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E-Business in the Enterprise – June 22, 2004

The color of words

By Sean Mc Grath

I am writing this article using black text on a white background. I will most likely write many documents this week and each of them will consist of black text on a white background. You too? I thought so.

I will also spend some time this week writing spreadsheets. In my spreadsheets I use color a lot. For numbers and text I use black text just as I do with documents but for backgrounds, I make liberal use of color and shading. You too? I thought so. Why is color useful in spreadsheets but less so in documents?  Why the difference between the two?

Let us start with documents. I tend not to use color in documents because I tend to think of printing as the final act of document production. Most of my printing is on laser printers that only support black on white (with shades of gray). Most people I exchange documents with are in the same boat as I am in this regard. What is the point in sending them documents with color if they will have to print them in black and white?

Indeed. What would be the point? Imagine for a moment, a world in which all printers in the world supported color. In such a world you could easily exchange colored documents with others, but would you? The technical barrier would be gone but the question would remain. What would be the point?  Has color got a useful role to play in documents or is it a mere ornamentation device? Hold that thought.

Let us switch over to spreadsheets now. I use color in these -background colors - all the time. Why do I use color? I use it because I can make spreadsheets easier to understand if I color-code them. I might use green for cells to be filled in by the user, red for cells that will be calculated by the spreadsheet engine. I might use cyan for positive numbers and magenta for negative numbers and so on.  Once the reader understands my color coding scheme, the information content of the spreadsheet becomes easier to understand. Simply put, I use color as a cognitive aid. I imbue color with semantics.

As with documents, I exchange spreadsheets with people who only have black and white printers. They cannot print the color coding of my spreadsheets. For some reason this doesn't bother me. Does it bother you? I thought not.

Back to documents now. Why use color in documents? What role does it play? What role could it play? I suspect your first thoughts on the role of color in documents concerned using it for ornamentation rather than using it for semantics. Me too. It appears we are not predisposed to think of color-coding documents the same way we think of color-coding spreadsheets.

What if we used color coding of text as a way to convey meaning in documents?  Imagine a set of user manuals. We could use a cyan background to represent introductory material, green background for critical material, pink for material from other sources and so on.

I realize that may not sound terribly visually appealing but my experience has been that for highly structured documents, color coding of dense text has two hugely beneficial outcomes[1]. Firstly, it makes it easy to glance through large volumes of text, picking out the vital structural information without requiring a close reading. For high volume, fast turnaround publishing environments, this is a real boon. Secondly, it provides a simple, non-invasive way to get content experts to tag the content they create based on what it means - semantics. Compared to the traditional route to document semantics - XML tag editors - my experience has been that content experts prefer the simplicity and clarity of color coding.

I think it is interesting to ask how we ended up in a situation where color coding is normal for one type of structured document (the spreadsheet) and not normal for others (e.g. user manuals). The relative youth of the spreadsheet paradigm may have something to do with it. Spreadsheets are pretty much synonymous with calculations and are thus "at home" on computer systems. The printed word on the other hand is "at home" on paper. Moreover we have millenia of history behind us that have informed how we think of text - dark (ideally) black on a light (ideally white) background.

As more and more documents spend most of their life-cycle in electronic form, this attachment to black and white can, and I would argue should, be revisited in the interests of enriching the information carrying potential of the electronic word. Color coding of text is one such potentiality that merits consideration.

[1] http://www.propylon.com/solutions/parliament/index.html