On the web, text colours are an all or nothing thing

December 17, 2005

Every so often I think about giving WanderingThoughts' breadcrumbs bar up at the top a background colour to make it stand out better (perhaps a nice yellow like Jakob Nielsen uses). But every time I've had that thought, I cringe at the amount of work involved and leave it alone.

It's a lot of work because on the web, there is no such thing as specifying just one text colour property. I can't just specify the background colour for the breadcrumbs; I would have to specify background, foreground, unvisited link colour, and visited link colour.

Since you have no way of knowing what the user's default colours are (at best you have a guess), you don't know whether or not your partial colour specification is clashing with their settings for the ones you didn't specify. A yellow background may look great for me, but what about the person who's set her browser up to look like jwz's livejournal, CRT green on black?

(For example, my browser background is not white but an off-white cream, RGB hex #fffff2. Among other things, this usually makes it immediately obvious when someone has specified a white background for only some parts of a web page.)

So it's not just picking a background colour for the breadcrumbs area of WanderingThoughts. I'd need a good set of four colours for it, and then I'd need a fifth colour for the global background colour to avoid a fruit salad effect for visitors with clashing browser colour schemes of their own. (Otherwise some bits of the page would be in their colours and some of mine, and there's no guarantee the two colour sets don't clash horribly.)

The lurking complication in picking colour sets is the various sorts of colour blindness, unless you are willing to write off perhaps 10% of your male visitors (see for example here or here). And if you try you're probably going to do a worse job of it than your colour blind visitors, who've likely already tuned their browser defaults to look nice for them.

(This is sort of a followup to ALittleDetailThatMatters, which pushed the whole issue of web page colours up in my mind.)

Written on 17 December 2005.
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Last modified: Sat Dec 17 01:22:24 2005
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