The Science Behind Web Colors

The technological advancements of the late twentieth century has introduced
artists to a new type of medium, the web. Beneath the Web’s 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 the unknown
restrictions on designing for the web and explain why there are only 216 safe

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 PC’s. 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

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

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