The Science Behind Web Colors Essay

Length: 1241 words

The technological advancements of the late twentieth century has introduced artists to a new type of medium, the web. Beneath the Webs complex jumble of hyperlinks, documents, and multimedia offerings lies a programming language that keeps all the content in its place. Without this ubiquitous, yet often unseen HTML code to hold the Web together, the medium itself could not exist, and cyberspace would be a vastly different experience for most users.

The growth of the Internet has spawned a generation of high-tech artists. Rather than creating artwork with conventional mediums such as paints and brushes, these new age artists are using pixels and trackballs to create their masterpieces. Unfortunately, a major dilemma that web artists have to account for is color. According to graphic designer Roger Pring, many web designers overlook the importance of color when designing a web site. Color reproduction on the Web is not nearly at the quality level needed to exhibit the artworks that are produced in millions of colors.

Accordingly, designers are left with a color palette of only 216 web safe colors. The discussion of web color theory remains unfamiliar to many designers, as well as myself. I will investigate

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the unknown restrictions on designing for the web and explain why there are only 216 safe colors. In order to understand the model of 216 web safe colors, we must explore the use of color across different computer platforms. As the world of high tech consumers remain split between Mac and PC computing platforms, the growth of the Internet has caused a resurgence of computer use. In 1995, there were an estimated 56 million Internet users worldwide; by 2005, this figure is expected to rise to over 200 million.

A wealth of information is readily available to those who possess the technological means to access and to contribute to it. This includes Mac, PC, and Linux users. The unfortunate consequence of offering various operating systems is an absence of a standard. Different operating systems have a tendency to process color differently. Gamma is the measure of contrast displayed by a monitor, and traditionally, it has been set at 1.8 for Apple Macintosh systems and 2.2 for PCs. Where gamma relates to color space, the higher (pc) value has the property of showing more shadow detail in any given image. It is therefore important that images processed in one gamma environment be converted correctly whenever they are transferred to another platform. The decision for which platform to use, Mac or PC, is strictly up to the user. While a greater percentage of graphic designers use Macintosh Systems, I am personally more comfortable with a PC. Nevertheless, designers across all platforms share the common frustration of designing for the web.

The model behind the 216 web safe colors follows along the mechanisms of a computer monitor. In a conventional CRT (cathode- ray tube) monitor the screen image is made of glowing phosphors-organic chemicals that degrade progressively overtime. Repeating patterns of Red, Green, and Blue dots are applied to the inner screen of the computer monitor. Electron guns at the rear of the tube activate each phosphor across an aperture grille. The point of the grill is to ensure that the beam is accurately directed onto the relevant phosphor. Each pixel can only produce 256 different colors.

As computer graphics cards were produced to allow the user to change the intensity of the pixel, the capabilities of color expanded. If each of the three dots can be controlled to produce any one of 256 levels of intensity, you have millions of colors (actually, over 16 million colors). However, the laws of print do not relate to the guidelines of the web. Rather than taking advantage of the millions of colors displayed on our computers, web designers are only limited to a safe 216 colors. The reason there are not 256 colors to choose from is that some of the colors on 256 color displays had to be reserved for colors used by the Operating System. The remaining 40 colors vary on Macs and PCs. By eliminating the 40 patchy colors, this palette is optimized for cross-platform use. The Browser-Safe Palette is the actual palette that Mosaic, Netscape, and Internet Explorer use within their browsers. The palettes used by these browsers are slightly different on Macs and PCs. The web safe palette is based on math, not beauty.

The binary code name for the color used in html is called hexadecimal, or HEX. Hex is used because it is the easiest way to represent the value of a standard 8 bit binary computer byte, and there are a lot of those around that need to be represented. In print, color descriptions are specified using the CMYK or RGB color format. Unfortunately, web browsers will not understand this format. Thus, color must be modified into a language the browsers can understand hexadecimal. Conversion is done in a variety of ways. One way is to select a color divisible by 51 (although 0 is also accepted). This means 0, 51, 102, 153, 204, 255. This gives 6x6x6 = 216 possible colors. The most convenient option to use a web safe palette is to use a web safe color chart. These charts are relatively inexpensive and offer visible descriptions for each hexadecimal color. The Browser-Safe Palette is useful for solid-color illustrations, two-dimensional logos with solid-color, and areas in any image that have a lot of a single color.

The obvious limitations to web design demonstrate the need for standardization. Similar to the metric system, a uniform measure for color should be implemented to expand the appearance of art on the web. A couple of organizations are making efforts to bring color standardization to computer products and the Internet. One such company is The International Color Consortium. The ICC was established in 1993 by eight industry vendors for the purpose of creating, promoting and encouraging the standardization and evolution of an open, vendor-neutral, cross-platform color management system architecture and components. The types of products produced by these ICC members include ink-jet printers, computer operating systems, stock photography, and printed publications.

One major issue which facing the ICC is meeting the demands of technology. As new and advanced computer peripherals are produced, the ICC must take into technological advancements. As the metric system will remain unchanged, the color standards for the web will change according to the technological capabilities. Novice web designers should be aware of the unfamiliaritys of the web. It would be very unfortunate to see magnificent web pages that dither across different operating systems. The effect of dithering is caused by a transformation of colors. For example, if I chose pantone 450u for my web page, it may look like the exact opposite color on another operating system.

The advantage of choosing a color from the web safe palette ensures a consistent design across different platforms. I personally prefer print rather than web design. The limitations of the Internet do not yet offer the freedom of using millions of colors. I do not like the idea of creating artwork with limitations and restrictions. However, I am intrigued that the Internet is still a relatively novel idea. The web not only provided a new medium for expression, but it also introduced a new profession for artists. I can only imagine what the next few decades bring to the web.


Cozac, David. High Tech Industrial Movement. TIME. 22 April 1999 < magazine/archive/ >. <> International Color Consortium Pring, Roger. www.color. Watson-Guptil Publications 2000

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