Titles, captions or subtitles – whatever they are called – all accomplish the same thing: communicate information while superimposed on top of a graphical image.
When the background image is a solid color, there is usually no problem reading the text. The problem occurs when the background image varies in color such as in a photograph. Untreated text will “melt” into the background and be difficult, if not impossible to read.
Problem: Text Disappears Into Background
Pictures need captions to describe the scene or prompt the viewer to act. As such, the text is more important than the image but the image gives the text a much-needed reinforcement. Text by itself can be unattractive and adding an image behind it makes it much more appealing to read.
The problem is that the image absorbs the text, making the text indistinguishable from the image. This happens when the colors in the image match or approximate the colors of the text. This has the effect of making the text look incomplete and therefore difficult to read. The viewer will either strain to read it and give up after reading a few words or not bother reading it at all.
This is not a good design, especially when the viewer has a limited time to read the text, such as when driving past a billboard, walking past a poster or holding an audience’s attention during a sales presentation using PowerPoint. Fast readability is crucial to marketing and publicity.
Solution: Stroke Effect
The simple solution to this problem is to add a border or “stroke” effect to the text. A stroke effect is a thin outline that goes around each letter, usually in a darker color such as black.
When applied properly, the border enhances readability tremendously. The text seems to “pop” off the background. The text is restored to its rightful prominence in being the important part of the picture.
The stroke effect separates the text from the background, thus restoring the shape of the text. The viewer can now distinguish between text and background, even if the background and text are the same color.
Additional Solution: Shadow Effect
Another effect that enhance the separation between text and image is the shadow effect. This complements the stroke effect by creating a soft shadow underneath the text to “neutralize” the effect of the background colors by darkening it. This has the effect of making the text seem brighter.
Text with the stroke and shadow effect stand out clearly from the background without distracting the viewer. The shadow gives the text a three-dimensional look, and therefore, a more interesting and natural appearance. The shadow effect is particularly useful when the background is very “busy”, with many bright colors clustered together.
Image editing programs can vary the thickness of the stroke and the strength and size of the shadow to ensure that the text remains distinct from the background.
These techniques are simple and easy to do but their benefits can be the difference between a sign being read and being ignored.