Browser-Safe Color Palette

I’ve been creating and publishing content on the Internet for more than a decade.

Back in those early days when I first began, one of the very few fundamental rules of web design was to use a browser-safe color scheme that could be properly displayed with graphics cards and CRT monitors that were limited to displaying a mere 256 colors — a once-common limitation that is in deep contrast to today’s ultra-high-end equipment that can generate in excess of 200 trillion colors.

For new designs, I often consulted online references to help me choose the right colors. Unfortunately the color palette was always presented in rectangular charts, making it difficult to select subtle differences in tonal relationships.

I wanted a better solution. It took over two years (not all at once, mind you!) to create a pure HTML layout that was mathematically sound, visually communicative, useful, and (dare I say) cool. I am proud to say that my visual reorganization of the palette was one of the first published successful attempts to do so, if not the first.

Today, while there is certainly no harm in using the standard web-safe palette, the need for using it seems antiquated and outdated, and many designers ignore the old mandate — assuming they even know about it in the first place. However, there are still valid reasons to stick with the old rules, or at least remember and be aware of them.

As the Internet becomes more and more accessible by devices other than your flat-panel monitor that can handle 16 billion colors, it may still make sense to use the browser-safe versions; it was only a few years ago that Internet-enabled cell phones surpassed the ability to display 256 colors. Both safe mode and the default display settings right out of the box on many Windows machines are still set to 256 colors. Many people don’t know that they can change that setting, let alone know how to do it.

Choose a palette suitable for your visitors. If your website audience is expected to be students, enterprise users, seekers of multimedia, or more high-tech users, stepping outside the palette is fine. Google (targeting all of the world’s users) tends to use browser-safe colors more frequently than sites like Facebook, Flickr, or YouTube.

Another subtle and often-overlooked benefit to using the 256-color palette is that the more common 16.7-million-color palette of today makes it much easier for web designers with absolutely no knowledge of color theory to create horrifically ugly websites just that much easier!

My advice is two-fold: Do what you want, but play it somewhat “safe”. Web-safe colors are still the best choice for large flat surfaces of color, especially when overlaid text is involved. Almost anything else goes for the rest.

The palette in this 2007 posting was a republishing of the original one I finished in 1998. Keep in mind that in order for the colors to be represented properly, my model includes all 256 possible color combinations for symmetry, not just the 216 “safe” colors.

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