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For a paper I am writing, I need to annotate pieces of text with a color. Apart from black, I need four easily discernible colors of which one should be blue(ish) and one should be red(ish). The text will be printed on white paper.

It is not a requirement that these colors are harmonious or "pretty" (but it is a pre of course). Whatever colors I pick, there is always one with bad contrast on the white background, or one that is difficult to discern from another color.

Is there any strategy that lets you choose appropriate colors for this (a premade solution is also welcome of course)?

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This is a little tricky. We want four easily discernible colors for text, two of them must be reddish and blueish and if they look nice it is a plus.

But furthermore we want colors that will look crisp in smaller text sizes, so we will try to avoid colors that consist of more than two of the CMYK inks. Otherwise you could end up with a slightly blurred result. A print will always be just a little bit out of register, which will show in smaller text sizes.

Let's start out by taking a look at the color wheel (here I use a CMYK wheel, based on CMYK numbers). If we want the maximum contrast it seems logical to choose colors with a 90 degree interval. We need to avoid yellow since it is a lot lighter than the other colors, making it unsuitable for text on white background. Taking all conditions in account we get the following:

color wheel

The only problem is the green color which is too light (too yellow), so I take the liberty to change it to the one next to it (100, 100, 0, 0), resulting in the following color scheme:

color scheme cmyk

Let's try it out:

test

I think this color scheme meets your demands, but I am not sure if it is beautiful... Maybe that is one condition too much :-)

If your application doesn't allow CMYK colors you could use these RGB values instead:

color scheme rgb

  • Thank you! If I compare your solution to that @AndrewH, it seems that you are both using complementary colors. However, since they are quite different, it seems that different color spaces have been used? CMYK vs RBG or HSB? Is there any argument to make for which color space is the "right one"? – Lasse Feb 24 '17 at 18:40
  • @AndrewH chooses red and blue from the start and finds the complementary colors individually, resulting in red and orange being too close to each other. I have tried to not just look at the two pairs individually, but see the four colours as a whole, spreading them equally across the color wheel. The reason I use CMYK is because I wanted to give you "clean" colors which will look nice on print. I think it is important to use colors with 100% of one of the colors to get solid text instead of screen dots/dithering. If we weren't talking about colors for text I might have used RGB/HSL instead. – Wolff Feb 24 '17 at 18:50
  • The "cleanness" of the colors is only maintained if you choose CMYK colors and do not convert them later on. If you use the RGB values or convert the colors to another color space the colors will not be "clean" anymore. – Wolff Feb 24 '17 at 19:03
  • Ah, oke. It seems that my typesetting software (LaTex) does support CMYK, so that is no problem. I will accept your answer, since it seems to give the best result. – Lasse Feb 24 '17 at 19:09
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You can use the HSL color model to pick colors that will contrast white and black. Avoid combination of colors with low saturation or low brightness.

Next look at the color wheel to pick colors that will contrast each other.

If you're using Red and Blue, you can look at using Double-Complementary Relationship. Pick 2 color sets of complementary colors on the wheel. This would be Green + Blue and Red + Orange. Just make sure you do not pick a dark blue as that color is hard to distinguish from black.

red and blue swatch

red and blue text color example

But if you want, you can pick colors that will help with people who have color blindness.

color blind swatch

text example with colors

  • Thank you very much! Especially the color blindness colors are very good. For the red and blue ones, is it me or is the red and orange a little difficult to differentiate? – Lasse Feb 24 '17 at 18:29

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