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One of the big bosses at my company is up in arms about "grey font" right now. Even using the dark grey from our style guide for text ends in a lecture.

I know that contrast is critical and I have always valued function over form, but I see cases across the web where grey fonts have been used. Personally, I believe that pure black font is too much contrast and can be kind of jarring to look at on a web page.

The examples I have below come from Google and Apple, both of whom are renowned for leading the way (more or less) in web design. Both of these sites use almost entirely grey font.

I tried to use this as a way of saying that dark greys are fine to use, but my boss swears that it's a bad trend that people will look back on in 10 years and say "man they were stupid in the 20 teens".

I pulled the following info off of a government website.

From Section 508:

  • A contrast ratio of 3:1 for text with a size of 18 points (14 points if bolded) or larger, or
  • A contrast ratio of 4.5:1 for text with a size less than 18 points (or less than 14 points if bolded)

I checked the contrast ratios on one of Google's web pages and apple.com using this tool.

Here's Google

Google Super Footer

Failed 508 contrast test

Here's Apple

Apple fine print

Apple failed the contrast test

I also found this on another website that shows the point at which the grey becomes too little contrast.

Contrast Examples

How can I convince my boss that as long as we pass the contrast test, grey font is fine to use?

And is it okay for Apple to have text on their site that fails every section of the contrast test, or is it bad design/a bad trend?

  • have you shown your boss these examples from the Apple website? – Aasim Azam Dec 13 '16 at 0:42
  • @AasimAzam Yes I have. He says it's a "bad trend" – Ashlee Palka Dec 13 '16 at 16:34
  • Imo, your boss is right. If I'd want to reduce the contrast, I'd change the background from 100% white to some pleasant light shade. Ideally web UI must have a setup for bg color to adopt to lighting, but text color should be black. – Mikhail V Jan 6 '17 at 1:24
  • @MikhailV I just don't agree with that. For example, the text on this very site is not pure black. I think pure black is harsh to look at and GD.SE seems to agree with that. – Ashlee Palka Jan 11 '17 at 23:48
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    It sounds like your boss hasn't formed their decision based on any supporting facts, so it doesn’t seem likely that you can convince them that this is a better way. Maybe their ego or marketing perspective is to blame, not the lack of well thought out research that you have done. – user72517 Jul 5 '17 at 3:13
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Legal departments/requirements are often not logical from a design perspective. Many times I must do something that is aesthetically unfounded, merely because a legal department wants to "be sure" there "absolutely no possible way" anyone could interpret something as misrepresented or hidden.

Honestly... in spite of any logical arguments... I'd do what the boss is requesting. While from a design/contrast technical point of view you may be correct. Your boss may have more important reasons for requesting black text.

Huge corporations like Google and Apple can afford any legal hassle. To them, it's not a big deal to combat claims they aren't showing disclaimers clearly. Smaller companies may not be in that position. In fact, one such claim may easily bankrupt a smaller company. In many circumstances where legal text is at issue.. "design" is not the primary concern, and often the least valued aspect.

In short: your boss is right. Not just because he/she is your boss, but because what works for Google and Apple is not what works for many other companies.

In addition, target audience may be a great concern. Apple and Google target the ~20 year old range... I know it may be hard to believe, but eyesight is much better at 20 than it is at 40, even if there's never been a need for glasses before. The older the audience the less the muscles in the eye are able to focus clearly. So, there are factors such as demographic age which can be a huge reason lower contrast text may not be a good idea. In short, form vs function... without function, the form is inconsequential. It may look nice, but if it is imperative to read, and can't be read... well...

