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Every designer grapples with this problem. The grappling evolves like this:
When you start designing pages, you’re mostly happy (and relieved) just to see your pages print:
But as time goes by, you get a little bored with the basic black-on-white look. And you realize that if you just add a slight background tint to your layout — a light gray, maybe, or a sandy brown — your pages seem more stylish. More elegant. More sophisticated:
Excellent! A powerful new design breakthrough! You’re a pro! Except that, before long:
— You start noticing how those gray and brown background screens make a lot of pages look drab and dreary;
— You start hearing how background screens make text tougher to read;
— Your screens sometimes print too dark, and pages get muddy, and one day your boss suggests that you might want to avoid those clunky gray and brown backgrounds from now on.
And that’s when you begin to re-appreciate the elegant simplicity of basic black on white.
Now, that explains why most older boss-types are less fond of background screens than young designers are. But I say: Never remove a good tool from your toolbox. And background screens are a terrific design tool when used smartly — even on Page One.
Check out these examples:
If it’s guidelines you need, try these:
— Have a reason for running a background screen. Don’t just throw a gray wash over the page because it seems less dull that way. The two best reasons for adding a screen are:
a) to help visually organize a complex layout. For instance, if you’re assembling a package that combines photos, sidebars, charts, etc., a subtle page screen can help unify elements, calm the chaos, guide the reader’s eye and help items “pop.” OR:
b) to add drama or flair to a special story or feature. Think, for a moment, of good magazine design. Most magazine pages are white, of course, but when magazine designers decide it’s time for something bold or punchy, they lay down a large tint blocks in aggressive ways. (Which usually looks more stylish than a mousy gray or brown screen.)
In short: A flat, white background provides a clean, elegant canvas, yes — but you gotta admit, white does little to organize or energize a page.
— Choose tints with care. The biggest danger is losing contrast between the type (foreground) and the tint (background), which drains visual impact and reduces readability. So keep your light screens light, and your dark screens dark enough to reverse out type, if that’s your plan. Get to know your press’s strengths and weaknesses; test small before you think big. Keep type readable by keeping tints reliable.
— Gather examples of good-looking screenwork from well-designed magazines, newspapers and Web sites. Discuss what works and what doesn’t; draw up some general guidelines with your boss (or your underlings) so everybody can avoid both paranoia and recklessness.