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Outside The Web-Safe Palette

Volume Number: 21 (2005)
Issue Number: 5
Column Tag: Programming

Outside The Web-Safe Palette

New Software Gives Designers A New Way To Look At Color

by Dean Wilcox

Thinking Outside the 216-Color Box

Let's talk a little about how we select colors in 2005. Consider this:

  • The average human eye can see about 3,000,000 colors
  • 72% of monitors today display millions of colors (24-32 bit)
  • 25% of monitors today display thousands of colors (16 bit)

Then why do Web designers tend to keep within the old 216 "Web-safe" color palette? I realize that you don't anymore but I'm talking about the other guy.

First a quick history lesson for the youngsters. Back in the old days, we became aware that certain colors we picked on our Macintosh PowerPC didn't look right on the client's Windows 3.1 machine. Some looked all mushy and on close inspection, they were not even a solid color but were a collection of different colored pixels - they were "dithered." Due to this fact of computer hardware life, we quickly adopted a set of colors that would not dither between an 8-bit (256 colors) Mac and PC. We ended up with a fine palette of 216 colors.

So it's 2005 and if you ever take a tour on the Internet to explore articles, discussions or software regarding color for the Web, this same 216 palette is still with us. We seem to embrace the latest server-side technology, the newest tool to make our sites cool and functional, but we still do it in 216 colors.

OK, I know not everyone stays with the old Web-safe palette and all you Flash people are exempt, but I'd like to discuss that as we move outside into the light of thousands or millions of colors, there is a new tool to help us look at color in a new way.

Master Colors HVC Color Composer

Even though we always say it's our skill alone that makes us so good in our client's eyes, every once in a while a new graphics tool comes along that can make you a better designer. The HVC Color Composer(TM) from Master Colors(TM) is just such a tool. In fact, this Photoshop plugin for Mac can make you look like a genius to your clients., or at least good enough to get paid on time. Considering the fact that this software has the potential to make every design professional a master of color composition, its $129.95 price tag is actually quite a bargain.

Master Colors adds a fifth color space to the Photoshop color picker to create a color space that actually makes sense. The "HVC" in the product name stands for hue, value and chroma (intensity). To get access to the unique HVC color space is worth the price of this software alone. All the other color spaces are still available on the Photoshop Color Picker, but the HVC model is the most user friendly and the one that makes the most intuitive sense.

Fig 1. Master Colors Color Composer color picker for Photoshop. Showing new color space controls: hue, value and chroma.

What's interesting about the new color dialog box is the visual representations of the color spaces. As you click on the various radio buttons, H (Hue), V (Value) or C (Chroma), you see new visualizations of the colors and their relationships to other colors. Clicking the H radio button, you view the HVC space by hue slices and can navigate the hue axis with the vertical slider, exactly the same in the basic Photoshop color picker. The shape of the visualization changes upon the amount of chroma in any particular color. By clicking the V radio button, you view HVC by value slices. Value is a color lightness property; with this we view all colors of a certain lightness at once The visualization is similar to hue, but now you see all of the other colors and their relative chroma value. With the C radio button selected, you view all colors of a certain intensity at once. In Fig 2. the small dot represents the same color (blue) within each color space.

Fig 2. Visual representation of color space. First example is your typical HSB, second through fourth demonstrating hue, value and chroma.

Color Quantification Technology

We all know there is an underlying mathematical coherence in music (and many software writers are also musicians). Although musicians do not have to think about math when they perform, mathematical orderliness plays a crucial role in their ability to control their medium. Essentially, Master Colors has brought this same order to the use and manipulation of color.

Master Colors is a pioneer in color quantification technology. Simply put, this is a method whereby numerical distance between all colors can be measured by contrast. (See Fig. 3). Contrast is the line that gets created when two colors are placed next to each other. The softer the line, the lower the number, the sharper the contrast, of course, the higher the number. The HVC Color Composer not only determines just the contrast between values, which is the way a lot of us think about contrast, but the combined contrast of hue, value and chroma. This is not a simple exercise in desaturating colors and then just measuring the resulting values.

Fig 3. Visual diagram of how we typically view "contrast." Linear black and white is what we're all familiar with. Color diagram visualizes the concept of contrast between colors.

Just as in music, once the numerical relationships between colors can be established, an orderly system of harmonics can be created. This is exactly what Master Colors has done. But enough with color contrast theory for now, we're designers after all.

The great thing that the Color Composer does is to create user-defined palettes based upon colors you select. They can be saved (as swatch .aco file) and then loaded into the Swatches window. Select a color, or multiple colors with the Color Composer, the software crunches the numbers and opens up an intuitive and aesthetic process for color selection from the dynamic palettes the software generates. These are not static palettes. These are palettes created by the software at the request of the designer to work specifically with their own color choices. They are absolutely unique. And they are way beyond 216 regimented colors.

Putting the Technology to Work

For the rest of the article, we'll take you through the process of using the HVC Color Composer Professional(TM) to create color combinations for a Web site for a fictitious textiles dyes firm. The color compositions created were complicated enough that there is no way they could have been created without this software product. Well, OK they could have, but only if you were a student in color theory, had plenty of time, patience, Mountain Dew and not to mention an amazing skill at selecting just the right colors. These compositions were extraordinarily easy to create using the Color Composer.

