Web Design

Of all the issues that Web designersface, how to use colour is one of the thorniest
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The Independent Online

OF ALL OF the issues - thoseaggravating little problems for which there are no easy answers - that Webdesigners face, how to use colour is one of the thorniest. On onehand, we have the need to create visually interesting sites, usephotographic imagery, and even try to reproduce colours from the printworld. On the other hand, we have to balance the fact that there arestill a lot of people surfing the Web with less than cutting-edgeequipment.

OF ALL OF the issues - thoseaggravating little problems for which there are no easy answers - that Webdesigners face, how to use colour is one of the thorniest. On onehand, we have the need to create visually interesting sites, usephotographic imagery, and even try to reproduce colours from the printworld. On the other hand, we have to balance the fact that there arestill a lot of people surfing the Web with less than cutting-edgeequipment.

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

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

Bob Stein Atfirst, I thought something must have been wrong with my monitor. Everycolour with 33 in the code looked almost indistinguishable from the same colourwith 00 in it. I did a survey that showsit's almost exclusively a PC thing, but almost universally so. Thatmeans, practically speaking, there are only 125 different colours in theweb-safe palette.

JCT It seems like I am constantly debating withgraphic designers who come from a print background about why they should limittheir Web design colour palette to the browser safes. What are some goodarguments for going browser safe?

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

Onecounterpoint raised is that much of this same debate went on among Windowsapplications developers four years ago. Multi-media developers seemed tofeel 8-bit 256-colour palettes were dead then, just before the web ingeneral and Netscape in particular brought them back, specifically in theform of the 216-colour web-safe palette. In fact, palm-sizedcomputers currently with 1-bit palettes may keep lower-depth colour alivefor quite a while longer.

JCT So when would you deviate from thebrowser-safe palette?

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

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

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

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

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

Then Ithink it is a good idea to try to see what everyone will be seeing. Ati-on (www.i-on.com), one of the top Web-designfirms in south Florida, they have a farm of monitors of all stripe forsolving this very dilemma.

Most of all I recommend not getting yourexpectations up too high about screen and print matching. This is just oneexample of how the world doesn't always translate obviously from one mediumto another.

Great product literature can't become a great onlineresource with just a scanner and Adobe Acrobat. A lucrative businessdoesn't usually get made into a lucrative website without radicalre-thinking and fundamental transformation.

Maybe a great online lookand a great on-shelf look are fundamentally different challenges aswell.

Jason Cranford Teague is theauthor of DHTML for the World Wide Web. You can find an archive of thiscolumn at WebbedEnvironments.

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