What? You haven’t heard of the 216-color web safe palette? Let me explain:
In 1994, Netscape came up with a brilliant solution to a problem with operating systems. You see, in 1994 many computers could only display 256 colors at a time. When more than one program or web page was visible on the screen at a time, and the total colors that they used totaled more than 256, there was pandemonium – users would often see colors ridiculously distorted. Netscape’s solution was to define a set of 216 colors that would have priority on a users monitor. Web pages that used those colors exclusively would have a much better chance of looking right.
Why should you care?
Good question. It makes no difference what colors you use on your site and in your graphics unless the user’s computer is limited to 256 colors. But, if you are using colors outside the web-safe palette and somebody running at 256-colors comes to your site, display problems can arise. Many times the graphics become speckled because they are dithered with nearby colors. Sometimes colors outside the 216 color palette will be replaced by violently different colors.
Should you worry?
It depends on what the topic of your site is. If your site caters to web developers or graphics designers or gamers, you can be almost sure that the vast majority of the visitors to your site will have the ability to display more than 256 colors at a time. On the other hand, if your site targets a less technically inclined audience sticking to the 216 color palette is a worthwhile endeavor.
If you want to find out what color settings your visitors are using, the more advanced tracker services out there can tell you exactly what percent of your audience is running at what color setting. One of the better free tracking services that will provide you with this information is HitBox.com . I would recommend sticking the code for the tracker on your front page for a week just to find out more about your traffic — there’s no need to keep it on your site permanently unless you don’t have access to log files.
If you want to take a look at the 216 color palette visit: http://www.visibone.com/colorlab/ . You can download swatches for use in nine different graphics programs at http://www.visibone.com/swatches/ . If you’re so inclined, you can even order a color reference poster at http://www.visibone.com/color/ .
Matt is the co-founder of SitePoint, 99designs and Flippa. He lives in Vancouver, Canada.