When I first started working at a corporate gig many years ago, contrast fails would get you a talkin’ to by your team leader. Contrast fails are common, but easily avoidable. Even some of the top world dominating brands commit this design mistake from time to time. I also see the mistake on billboards and various types of signage throughout every day life.
What mistake is it, you ask? The mistake of not keeping every possible user in mind when you design your ad, sign, website, app, product, or whatever message you are trying to communicate. If someone can’t read or interpret your message from a fair distance, what good is it? Old folks have some money to spend too, so make sure they can read your ad! That sounds like common sense, but I just don’t know anymore.
How is anyone supposed to read that from several feet away?
It seems even the person on the side of the street holding a cardboard sign begging for help needs art direction for their ad, or I mean, sign. If your dirty 16×9″ cardboard sign has 25 words written on it in tiny and horrible writing with an ink-less ballpoint pen, how is anyone supposed to read that from several feet away? On the other hand, if you somehow manage to find a black sharpie marker and make a nice bold font with a quick 2-3 syllable message, it’d be much easier to read your sign and process your message. That’s how you get real attention with your sign!
Anecdotal marketing evidence
For example, I adopted a puppy one time. She ended up having 11 puppies of her own. I raised them for a while and then had to find homes for them. My previous paragraph proved to be a winning marketing tactic to get rid of the surplus of puppies I had available. I ended up finding all of them a home by standing out in a busy public place with my handmade cardboard sign that simply said, “FREE PUPPIES,” in bold filled black sharpie marker stencil-like, Impact-like, font. Basically, everyone could easily read this sign from a good 50 feet away and that helped me find homes for my puppies in a quick afternoon’s work. I guess the puppies practically sold themselves because they were so dang cute, but the marketing strategy was sound! Don’t believe me? Just look at the photo of the cute little bastards!
Contrast fails in real life!
The first example of IRL contrast fails are in Apple iOS text messaging.
The colors fail contrast tests, but are still quite legible on my iPhone displays. I’m not quite elderly yet, so I imagine the default colors could be difficult to read for elderly folk. Apple offers plenty of accessibility adjustments to remedy this contrast fail, which is pretty awesome, but is your average 75 year old going to know how to access the 5-level deep nested menus to find the adjustment toggle? No offense, but I doubt it.
Default out of the box iOS font sizing and colors are not so good for elderly users or people with vision impairment. Check out the WebAIM: Contrast Checker to experiment with different color contrasts. I used the sweet Firefox color dropper to sample some iOS text message screenshots I found on Brave Search.
iOS Blue #3e86f1 and iOS Green #64c365 with white text. These both fail the contrast checker, and the style factor is not too great in my opinion. It looks alright on my iPhone, however, it could be difficult to read for a large portion of users.
Yee haw! Look, ma! No Photoshop color dropper required! I sampled these colors using Firefox v117.0.1’s built in color dropper tool. No more color dropper add-on extension is required with Firefox on Linux Mint Cinnamon! Rejoice, because this update applies to other OS as well. Hit F12 for developer tools and then look for the dropper icon near the top of the pane splitter (below the X), then sample some colors! The color dropper even zooms in on the pixels of the page when you hover over colors. Now that is top notch!
Another contrast fail example I saw on a local college billboard
As a matter of fact, below is the link to the ad I’m talking about. You can see the thinly stroked white text on the vibrant orange background, which is the main fail here. The bold text looks fine, but from a far distance on a highway driving 75 MPH, the thinly stroked white text, the main selling point of the ad, becomes nearly illegible unless you have perfect youngster LASIK-tier vision. Orange might actually be the answer, but I’m not too sure about the effectiveness of their billboard ad.
https://news.okstate.edu/magazines/state-magazine/articles/2021/winter/new_slogan_promotes_osus_land-grant_mission_public_impact_research.htmlLink: New slogan promotes OSU’s land-grant mission, public impact research: https://news.okstate.edu/magazines/state-magazine/articles/2021/winter/new_slogan_promotes_osus_land-grant_mission_public_impact_research.html | Archive Link: https://archive.ph/u9fw7
As I was going 75 MPH on the highway, I could barely read the main text on this billboard, even though it was an Impact-like bold font. The text on the billboard was a pure white outline and the background was Oklahoma Cowboys orange signature color, which is a fairly vibrant orange. Needless to say, the contrast is a pure fail! I always laughed when I drove by this billboard on the 44 toll road. Someone paid big money for that HUGE contrast fail. LOL. I wonder what’s up with the art direction here?
Now, OSU’s website has dark text on some parts and white text on others. Large bold filled white text would be acceptable, but smaller white text or stroked outlined text on the vibrant orange background is a contrast fail. I’m kind of surprised the accessibility department over there hasn’t figured this out yet. Perhaps the accessibility department doesn’t communicate with the billboard branding art department. I’m not hating on their branding because I love orange, but I’m just saying dark text on top of the orange would be better and more visible for a larger user-base.
Until I find more contrast fail examples…
Always be sure to use a contrast checker when you are designing stuff for all media. Your message needs to be communicated effectively and you can’t do that if some people can’t read the message due to something as simple as a contrast fail. Now, if you really want to be safe, you can look into color blindness checks as well. Just because Ana, the 21 year old spring chicken intern designer, can see white text on a neon background, that doesn’t mean Darryl, the 53 year old MS-DOS veteran in accounting, will be able to read it easily.
Be sure to bookmark the link below for quick access or consider adopting another contrast checking strategy for your projects.
WebAIM Contrast checker: https://webaim.org/resources/contrastchecker/