Jobseeker’s Guide to Color on Résumés
Hiring managers don’t see candidates in terms of black and white. Not anymore, anyway. Color is becoming an increasingly important part of résumé design. Color on the résumé can help it stand out to human readers. Color can direct the reader’s eye to important information — especially accomplishments.
When using color on career documents, it is important to consider both color theory and color psychology.
Color theory is the collection of guidelines and principles designers use to communicate with users.
In 1666, Sir Isaac Newton defined three groups of colors:
- Primary (red, blue, yellow)
- Secondary (mixes of primary colors — orange, purple, green)
- Tertiary (also referred to as “intermediate” — these are mixes of primary and secondary colors)
The breakdown of colors is as follows:
- Red (primary)
- Orange (secondary)
- Red-Orange (tertiary)
- Yellow-Orange (tertiary)
- Yellow (primary)
- Yellow-Green (tertiary)
- Green (secondary)
- Blue-Green (tertiary)
- Blue (primary)
- Blue-Purple (tertiary)
- Purple (secondary)
- Red-Purple (tertiary)
Note that the colors you see on a screen don’t look the same in print. The RGB color profile consists of red, green, and blue hues that combine to create color variations. This color mode applies exclusively to digital displays (computer monitors, mobile devices, and television screens). However, color elements vary across different computer systems and models, so a RGB color on an iPad may look different than a RGB color on a Surface or a Chromebook.
An RGB profile uses an “additive” process to produce color by blending light. The color displayed on your screen depends on the presence or absence of RGB base hues. The presence of all RGB hues at full intensity yields white, while the absence of color produces black.
In contrast, print documents are primarily based on a CYMK color profile, which contains cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black) that combine to produce a range of hues. This four-color process works for any type of printer. If you’ve ever taken a magnifying glass to a printout, you can see the four-color dots that layer to create different hues and gradations. As with RGB profiles, a CYMK color profile varies among different styles and models of printers.
CYMK uses a “subtractive” color process. As inks and dyes are layered upon each other, they subtract from the white of the paper. (Think of it when you were a kid — when you mixed lots of different paint colors, it created a dark color — sometimes an ugly brown or black. Using fewer colors created a lighter color, an example of the subtractive color process.)
Most modern résumés are viewed on screen, so RGB is the primary factor in choosing colors. However, résumés are sometimes printed out, so make sure the résumé still looks appealing in print form.
Like font choice, color choice is often a matter of personal preference. Color theory is a fact (the practical application of mixing and matching various hues), while color psychology is a choice. Color psychology is the influence of colors on human mood and behavior.
At its most basic, résumé colors should reflect your personality and positioning. You can also apply color psychology to create a positive psychological impact on the résumé reader. Color choices should also consider accessibility — for example, being mindful of red-green color blindness in some readers.
While dark text on a light background is almost always readable, white letters on a dark background do still meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility guidelines because it provides sufficient contrast for readability. Reverse text (for example, black text on a blue background) can be an issue when using a low-contrast color on a low-contrast background, so high contrast is preferred. Text that is larger and has wider character strokes is easier to read; therefore, an 18-point bold font can have lower color contrast than a 12-point serif font.
Some hiring managers and recruiters express a strong preference for use — or avoidance — of color on career documents. Color is best for certain industries for sure — among them design, art, education, advertising, music, and fashion. But even more “traditional” industries are recognizing how effective color and design can be in attracting the reader’s attention.
However, some hiring managers like tradition and don’t like to see color anywhere on a résumé. If you are asked by a recruiter to remove the color from your résumé to submit to a specific hiring manager, do a “save as” of the file and remove it. But for most direct applications with a company, it’s perfectly acceptable to include color unless otherwise specified.