on what else is going on at the same time.

The definitive academic study on this is the article by Joan Meyers-Levy and Laura A Peracchio (from the universities of Chicago and Wisconsin respectively) called “Understanding the effects of colour”, which makes the situation very clear. They say…

When readers of a piece have little motivation to read it, their willingness to keep reading will be affected by such things as the colour and the physical attractiveness of the presentation. So initially the unmotivated reader becomes more positive about the piece, and there is a more positive response from two or four colours than from single colour.

This is of course what designers and printers who love colour instinctively feel – the colour makes the advert more attractive. And indeed, if the reader is unmotivated, then feels the piece of paper is attractive because of colour, the colour is enhancing the response rates.

But unfortunately this “unmotivated state” is very rare for most of us. Hardly ever do we sit around just waiting for something to happen. We are engaged in other things – our brain power is being used up elsewhere.

So, if we are looking at an advert for example, at the moment we are looking to substantiate the claims of the advert so that we can move to a purchase, the colour uses up so much of the resources in the brain we are willing to give to the processing of this issue, that we feel too much is asked of us, and we simply stop and turn away.

In simple terms, if distractions are low and the reader feels a real need and desire to look at the printed page, colour is a great boon – providing that we are willing to give the brain the resources needed to decode the page, and provided also we are not going to want to consider in any depth the claims made by the advert.

The travel brochure is a perfect example – I want to go on holiday, I have gone out and got a brochure from the travel agent, and I sit down at home without distraction, totally focussed on finding the holiday of my dreams, and fairly sure that this is the country I want to go to. Colour then helps – as long as all this holds to the good.

But if I am of a disbelieving mind, if I have been on holidays before where the promise of the brochure is not substantiated, then the colour pictures can be a distraction, and I might turn to the Lonely Planet for a pure text discussion of the resort – without the unwanted distractions.

So when printing, remember, colour is not always good. On the other hand when storing paper, colour is irrelevant. It is all storage.

And that is what we do. We store paper. In the Midlands.

There are more details on our website or give us a call on 0800 783 9516.

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