Network: Web Design: Why colours give us all such a headache

It's almost exclusively a PC thing.Practically speaking there are only 125 different colours in the web safe palette
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The Independent Culture
OF ALL OF the issues - those aggravating little problems for which there are no easy answers - that Web designers face, how to use colour is one of the thorniest. On one hand, we have the need to create visually interesting sites, use photographic imagery, and even try to reproduce colours from the print world. On the other hand, we have to balance the fact that there are still a lot of people surfing the Web with less than cutting-edge equipment.

One man who is working to clear the confusion that Web designers face when using colour is Bob Stein. Bob started the website VisiBone (www.visibone.com), which includes tools to help even the most experienced designer find the right colours for a site. In fact, his poster of browser-safe colours (yes, it's a printed poster) is one of my most valuable assets.

Jason Cranford Teague I read your article about how the browser-safe colour palette is even more limited than we originally thought. How did you discover this?

Bob Stein At first, I thought something must have been wrong with my monitor. Every colour with 33 in the code looked almost indistinguishable from the same colour with 00 in it. I did a survey (www.visibone.com/colorlab/colortest.html) that shows it's almost exclusively a PC thing, but almost universally so. That means, practically speaking, there are only 125 different colours in the web-safe palette.

JCT It seems like I am constantly debating with graphic designers who come from a print background about why they should limit their Web design colour palette to the browser safes. What are some good arguments for going browser safe?

BS Many graphics designers seem to be happily throwing off the web-safe palette yoke and going ahead with (or back to) the almost infinitely variable 24-bit palette.

One counterpoint raised is that much of this same debate went on among Windows applications developers four years ago. Multi-media developers seemed to feel 8-bit 256-colour palettes were dead then, just before the web in general and Netscape in particular brought them back, specifically in the form of the 216-colour web-safe palette. In fact, palm-sized computers currently with 1-bit palettes may keep lower-depth colour alive for quite a while longer.

JCT So when would you deviate from the browser-safe palette?

BS Practically speaking, I think there are many cases where it's a good decision to digress from the palette. A subtle pastel gradient can look so sharp if done really right. And I tend to think users (with older computers) blame themselves and their computers more than they do site owners, especially after they've gotten used to things clearly looking out of kilter.

On the other hand, there are still cases where it makes sense to stick to the palette, in page, table and GIF backgrounds, and in text colours, where a palette colour will do fine. What I intended to do with my browser-safe colour palette poster is to make the 216-colour set a little more accessible, a little more visible. I'm not at all religious about sticking with the palette myself, but I still find it handy to know where it is and make conscious individual decisions whether or not to stay browser-safe.

JCT Right now I'm working on a project where I am trying to re-create the colours of products as colour swatches on the web. The problem is, of course, that I can't predict the exact outcome on the visitor's machine. Any recommendations on how to make the colours as close as possible to their real-life counterparts?

BS It is a real problem as the line begins to blur between reality and cyberspace, isn't it? I wonder when we'll hear more of the opposite problem: a company started on the web wants stationery or packaging to match its web colours and can't seem to get it right with inks.

The wondrous human eye can compensate for a lot and I tend to think people get used to their own monitors. So an easy first step I'd say is to pick the colours on the monitor you use most.

Then I think it is a good idea to try to see what everyone will be seeing. At i-on (www.i-on.com), one of the top Web-design firms in south Florida, they have a farm of monitors of all stripe for solving this very dilemma.

Most of all I recommend not getting your expectations up too high about screen and print matching. This is just one example of how the world doesn't always translate obviously from one medium to another.

Great product literature can't become a great online resource with just a scanner and Adobe Acrobat. A lucrative business doesn't usually get made into a lucrative website without radical re-thinking and fundamental transformation.

Maybe a great online look and a great on-shelf look are fundamentally different challenges as well.

Jason Cranford Teague is the author of `DHTML For the World Wide Web'.

If you have questions, you can find an archive of his column at Webbed Environments (www.webbedenvironemtns.com) or e-mail him at jason@webbedenvironemts.com.

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