Better ways to visualise a box of uncertain colour when the possible colours are complementary?


enter image description here

I try to create an illustration containing certain items represented by coloured boxes (exhibits 1 and 2), with the colour distinguishing different types of items. Assume that the look of these boxes (shape, colour, …) is fixed. Now I need to create a third type of box that should represent an item whose type is not known, but that is either of the blue type or the orange type¹. I am struggling with how to best do this.

Here is what I considered so far and why I am not happy with it:

  • Exhibit 3: Splitting the fill colour of the box, making the question mark white. The part of the question mark on orange ground is not well visible.
  • Exhibit 4: Splitting the fill colour of the box, making the question mark black. The part of the question mark on blue ground is not well visible.
  • Exhibit 5: Splitting the fill colour of the box and the question mark. The question mark is difficult to recognise as one character.
  • Exhibit 6: Using some average fill colour between blue and orange. As the two are complementary, this does not make sufficiently clear that only blue and orange are possible states and that this is not about some state in-between the two.

All the above contain the question mark as I consider some indicator other than the fill necessary to indicate that the state is uncertain. This indicator does not need to be a question mark however.

My question is: Is there any better way to visualise this that I am missing?

In case this matters: This for a scientific poster (i.e., it should be readable from about 1 m distance), with each box being roughly 1 cm wide. The background is white. I cannot finetune the colours of the printed results but have to live with what I get.

¹ A case that is actually both, orange and blue is clearly excluded by context.

7/2/2015 3:00:00 PM

Accepted Answer

I think you don't have many more options that make sense. It's logical to use the 2 colors in the box and the question mark makes the message clear too.

But maybe you could play with the angle of your colors, and the font style too.

Examples for icon blue and orange

On the first one, I simply changed the angle and it seems to interfere less with the question mark. It really changes the style! Maybe a thin font would be more visible with that angle too. The font on this example is Museo 900, the same as the second icon.

On the 3 others, I used your angle for the colors, but different fonts and effects

  • Museo 900 font with no effect
  • Museo Sans Rounded 900 with a drop shadow
  • Verdana Bold with an angled solid black outline

Edit: Added the different angle with the 2 last effects.

Another example

7/2/2015 11:26:00 AM

Consider adjusting the colors so that a black or a white question mark will be visible on both of them, but keeping them the same at the borders. For example:

question mark thingy

You can still see the original colors on the borders, but the black question mark is now visible on the lightened interior (I just used the Brightness/Contrast tool in GIMP).

(In hindsight, the border probably should have been wider, so that the original colors would be more visible. Oh well, it's just an example.)