Shouting Fire : or reserving Alert-like font colors and weights for actual emergencies

Back in June of 2002, I developed the criteria by which I review a church presence on this website. Somewhere buried within the “Look-n-Feel” section of my 88 Theses, I posed the question:

Does the information avoid the use of fire engine red, unless it is announcing an absolute, cataclysmic emergency?

Yesterday morning, I received a call that church services were canceled due to snow and ice, but that the cantata slated for later that evening would proceed as scheduled. No problem. I have inserted on the front pages for the main, music and youth websites a PHP include directive that looked something like this:

<?php include(“/home/yoursite/public_html/includes/”); ?>

What this allows me to do is change one data file and presto, the alert box appears just below the sub-title of the center column on each site without having to recode, rebuild or re-engineer any of the pages that include the above snippet. In part because I’ve encapsulate the alert using the following custom CSS tag I’ve included in each sites style sheets:

.alert {
    border: 1px solid #990000;
    background: #FFFFCC;
    color: #990000;
    font: bold x-large;
    text-align: center;

That said, what makes this alert all the more effective is that I reserve the use of bold red text on a faded yellow background for those instances where the utmost urgency is required.

Which is why I would suggest to you to carefully consider the which font colors and font weights you choose to represent everyday data. Shouting too much will only cause your readers to ignore that which is truly important.

Let me put it another way. As some of you know, I’m a professionally trained opera singer. I have a really huge and loud voice. When I was a know-it-all high school kid, I proceeded under the misapprehension that loud singing equated to good singing. It wasn’t until my voice teacher in college explained to me that forte passages (a musical term for loud) was an effective means of adding dramatic intensity … but ONLY if it is surrounded it with piano phrasing (a term for singing not-so-loudly).

In other words, singing loud all the time is akin to crying wolf all the time. People begin to tune you out.

So too it is with your choice of font colors and weights. If you select a bold red theme and use bold red colors all the time, like say Liberty Baptist Church of Salt Lake City then you might find you’ve painted yourself into a corner with your color scheme. That is, your every day text appears to be yelling at your readers all the time.

My suggestion? Purpose-driven user testing. Have a set of goals, one of which is to see if users can find ‘urgent’ events after reading your page for about five minutes. Don’t tell them how the site works or what it is you’re really after. Just let them muddle through and see what happens. I guarantee, you might be shocked and awed at what they do.