  • And that itself is so weird as most of the text they produce is so opaque that its missrepresenting facts. – joojaa Dec 13 '16 at 4:35
  • What about general text. Say it's got nothing to do with disclaimers but it's just the basic text on the site. Is there still no argument for dark grey in that case? – Ashlee Palka Dec 13 '16 at 16:36
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    Well aesthetically there can always be an argument :) There are some factors though, such as audience age. While lower contrast text may be fine for 20-30 year olds (Apple and Google's general market), it may be more difficult to see for 40-50 year olds. So.. well... it all depends. – Scott Dec 13 '16 at 17:03
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I'm 60 years old. My friends and I are sick and tired of not being able to read the gray font. We need high contrast or it's a strain. We're artists so we get aesthetics but design isn't cute if we can't read it. Ask your readers.

  • +1 (canceled the downvote) Design needs to be functional as well as aesthetic. – curious Jul 5 '17 at 1:35
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You can't, legibility is subjective. And you shouldn't try, this is not a matter of opinon, but of personal experience. You easily can read it, he/she doesn't. End of the story.

On the other hand, I should think that what matters is what the intended readers of the pages feel. If it is possible the right procedure would be to ask them: make a test run and see.

In any case your boss is right. Other than in extreme situations, legibility is way more important that aesthetics. Better safe than sorry.

We do not know Apple's goals for their design. If it full fit them, then it is right.

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    I agree with most of this answer but I disagree that legibility is subjective. To a point, possibly, if someone is really used to reading a font. But in terms of colors, we are humans and built with similar eyes that are designed to see certain contrasts better. – curious Jul 5 '17 at 1:50
  • @Emilie There's legibility and readability. If someone is used to reading a certain font, that falls more into readability I would reason. – Stan Sep 10 '17 at 15:42
  • @Stan Can't argue with you on the specifics, english is not my first language :-) – curious Sep 10 '17 at 17:04
0

Read Low-Contrast Text Is Not the Answer by Katie Sherwin, whose summary is:

Low-contrast text may be trendy, but it is also illegible, undiscoverable, and inaccessible. Instead, consider more usable alternatives.

  • 1
    Welcome to Graphic Design SE. While you do summarise the source you link (which is good), it is unclear what its author considers low-contrast text and how she arrives at these conclusions. Can you please edit your answer to expand it a bit in this respect? – Wrzlprmft Sep 10 '17 at 8:57
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If you want to convince your boss, I would run the test with your actual clients. You don't know how the test determines what is enough contrast and your boss is likely worried about usability.

Without regards to how you should deal with this in your workplace, strictly in terms of design, I think you need to have a middle ground.

There has been criticism of Apple's use of color in type, and not just by random folks, but Don Norman, the famous author of "The Design of Everyday Things" wrote about this in FastCo.

However, going all the way black is harsh on the eyes. There are sources online discussing this, like this one. Also, Jan Tschichold's Die Neue Typographie (a classic work about book design) advocates, if my memory doesn't fail me, to use 80% black on a more cream paper to lower the contrast and make reading more comfortable. In any case, it would be preferable to use a spot color to avoid halftone in your typography so that maye not always be possible. Especially in print (CMYK), black is sometimes the better way to go if you don't want to create a halftone color or registration problems.

Again, it also depends if you are dealing with a long text or just titles. You don't need to worry so much about making text comfortable to read if you're only applying color to titles.

  • FYI - Offset lithography was in use since 1850. – Stan Sep 10 '17 at 15:37
  • @Stan I edited my answer accordingly – curious Sep 10 '17 at 17:07
0

Your boss is right. Maximum contrast is best for reading. If you think it is hurting your eyes, think brightness, not contrasts. There is no scientific evidence that anything less than maximum contrast is a good thing. If you read otherwise then what you are reading is false.

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    Can you provide any scientific evidence that maximum contrast (as opposed to simply contrast above a certain point) is a good thing? There are several studies which have shown, for example, that pure black/white (maximum contrast) entails longer fixation duration than lower-contrast options like black/cream or dark brown/off-white, especially for people with dyslexia. I am not aware of any research that has shown that, say, a 15:1 contrast is in any way inferior to a 21:1 contrast. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 30 '17 at 12:07

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