Procedures That Get Read (Part 2)

It was in 2000, working for an aerospace materials company, when it dawned on me that there was no need to stick to black and white when developing an operating procedure.

The main drawback at the time was the relative cost of printing a color page (the accounting folks said it worked out to 40 cents a page, vs. 3 cents for black and white). That did not faze me (sorry, accountants), but what gave me pause was that, once I produce one procedure in color, I will never be able to produce one in black and white again.

My pause was only momentary, as I plunged into the particular procedure (I do not remember the topic) and colorized some of the headings, rendered the photographs in color, and submitted the finished product to my boss. The color experiment was a success, certainly with the operators who were tasked with reading the procedure.

When compared with the previous black and white procedures, the color procedures were definitely more attractive, and quickly became the new standard for the organization.

Color is a wonderful thing, but color for color’s sake won’t make a procedure more effective. I am not sure I grasped this early on, as my inclusion of color started out as an experiment. But I realized, and ultimately standardized, the use of color as a guide to highlight specific types of information in the procedure.

Color type allows the procedure writer to make certain words or phrases stand out. In the black and white world, the only means to make words stand out were to use italics, bold type or underlines.

Color type, alone or in combination with italics, bold face or underlining, increases the number of options available to highlight information. A couple of examples:

1. The procedures I write introduce a number of words to the reader/learner. Instead of having a section of “definitions” of terms isolated from the process descriptions, I would highlight the term in blue italic letters the first time it appeared. For the reader, it signaled a key word that is defined in the paragraph (and a signal to me to ensure the term is defined).

2. Safety and quality are essential to the success of any manufacturing process or equipment operation. If a description or instruction is integral to safety or quality, it would get the color treatment. A quality-related statement is printed in red letters. A safety-related statement is printed in red, bold, italic letters.

In other uses, color is used in section headings to set apart the section. It is also used to highlight the presence of a step-by-step procedure (activity description).

The effectiveness of using color in a procedure is enhanced when the color (or color plus letter style) used means the same thing every time it appears. The specific colors used are secondary to the colors indicating a specific type of word or phrase is occurring. A style guide should be developed to serve as a template for procedure development, especially if multiple persons are charged with writing the procedures. I will offer a color style guide I use to anyone who requests it (email address below).

Caution: the effectiveness can be diminished if color is over-used. Even with my color scheme, over 95 percent of the words are rendered in plain black text.

(Note:  color can be further enhanced by use of stylized text boxes. This will be discussed in Part 5 of the series.)

Also, if you did not request your copy of my procedure writing course-in-development, I am sorry to tell you the price doubled as of August 1. However, since the course was free before August 1, the price increase should not preclude any of you from obtaining your own copy.

Make all requests to me at You can also contact me through LinkedIn (I will accept all connect requests generated by these blog posts).

In Part 3, I discuss the use of photographs in operating procedures.

Thank you, Tim James (Mr. Procedure)

About Tim James "Mr. Procedure"

A communicator; all-purpose capability in writing, designing and presenting training for all facets of organizational function. While my focus has been manufacturing, my training/development experience includes supervisory and lead person development, audit processes, continuous improvement and Lean, and Quality Management System implementation.
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