Technical Writing Tip: Converting to Grayscale

June 28, 2023 Breanne MacDonald

At ASCENT, we produce our learning guides and other materials in a variety of formats: print books, eBooks, eLearning, etc. Knowing this, I try to keep in mind how our material is going to work across all of these formats when I’m editing.  

In particular, our learning guides are created in color for eBooks and eLearning, but the print versions are printed in black and white, which means we have to be aware that they are going to be converted to grayscale, to ensure that our content works for both outputs. This may also be the case for your documents, even if you don’t produce specific versions using grayscale, as you can never be sure how your end user might access your document – even a webpage may be printed from a home computer in grayscale to save on colored ink. 

Here are a few tips to keep in mind to ensure your content works in both color and grayscale. 


Many documents use different styles to distinguish between heading levels within the document. While size is certainly an often-used differentiator, color can also be used. However, when converted to grayscale, this distinction can easily be lost if the tones of the color are similar (even if in full color they are very different), as in Example 1 below. Example 2 changes the colors so they are different in tone and some difference can be seen in greyscale, but they still are very similar. Example 3 uses different sizes and styles instead of different colors, so the distinction is much clearer even though the same color is used. 

Having more than one point of difference between styles, like using different sizes or using bold or underlining, will ensure your headings maintain their distinctions even when converted to grayscale. 


If you use shading as backgrounds for tables or other elements, be sure to do a check in grayscale before deciding on a final color or saturation. You want to check that the text still stands out from the shaded background and that the shading isn’t too light to be captured in grayscale.  


You will want to make sure there is enough contrast between your colors so that they still can be distinguished separately once converted to grayscale. This can particularly affect images with callouts. For example, red text may stand out on an image with a different colored background, but once converted to grayscale, the tones in the image may be too similar to the tone of the red and the callout will disappear, as shown in the example below.    

As you can see above, the red arrow in the image almost completely disappears when the image is converted to greyscale (as in the image below).

I solved this issue by changing the arrow to black: 

It is helpful to do a print test in grayscale to check that your images aren’t too dark and that any added features or callouts still stand out once converted. 

I hope these tips were useful! 

About the Author

Breanne MacDonald

Technical Editor<br><br>Fueled by her meticulous nature, an eye for detail, and a love of books, Breanne has been an editor for over 10 years. She has been a technical editor with ASCENT since 2019, and outside the office she is an avid volunteer with the Editors’ Association of Canada. Breanne holds a Bachelor of Arts from Wilfrid Laurier University and a certificate in publishing from Ryerson University.

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