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Written by Susan ShorSusan Shor

Should you use color on your resume?

17 min read
Should you use color on your resume?
Artwork by:Alexandra Shevchenko
You want a memorable resume, but you want it memorable for the right reasons. Will color help or hinder that objective? Well…it depends. Read on to help you decide whether color is right for your job hunt and, if so, which colors are best.

A resume gives recruiters their first visual impression of you, and you’ve probably been told that you need to make it both memorable and professional. That’s true, but what’s the best way to design a resume that will capture the attention of the recruiter in a positive way? Can a black-and-white resume stand out in the crowd?

Color on your resume is a double-edged sword with many factors to consider. Within this blog, we will discuss:

  • How your resume will be viewed
  • Should you use color on your resume at all?
  • The factors to consider when deciding whether or not to use color
  • The best way to use color on your resume if you choose to use it at all
  • How to choose a color scheme that sends the right message

Before we dive into a discussion on resume color, you need to understand the ways in which recruiters and hiring managers handle applications.

How your resume will be viewed

Back in the very old days, you would have one resume that you would take to a print shop (I know!) and have printed on beautiful paper. You would carefully fold it in thirds and stuff it into an envelope. Color wasn’t an issue, because it was too expensive.

Home computing changed all that. That allowed you to use color, but it wasn’t until candidates began emailing resumes instead of printing them that color became a real option. In those days, job hunters may have gone a little overboard because they could, but older hiring managers and candidates still thought that adding color was unprofessional – some still do.

When the hiring manager acquires your resume today, it’s not through an email attachment (and certainly not through snail mail). Unless you are targeting a mom-and-pop shop of some kind, you are probably applying online through an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). In this first step, color is a moot point because the ATS scans your resume into its predetermined boxes (or you manually do it) and represents it within the app for recruiters.

Statistical insight

A Jobscan survey found that almost 99 percent of Fortune 500 companies, 66 percent of all large companies, and 35 percent of small companies employ an ATS to complete their initial scan of candidates.

You may also be asked to attach a PDF, which is where your layout and design (including resume color) come in. The HR department can either view this document onscreen or print it. (More on that later.)

Should you use color on your resume at all?

To use color on your resume or not to use color on your resume. That is the question. This decision can make a big impact on a big life change: a new job or career and you may be wringing your hands over it almost as much as a Shakespearean actor does.

There really isn’t a definitive answer. Opinions vary, and this is part of the problem. Why? Because there’s no single correct way to present yourself as an excellent job candidate. Keep your focus on your goal: getting the interview. Just as we recommend customizing the content of your application documents, we recommend targeting the use of color on your resume to the company and position.

Crafting a great resume and cover letter means putting in the extra effort to understand what each employer wants. It may take a bit more time upfront, but if you don’t address your prospective employer’s needs in your application, you may as well not apply.

Colorful shapes with which colors to choose
Colorful shapes with which colors to choose

5 Factors to consider when deciding whether or not to use color

That brings us to how to determine what your prospective employer wants and the factors to consider when deciding whether to use color in your resume. 

1. What’s your profession? 

Is it professional to have color on your resume? The key word here is “professional.” What is your profession? If you’re an elementary school teacher, absolutely you should use color. If you’re a corporate finance attorney, probably not unless you are applying to be the lawyer for a hipster startup. See what we mean about no definitive answer?

Artists, advertising and marketing people, photographers, designers, architects, travel agents, and any other profession that falls into the “creative” category, should definitely show off their talents with the appropriate use of color on their resume. Even in these cases, color should not overwhelm content. Presumably, you have a portfolio of your work that showcases your style, including how you use color in different situations. You can link to your portfolio directly from your resume using an online resume builder such as the one from Resume.io.

Professionals in more conservative careers will probably want to steer clear of color, especially too much color or an overly bright color palette. Corporate attorneys (as mentioned above), accountants, bankers, medical professionals, businesspeople of all types, in fact, any profession in which your authority matters, should avoid color.

Some careers are still a judgment call. If you’re a customer service representative, it depends on what industry you work in. Book editors? Maybe, depending on the type of literature. Engineers? Software developers? Does your role require creative thinking?

The bottom line: err on the side of little to no color unless you are in a creative role. 

2. What is your role?

Are you an entry-level employee in a service job who will be the face of the business? Color may be right for you because you need to seem friendly, cheerful, and communicative. If you are the bookkeeper in the same business, it’s more important for you to show you are detail-oriented and deadline driven.

3. What is the company culture?

Do some research here to determine how conservative the company is. This will come in handy when you determine the tone of your resume summary and your cover letter, but it will also clue you in on whether adding color will help or hinder your candidacy.

While the industry itself may often give you your answer, you may be applying to the finance company that likes a little levity or creativity of thought. The job advertisement itself may give you an idea, but if not, check out the website, the executive bios, or articles about the company to make an informed decision about whether color is a plus or a minus.

Expert tip

Network

Are you active on LinkedIn or in industry groups? If you have a connection to someone who works at the company to which you are applying, mine their brains! Come out and ask whether the hiring manager is likely to respond better to a black-and-white resume or one with color.

Of course, you should also gather any other information that will help you get the interview – and the job.