Granted, as with any tool, it's still up to the designer to make a series of intuitive color choices from the palettes. If you insist upon a composition of purple, orange, pink and green, there's no helping you (BTW I don't want any emails if you actually have used those colors together). But the software instantly creates harmonically coherent palettes that work with certain target colors as a design progresses.

For our little demonstration, we have a new client that specializes in organic and earth-friendly dyes for the textile industry. Mr. NewCompany (how original) has stated how his new dyes are so unique that the viewer must be able to see all the wonderful colors they can produce. Obviously his target audience is not the 1 in 12 folks who have some sort of color deficiency and have at the minimum a 16 bit monitor. Plus we'd never get the results we need with just 216 colors. We'll start with a quilt-like diamond and square pattern and see how using the Color Composer produces many successful color combinations.

Fig 4. Client wants see various color combinations. Our scenario will utilize the Auto Range palette using the white background as the target color.

The Amazing Auto Range Function

The software offers three functions for building color palettes, the Proportion button, the Range button and the Auto Range button.

The Proportion function creates a palette of colors that are a certain proportional distance from any two colors, such as 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, etc. This is incredibly useful for such tasks as finding one or two colors that work well with let's say two logo colors a client gives you to work with. No matter how difficult these colors may be to work with, the Proportion function instantly generates hundreds of colors that will work with the original two colors imposed on you by your client.

The Range function gives the designer control of specific contrast numbers, so you can create your own harmonic progressions. The Range function is important for complicated color relationships where three or more colors are touching. This is somewhat of an advanced user function, which we won't get into detail in this article. However, there is an excellent online manual you can download from Master Colors' Web site that goes into advanced user functions in some detail.

The Auto Range function creates a simple proportional collection of contrast numbers in a doubling progression, but the beauty of Auto Range is the designer doesn't have to think about the harmonic technicalities. Instead, you simply get these great palettes where every color has a mathematically coherent relationship to the white background we decided to work with.

Fig 5. Auto Range palette shows colors with a contrast range of 5, 10, 20 and 40 contrast steps from white.

Starting with our white background, we'll create a palette with the Auto Range function. This produces a collection of colors with pre-determined contrast levels of 5, 10, 20 and 40. Next, we'll save the palette, replace our original palette in the Swatches window and start filling in the diamond and square pattern. For our first example we'll restrict ourselves to colors solely in one contrast range.

Fig 6. In Photoshop, replacing swatches with new palette representing color contrasts 5, 10, 20 and 40.

Fig 7. Selecting colors within the 5 contrast range.

Fig 8. Resulting color composition from the saved palette.

All of the colors within this range of 5 work very well together, even if they are very light. And it didn't take any time at all. In fact all of the color compositions done for this article were done in short order.

But remember, Mr. NewCompany wants to see lots and lots of color combinations. So next we'll demonstrate how other color combinations look with the full compliment of all contrast ranges 5 to 40. We'll also explore some other compositions using a few slight modifications to our original palette.

Fig 9. Resulting color composition from a palette with full contrast range of 5, 10, 20 and 40.

Fig 10. Resulting color composition from a slightly modified palette. In this case using black as the target color.

Fig 11. Mix 'n Match. There's no limit to the combinations that can be created.

Moving Forward

Within a short amount of time we've been able to create various color combinations for review by Mr. NewCompany. It's pretty amazing when creating these complicated color compositions with dozens of relationships to know exactly what each color is doing in the composition from a harmonic point of view, and to finally have total and absolute control of your color design. When the client ask you how you came up with so many great combinations, you just smile and remind him that's why you're getting the big-bucks (you're supposed to chuckle at this point).

These examples were created from just a few palettes using the Auto Range function. You can imagine if we used the other functions, Range and Proportion, the more combinations we could have arrived at. And did I mention it's incredibly easy to use?

So, your client loves the work, you're a hero. He just can't decide upon one combination and decides he wants to use all of them. We'll deal with that some other day. I realize it's not every day we have to deal with situations as we've described, many times we don't have the luxury of selecting dozens of colors. Added to the fact that from usability and accessibility points of view, certain color combinations are to be avoided. But that's also where this software can help in quickly exploring and discovering good color combinations no matter what the restraints.

Nevertheless, once you get your head around the concept of hue, value, chroma and color contrast and start creating your own palettes with the HVC Color Composer, your relationship with the Photoshop color picker will be irrevocably changed. Between the new visual relationships of the color spaces to palette creation, it's another great tool for your tool belt. Use it enough and you won't be able to live without it. In fact, I would have to recommend that anyone who works with color professionally should really have this product. The results are fast and extremely impressive. Best of all, the process one goes through to get these results is remarkably intuitive. In a matter of minutes, just about anyone can be proficient with this amazing new product.

To purchase the HVC Color Composer, to download the on-line tutorial or to simply get a more comprehensive explanation of how to become a master of the new HVC color universe visit the Master Colors Web site at You can also submit queries to the Master Colors staff at, Happy color picking.

Dean Wilcox has spent 25 years as a graphic designer and the last ten in Web design, and has worked on projects for some of the world's most recognized companies. Most of his professional life was spent at Landor Associates in New York and San Francisco and now has his own modest practice in Sausalito. He can be reached at


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