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What Color Is Your Website?
by William Szczepanek

Article 6: December 6, 2007

Color is a major part of our lives.  Without it life becomes dreary.  With too much of it we react in strange and different ways.  Color as a function of design has been a topic of conversation forever.

Content is King

But, something has been happening on the Web of late that has many wondering.  Color is disappearing.  Content is king.  Pages are now chock full of links with no white space.  White space in page layout has always been of great importance in directing the reader to the most important part of a page.  The typical Web page is now so full of places go and things to see that the immediate purpose of the page is lost in an array of links and advertising.  White space is now the background behind the black text.  Pages are so crowded with links that the blue underline only appears on rollover.  MSN’s home page is a mass of blue text, all links, on a background of white.  Yahoo! is the same.  The more prim and proper the image, the more likely you will find black text on a white page.

The same is happening on television.  The news that is being presented is at times upstaged by the words scrolling across the bottom, or the top, or sides, and images are presented in a frenetic pattern that challenges even those with ADD. So, is this all a part of the new communication method geared to those who can’t possibly be happy only doing one thing at a time? What can we say about color in the design of a Web page?

Background and Text on a Web page 

Let’s consider the text and background.  In general, black text on a white background projects a more conservative and businesslike image, whereas, light text on a dark background expresses a younger or more artsy image. The majority of web pages use black text on a white background.  This is understandable since we have been reading the written word this way for a few centuries and our eyes have become accustomed to this combination. In addition most browsers follow the standard that unvisited links are blue with underlines and visited links are purple. Also, of the 25 most visited Web sites worldwide, 19 of 25 used blue unvisited hyperlinks and about 50% of all sites used blue links.  If everyone used black text on a white background the meaning of these colors would be more evident.  But the standard is followed loosely; therefore, we sometimes have pages where the links cannot be recognized at all.

Is black text on a white background then the accepted standard?  It appears to be the case, and for most applications this standard is good.  However, it is a known fact that certain colors complement each other and others clash, both aesthetically and visually.  Which color combinations make pages most readable on a lighted screen is still a matter of debate.

The websites http://www.colorcombo.com/bgtxt.html and http://www.samisite.com/color/changecolor.htm#quick give you the ability to view black and white text on many different backgrounds.  The computer screen differs from a piece of paper in that the paper isn’t projecting the image with a light source.  We have all encountered the situation where we tried to read a book in bright sunlight and were blinded by the light reflecting off of the white paper. Much of the same is occurring with the computer screen shining in your eyes.  On the other hand, looking at a screen with a black or very dark background can be soothing to some, but others will find the white text fatiguing.  Certain combinations clash, and the contrast of these colors, like green and red, actually makes the combination more difficult to see.  Many suggest that blue/green on a black background is optimal. This is, of course, a personal preference and different people see things in different ways, particularly those with color blindness or other visual disabilities.  While allowing users to change colors to their preference would be ideal, this usually leads to certain elements disappearing into the background.

Readability of LCD Screens

LCD screens have not lessened the affect, though some think they have.  The LCD screens of today, being of a higher resolution, seem to transmit a whiter and denser image.  This allows for smaller text, which just makes the matter worse.

Word processors like MS Word have moved to black text on white background largely because 99% of the work is printed on white paper and the software therefore reflects what you actually will print.

The debate will not be decided soon.  I am totally surprised that there has not been more extensive research done in this area.  The research I have been able to find shows that there is a slight preference for black text on a white background, but white text on a black background came in a close second. The majority of findings indicate that the most important issue was significant contrast in the two colors chosen.

Continually changing the color of the background and the text sounds like an interesting experiment, but that probably will not be found to be a solution either. Who knows?  When it comes to issue of color, beauty or readability is in the eye of the beholder.