4. Do you need to add personality?

A resume can be a dry recitation of your ability to get the job done. The only spot where you can add a little snap is your summary, but that’s a mere four lines of text. If you feel that you need to bump up the personality factor a bit, color can do the trick.

5. How will your resume be viewed?

What are the chances that the HR department is going to print your resume out in color – if they choose to print it at all? Large companies usually have HR departments, but in smaller organizations it may be the manager or even the company owner who is sorting through resumes.

Color is less important if you know that an HR person is going to print your resume so that they can pass it along to other personnel. It’s important to note that color does not affect the ATS scan.

Expert tip

What about your cover letter?

Your cover letter is a mostly-text document, but the header of your application letter, which contains your name, title, and contact information, allows for the use of color. Coordinate the style and color of your resume with that of your cover letter. You are creating a cohesive application package and it should be obvious that your documents go together.

The best way to use color on your resume 

We’ll start out by saying that you can’t go wrong using too little color, but you can certainly go wrong with too much.

Here are signs that you’re going a little overboard:

  • You use more than three colors
  • The color covers more than 20 percent of the page
  • The message is lost amid the color
  • And … the most important: Color makes your resume difficult to read.

There are a couple of locations within your resume that lend themselves most easily to a splash of color: the header and the skills section. 

The header: This section of your resume is already a design element. You want your name and contact information to stand out. Any barrier a recruiter encounters when trying to contact you for that coveted interview may send them on to the next candidate.

Using color as a background to highlight these key bits of data will draw the recruiter’s eye right where you want it. Be careful, however, to use a color that contrasts nicely with your text so that your name pops. A dark blue background with black type is hard on the eyes, and when dark blue is viewed in black and white, it may look almost black and obscure your name.

Skills section: Depending on your resume format, the skills section may function as a graphic element as well. The skills section may form a column on one side of your resume that will accommodate either color underlining or a subtle background color. Because this type likely will be the same size as the rest of your text, it is even more important to ensure legibility.

Placing color on your resume with care can be used as a tool to guide the eye of the recruiter where you want it to go. Many companies use eye-tracking software to determine where to place vital products or other details on their web pages. The idea is to create a flow. Designers know that many English speakers look at a page using an “F” pattern, scanning from left to right for visual cues. They then follow the visual cues to the information they seek. Color, bullet points, and section headings are all visual cues.

We recommend sticking with black type and using color for highlighting; however, if you choose to color your text, make sure you use a color that contrasts well against a white background.

Even if you choose not to use any color in your resume, a visual resume is essential.

How to choose a color scheme that sends the right message

Appropriate use of color on your resume enhances the message. Get clear on what you’re trying to convey before you choose which colors to use.

One idea is to mimic the colors the company uses in its logo and other branded content. This sends the message that you have the same values as the company. It also signals that you took the time to personalize just for this specific job.

You may choose two colors for your resume: One for your header and one for other highlighted items such as your section titles, bullets, or background for your skills section. These may be different shades of the same color or complementary colors (those that are opposite on the color wheel) such as red and green.

Different colors have different connotations. You may choose dark or light shades of these basic colors, but keep in mind that you need high contrast between text and background for your resume to remain easy to read. Below is a list of colors and the feelings they invoke:

Warm colors

  • Red: A fiery color, red projects energy, courage, health, and life, but also anger and war. Be careful with the use of  too much of this passionate color.
  • Yellow: A ray of sunshine, yellow projects warmth and happiness, but also cowardice and deceit. Too bright of a shade of yellow as a background can be tough on the eyes and too light a shade may be difficult to read as a text color.
  • Orange: Orange may be just the right color for a more relaxed career because it projects fun, strength, courage, and creativity. Don’t go too bright, though, or your resume will look like a warning sign.

Cool colors

  • Blue: Researchers have found that although blue is associated with sadness or the blues, the color has a positive effect on most people. Blue also symbolizes loyalty and calm.
  • Green: This is a great color for any outdoorsy or environmental science job. In addition to nature, green symbolizes wisdom. On the flip side, a person can be green with envy
  • Purple: The color of royalty and elites, purple also represents spirituality and holiness.

Mixed colors

  • Brown: A neutral, earthy color, brown evokes warmth, security, and wholesomeness. Because it also contains cool undertones, it serves as a calming color as well.
  • Pink: Mostly considered warm because of its red base, pink with magenta undertones is a cooler shade. It represents approachability, compassion, nurturing, and playfulness.

Of course, these are simply guidelines. If your favorite color is yellow – go for it. One of the main ideas behind the use of color on your resume is projecting your own personality

No matter what your decision is when it comes to color, make sure you test your layout and design with friends or trusted colleagues before you hit send. A second set of eyes never hurts. For a jump on your layout, try one of our expertly-designed and customizable resume templates!

Key takeaways

  • There’s no simple answer to the big question: Should I use color on my resume?
  • Two of the biggest factors in this decision are the industry in which you work and your desired role within the company
  • Getting to know your prospective employer’s culture and philosophy will help you decide whether or not to use color on your resume. Traditional industries may have casual businesses within them and vice versa
  • The main goal of your resume is to convey information about your career, so don’t let color overwhelm your message
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Build your resume in 15 minutes
Build your resume in 15 minutes
Use professional field-tested resume templates that follow the exact ‘resume rules’ employers look for.
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