Black or white background for presentation slides
May 27, 2011 7:18 AM   Subscribe

I'm speaking at a technical conference in about 2 weeks and my slides (in openoffice) are using black as its background color. But recently in a podcast, several people commented that for conferences, it is mandatory that slides use white for the background to enhance the legibility. On this previous question, the commented used white text on an almost black background. Should I reformat my slides to use a white background ?
posted by lahersedor to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think black (or very dark) text on a white (or very light) background is best for visibility.

It will also "work" across a wider range of monitors, projectors, print-outs etc. I've found projectors struggle to project white text on a dark background as clearly as they can dark on light.
posted by chrispy108 at 7:22 AM on May 27, 2011

Steve Jobs uses white text on a dark background, and Garr Reynolds from Presentation Zen uses a lot of it too.

I wouldn't worry about it.
posted by emilyw at 7:32 AM on May 27, 2011

Contact the organizers. If they have requirements, they'll tell you. Otherwise, light text on a dark background is pretty much the gold standard for visibility and readability. I'm partial to yellow/gold on dark blue.
posted by valkyryn at 7:35 AM on May 27, 2011

Good timing, we were just having this conversation. I'm giving a conference presentation soon (academic not tech, but same diff). The old advice was yellow on blue. But no one does that anymore. We were debating between white on black or black on white. Personally I prefer white on black, but all the profs here pushed for black on white. Apparently, it is better for visibility according to these folks. Not to drop appeals to authority onto the argument, but some of the people are vision scientists so I'll take their word on it.
posted by Smegoid at 7:38 AM on May 27, 2011

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posted by Smegoid at 7:43 AM on May 27, 2011

It's not necessarily the color of the background that determines the best legibility. It's the size of the text and the contrast between the text and the background that matters. That said, white text on black will visually fill-in and degrade more readily than black text on white.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:45 AM on May 27, 2011

Check this out: Steal this Presentation
posted by hudders at 7:47 AM on May 27, 2011

Lots of people use white on black, and for the most part it's fine. But as Thorzdad said, visual fill-in is enough of an issue that many newspapers with their own font have a special higher-weight version for inverted uses. If you don't want to flip the color, maybe just make the text bold or use a thicker font?
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:47 AM on May 27, 2011

White on black works well for text, but can really suck for charts and tables, IMO. White on black tends to be visually "thinner" than black on white. Points and lines can easily get lost in white on black schemes, in my experience, while a plot in a black on light scheme is easier to see.
posted by bonehead at 7:48 AM on May 27, 2011

Yes please.
posted by Xany at 7:50 AM on May 27, 2011

I think I'm going to:
a) revisit my current light on dark color schemes.
b) create 2 versions & test it out a few minutes before the start of the talk.

Here is an example slide from my talk.
posted by lahersedor at 7:55 AM on May 27, 2011

Datapoint of one, but: My students this semester built an assistive device for a guy with retinitis pigmentosa. His specific complaint was that black text on white background (eg, all his mail) was impossible to read because there was so much light coming from the white that it bled over the black text and washed it all out. For years he had been scanning all his mail, opening it in Photoshop, and inverting it so it was white on black which worked much better for him.

I'm not sure where the research actually stands on this but retinitis pigmentosa tends to act as a good proxy for the extreme end of a lot of other visual issues, to it might be generally applicable. (But we all might be answering the wrong question; there's a big difference between "what is best" and "what will piss off people inclined to say, 'we always do it this [other] way.'")
posted by range at 8:10 AM on May 27, 2011

Not keen on the font you use in the heading.......that was difficult to read just on screen, nevermind the back of the room.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:15 AM on May 27, 2011

@koahiatamadl, I'm going to replace the header phone.
posted by lahersedor at 8:20 AM on May 27, 2011

posted by lahersedor at 8:21 AM on May 27, 2011

It's a small point, but "in order to" (which you use in two successive bullets) can be replaced with "to" thereby reducing the word count. Have a great presentation!
posted by carmicha at 9:49 AM on May 27, 2011

I generally stick to black text on a white background, but it's mostly tradition. Another motivation for me is that this creates readable handouts for my students. I've seen many handouts (the standard 4 or 6 slides per page style) that look like crap once you try to print them.
posted by swordfishtrombones at 10:28 AM on May 27, 2011

"Lots of people use white on black, and for the most part it's fine. But as Thorzdad said, visual fill-in is enough of an issue that many newspapers with their own font have a special higher-weight version for inverted uses. "

Newspaper do that to compensate for dot gain, that is, the paper absorbing the ink and spreading it into the letters. That's not an issue with pixels.

I like white on black. It looks cleaner and you don't have a glaring white screen. But that's just me.
posted by cccorlew at 11:29 AM on May 27, 2011

Black on white, white on black, either way you are going to strain the eyes according to this article. It's the contrast that hurts the eyes and makes text seem less legible.

However, the projector can also impact the legibility of the presentation. If the bulb is dirty or needs to be changed, colors will seem washed out, dull, or off-color, so having a high contrast presentation may actually be better. Alternately, I'm assuming that you will be presenting in a dimly lit room, so that may also have an impact on what strains the eyes and what doesn't.

Personally, I get migraines if I browse webpages in the dark on my computer because most web pages tend to have white backgrounds with black text. In the dark, it's much easier for my eyes to read a web page with a black background and white text.

Anyway, I researched this issue a little bit before posting, and all in all, I've found that there is no real consensus on the matter. My suggestion: just keep your text big and bold, and you should eliminate all eye strain problems.
posted by nikkorizz at 11:39 AM on May 27, 2011

I haven't done that many conference presentations, but I do a lot of in-house corporate ones and my rule is to prepare two versions and decide based on the room, the lighting, and the quality of the projection system which one to use. My own presentation design style is similar to the "Steve Jobs Keynote style," so the type is seldom below 24 point and included graphics tend to be either photos, photorealistic, or very, very clean charts. All of the points expressed above are well-worth considering, but frankly none of it matters until you hit the room and see what you have to work with.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 11:46 AM on May 27, 2011

Imagine going to the optometrist for an eye examine

The lights are turned off and there's a projection on the wall with lines of black letters of different sizes against a bright white background. You are asked to read the smallest line possible. You do you best.

Now imagine you are in the same dark dark room, except this time the letters are white and are displayed against a black background. Again, you are asked to read the smallest line possible. And again, you do your best.

What does this experience tell you? It tells you that bigger letters are more readable.

I would be less concerned with the color scheme and more concerned with how big your letters are. When you're at the optometrist, you don't care if the letters are white on a black background, or black on a white background, you only care about reading the letters. Assume that your audience is going to be the same way.
posted by nikkorizz at 11:54 AM on May 27, 2011

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