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Use of black or white background in ads

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I'm looking for research, data, or experince and opinions about the effectiveness of ads based on use of black versus white background.
I think it's a matter of preference? black tends to make whatever that is in the middle stand out but also devours plenty of space, while white gives this very 'clean, stark, minimalistic' feeling.

i think its more 'trendy' to use white now. But of course it's just an opinion.

for example:
white allows you to see details more clearly
I can’t speak with any authority about the effectiveness of the ads themselves… as marketing tools to influence the public, but I can offer a perspective as a print designer who has tried several things… some which have ‘worked’ as I intended and some which printed with, ummm… less than expected results… and I might consider those to have had a less pleasing effectiveness from a design standpoint. My comments will only apply to Print ads… and not to web design or lighted displays.

When designing on a white background, we’re really talking about designing on top of an absence of color… We expect the color of the paper (or other media) underneath to show through and to a slight degree affect the colors in our design. Because there is an absence of color being printed on top of, almost any addition on the page will be visible… down to a fine black hairline or a fairly light screen of any color (depending upon what screen range the printing press you’re working with can hold) Even a very light shade, a 3 to 5% screen of a color (away from the white background) will be easily visible and apparent. And very tiny type will be visible– consider a serif typeface that’s visible down to 4 points.

Printing with a black background is a trickier proposition… because we aren’t really talking about printing on black paper (and somehow adding lighter shades of inks) we’re talking about taking a page that has absence of color, virtually fully saturating it with ink, and then trying to create contrasts and details on the page. First you have to decide how you’re going to make “Black”. Are you going to use black ink at 100%… well, if you do you’ll get a nice consistent washed out gray… because most paper will absorb the ink and mute it slightly– remember, the paper does influence your color… but there are other ways of making black– from a color theory standpoint black isn’t one of the primary subtractive colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow) and theoretically shouldn’t be needed in printing… a perfect black should be attainable by using 100%Cyan, 100%Magenta, 100%Yellow… except that in practice that’s a large amount of ink to put on a page– 300% coverage– the page absorbs some of the color and to obtain a true black the colors should be mixed, not applied in layers… so printers added black ink to the other 3 primary additive colors in order to easily insure some color purity into the process. you can create a visibly darker, better black by adding a slight undertone of the other 3 colors into the mix… We’d call this our “Rich Black” and there are many combinations, but lets pick one– say C30, M30, Y30, K100. Well, now you have a better black on the page, but what happens when you try to add the simplest of elements with the highest contrast– a line of big solid white type? First, the edges around the type start to fill in slightly because of ‘dot gain’– the normal spread that happens when liquid ink is absorbed into paper. And because you’ve used a Rich Black, you now have 190% ink coverage right next to a space that you wish to be white. The ink is going to spread. Second, you’ve just increased your chances that there will be a visible halo of one or more of the primary colors bleeding into the white letters because of printer mis-registration. If everything isn’t lined up perfectly (and it won’t always) you’ve got a problem that’s going to be noticed.

Let’s reverse the strengths of printing on a white background for a second– I said that a black hairline would be visible on a white page… will a white hairline be visible on a solid black page? Even if you ONLY use black ink to create your background, no… it’s not going to happen. A white hairline is going to be devoured by all the ink surrounding it. I also said that a screen 3 to 5% away from white would be visible… is the reverse true? On a 100% black background will a screen of 97 to 95% black be discernible? Unh-uh… no way! You’re asking both your printing press and your eye to see the difference between a whole lot of ink and… slightly less, but still a whole lot of ink. It turns out that your eye is actually much better at seeing the difference between absolutely nothing… and a little something. Remember our 4 point serif typeface… how it was visible on a white background? Forget it on black… you won’t be able to read a word and the letters won’t be distinguishable because all the serifs and the letters will fill in.

So… what I’d add to your discussion is this in summary: from a design and printing standpoint using a white background offers a practical wider range of flexibility with your design. If you use black– and you can… we’ve all seen it done beautifully… you have to be much more careful with the contrasts that you use, the size of elements that go on the page, the combination of inks that make up the black, trapping issues for key elements, typeface sizes… a whole range of things. From that standpoint, if it is essential that an ad be attractive in order to be effective, then working from a black page presents some challenges that aren’t very forgiving if you mess up or don’t take everything into account. It can look really elegant, but it can also fail to be attractive in ways that wouldn’t fail when working from a white background. That isn’t a reason to avoid black or always choose white… just a comment from print experience on what it takes to BE effective when using black.
i like people who put in effort into their answers.. in my ideal world there'll be super helpful people like ricster here! :D
@ricster Good one!
It is my non-expert opinion that in general, black on white backgrounds lacks the warmth and subtlety that fosters endearment on a subconscious level. Of course, this is subject to the product or service advertised.
Good one.
You should write a book ricster! We'd all learn something :)
ricster, an excellent post.

As a print production manager from the old days I can say we had tricks for dealing with elements out of printed black (or other solid color) backgrounds that are not common if even available today.

We used to print black and black or black and gray duotones with flat, not process ink colors to keep halftone or duotone images from plugging up. If we had another color roller available on a multi-color press we would often run and extra pass of black with the first pass screened back. We controlled negatives for each print layer separately so could "fatty up" reversed type or rules and print one or more passes with the only the final black layer actually closing in on the element rather than trying to hit it with one pass of black. With process color we would often run a layer of screened cyan and fill it in with black.

With digital printing techniques one does not have the luxury of controlling the individual color layers anymore. Many contemporary print designers are not even trained to design and produce for flat color inks---just process.

Anyhow the best you can hope for sometimes is to set type larger than you might like and more bold to keep the black ink from plugging it up. Of course you must avoid frilly typefaces and design elements as well.

A couple other things to think about in designing with dark printed backgrounds are offsetting of remnant ink where you do not want it and a horrid situation called vapor ghosting.

Especially with highspeed web presses, ink residue can build up just on roller mechanisms handling the paper. This happens especially often when printing large, solid areas and if the corresponding location of elements in the print signature are a white background a haze can be left on the paper. It is important designers have some ideas of paper signatures or discuss such issues with their printer.

Vapor ghosting can happen under "ideal storm" situations when dark ink coverage literally vapors or evaporates up through a surface of the paper, often the side opposite the printing. It happens most often with cover stocks but is not unknown with book weights and the only way to fix it short of tossing $$$$$ worth of nice paper is to seal the surface and often with lamination that the design and budget did not allow.

As for whether white or black backgrounds look better depends on the design and what is going on around it if you know. Ad after ad of reversed out type gets pretty boring in a magazine. Sometimes your budget may not allow you to specify ad placement so you do not know. I will say that whether black or white background, I see a disturbing trend again toward eliminating "whitespace" and I guess some think the cluttered look is in. Remember that we identify letterforms and comprehend words as much by the space around them as the shapes themselves.

One final comment. If you are designing ads for newsprint production make sure you get your hands on the specific guidelines for how to prepare them for the unique qualities of this type of paper and the cold set inks used with it.
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