• What kinds of problems are faced when designing documents that the use of color is often a solution to?
  • What kinds of problems are faced when actually using color in documents?

I'm trying to provide guidance for the next major version of a mature piece of document design and typesetting software. We have a good idea of where much of the project needs to be in this next version, but color support needs to be re-worked to solve real-world problems in the industry.

Since the color portion of the software is something of a wireframe at this point (more like a rectangle drawn with a worn crayon), I would like to learn more about how color is used in this domain. I've thought about it and have done some internet research for most of the night, but I haven't come up with more than three uses:

  • To draw special attention to various parts of the page
  • To allow for quick navigation either on the page or across pages
  • To implement anti-photocopy measures

These are all a little contrived from my personal, very limited experiences, and some don't prompt answers to the core question I'm trying to ask myself:

  • What kinds of problems are faced when designing documents that the use of color is often a solution to?
  • What kinds of problems are faced when actually using color in documents?

I likely don't even know what I don't know in this domain, so external references to textbooks/essays/articles are also welcome.

  • Forgive my ignorance, but isn't TeX a typesetting tool and not really a design tool?
    – Scott
    May 22, 2015 at 6:23
  • @Scott This is changing with LaTeX3 :) There are lots of things still to be hammered down on the design level, but we have some good prototypes. May 22, 2015 at 11:34
  • @Scott likewise forgive my ignorance, but is this question on-topic for this site? Do you know of a way I could bring attention to it or make it more suitable or more answerable? May 26, 2015 at 19:41
  • Aside from a bounty, which is an obvious option (although somewhat limited for me on this site). May 26, 2015 at 19:42
  • Hi Sean, I merely think as designers many aren't using LaTeX or TeX in general since it's geared more toward typesetting. I don't think this is off-topic, but I think users capable of answering effectively with respect to Tex may be in short supply here. If you could remove that reference you may find you'll get more response based on theory rather than software. I'll throw a bounty on it for you, but I can't promise that will garner more response.
    – Scott
    May 26, 2015 at 19:45

2 Answers 2


I do a lot of typesetting with LaTeX and use colour quite extensively in most of my documents. For my purposes, I use it in the following ways:

  • Branding: This is probably the most common reason that I use colour, as frequently the documents I am writing are tied very specifically to an organisation. Especially with widely distributed documents, I want the reader to have a strong association as to where the document originated.
  • Emphasis: I often use a particular colour (within a palette chosen for branding) to emphasise certain text elements (or wrap them in a coloured block) in a consistent way throughout a document. This could be for example: quotes, methodology, remarks, case studies (think medical book), etc.
  • Easier Navigation: I work with a lot of .pdf documents that make extensive use of hypertext links throughout the document, including references to figures, sections, citations, and back-references from the citations. I will often use colour to highlight what text and/or numbers are hypertext, to distinguish them quickly from the rest of the text for the reader. In my bibliographies, I often use two distinct colours: (1) for hyperlinks indicating urls or doi numbers and (2) for back-refs, to allow the reader to either quickly follow a document link or get quickly back to their position in the text, visually. Colour can be useful in this way to allow the reader to save time when they know what they are looking for. This is both emphasis and distinction.
    • For example 1, a recent document that I completed has different coloured boxes (within the branding palette) for research methodology (at the beginning of each chapter), for a case study that was done to apply a theoretical framework (highlighted as appropriate throughout the document, to set it apart from the text and note that it was a case study), and for definitions (to highlight that a new term was being introduced), as well as for quotes from field interviews.
    • For example 2, a large document was divided into parts, then chapters, then sections, then subsections, and then subsubsections. Apart from page numbers, the .pdf navigation pane, etc. I wanted to have a quick visual way for a reader to quickly find a new "part" of the document. The parts were divided with a page that was made completely one colour with the part number giant on the page in a separate colour. Then a reader scrolling quickly through the .pdf or flipping through a paper copy will get a flash of colour to know they're in the new part.
  • Figures and Diagrams: Fairly obvious, but figures and diagrams are typically a lot more understandable - and can convey more information - when done in colour.
  • Visual Appeal: Documents simply look better with a nicely chosen, consistent, and well implemented colour scheme.

For problems with using colour. I would highlight a few things:

  • Bad Design: Improper use, inconsistent use, overuse, or a poor choice of colours can make a document much worse visually. This could distract the reader from what is actually important, which is the content, or it could detract from the reading experience in general, or cause the reader to just avoid the document entirely.
  • Cost: Printing documents in colour can be expensive
  • Complexity: Choosing a proper palette and design elements that convey a sense of the brand, that are visually appealing, that work for as wide a readership as possible, that can be printed properly, that work well on paper and on screen, that assist in comprehension, etc. just adds more challenge and complexity to document preparation.
  • 2
    Hi Daniel, welcome to GDSE and thanks for your answer. If you have any questions, please see the help center or ping one of us in the Graphic Design Chat once your reputation is sufficient (20). Keep contributing and enjoy the site!
    – Vincent
    May 28, 2015 at 11:20

The main problem with using color in documents is significantly increased production costs if the documents are going to be printed. If this is not an issue (i.e. the documents will be electronic in nature for the most part, or the printing costs are shifted to others - like the customer), then color can be used for the things you listed.

Additionally, color is used to reinforce branding within the document. This may necessitate using spot colors (i.e. Pantone) instead of CMYK, so ideally the software should be able to handle those kinds of color specification.

Documents in color are also able to reproduce illustrations, charts, diagrams and photographs in color. Documents that rely on graphic explanatory items will benefit from being able to use color. The software will also be able to be used for setting up "picture books" which could open up a whole new user base for document software that was used for more pedestrian items (such as reports, manuals, and papers)

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