Colourful thinking, part 1 (or: why I eschewed colour in internal reports) 

My book is awash with colour. Black. White. Dark grey. Light grey - and medium too. Despite this, it has loads on colour in reports. It looks at Red-Amber Green (‘RAG’) reports – why we shouldn't do them, and what we should do instead (here's a previous email on it). It has typography tips for highlighting distinctions, making key stuff stand out, etc. Plus there’s a two-page Appendix solely on colour. And this email and the next lean heavily on that material.

First, let’s pin my colours to the mast (no pun intended). When I wrote internal reports in corporate life, I never used colour, other than black, white and grey.

Don’t get me wrong. I obsess about making stuff look sharp. Elegant. And I don’t just make up design and fonts. I’ve read design books. I've learnt principles and best-practice.

So why did I avoid colour in internal reports in corporate life? Several reasons:

I wanted bosses to discuss my content, not my choice of colour. Too often, I’d ask colleagues what bosses had said about their report, to which they’d dispiritingly reply: “Their only comment was: ‘Use dark blue, not light blue – it’s nicer.’” And it’s a self-inflicted wound – because colleagues add colour, bosses quibble about it.

And why not quibble? Everyone has a view on colour. Uninformed, usually. But, heck, why let knowledge get in the way of a good opinion? For both writers and readers, colour is the great time-wasting displacement activity at work today. Writers, don’t sweat to improve your report; make it colourful instead. Readers, don’t discuss its content; talk about its colours. Much easier. Much more fun.

"Any cliché will do": back to why I avoided colour: I spent my time thinking, not choosing colours. On Courses, I’ve criticised sales teams for filling proposals with unimaginative clichés (“We put clients first, we’re innovative, etc”) - and they fire back: “With all due respect, Jon” (which means ‘with no respect whatsoever’), “it’s tough in our industry to put clear blue water between us and our rivals, we’re pretty much all the same – all we can do is submit a proposal that’s… prettier”. Just a bit lazy, really.

Colour distracts: I once saw a bulleted list of brief items (which is fine – bullets are great for such lists) but its circular blobs were in ‘corporate purple’, and the text that followed was in black. I tried to read the list, but my eyes were constantly drawn back to the purple bullets. Not good. In the end, by covering the bullets with a piece of paper, I managed to read the text in typographical peace.

Colour means different things in different countries: click here for a list someone has done on how they differ (it’s an infographic though, so not easy to read).

About 5% to 10% of people are colour-blind or colour-deficient. Also, some people have access only to black-and-white printers or copiers.

I’d read a book: it had loads of stats on how comprehension is affected by typography - including colour and tints. I might quote some in the next email. (The book is Type & Layout: Are you communicating or just making pretty shapes? by Colin Wheildon - and the ‘Father of Advertising’, David Ogilvy, said about it: “No guesswork here; only facts”. And even though the book talks much about colour... it's in black-and-white.)

Granted, if a document is external, it might need colour. Point-of-sale material and brochures certainly do. A bit of colour helps an external email… such as this one.

But don’t assume all external documents need colour. People deify Warren Buffett’s annual report, they say it’s a great example of how we should convey stuff at work. In fact, it gets turned into books. But not only does his annual report eschew icons, auto-shapes, photos, even graphs… it also has no colour whatsoever, other than on its back and front cover. But everyone says it’s wonderful.

Then there’s client pitches. Ten years ago, I was asked to pitch for a three-year training contract - and submitted a proposal devoid of photos, colour and the like. I later discovered that every other proposal was colourful and cliché-filled. Guess who won the tender?

Of course, people that like colour fight back, albeit sometimes with laughable comments. Someone once told me: “Colour is good for the Board…”, then added: “…but not good for operational staff 'coz they need to focus”. What the ?!?!? The comment is wrong on so many levels – and it was said by a ‘communications’ guru who really should know better. I won’t reveal names though.

That's it on colour for today. The next email update gives tips on how to avoid colour – and tips for when you use colour. Time for the fun stuff.

Colour me bad(d): get out your sunglasses: about four years ago, I was sent the Figure below. 

With thanks to Ian Pugh for sending it to me. 

Til next month.


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