How many colours are there?

Colour. It’s something that we all use in our web or print work and finding the right colour to highlight, emphasise and stand out from the crowd can be easier said than done. Trying to make a decision about which hex code to use got me thinking, how many colours are there?

3 or 4?

Depending on whether you work predominantly in web or print your answer might be 3 or 4. Red, green and blue or Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black.

Why 3 or 4?

Well you might have said 3 colours because Red, green and blue are the (additive) primary colours that are output through your TV, mobile and computer monitor. When added and mixed together these primary colours can produce a whole sub-set of different colours, including white in the right intensity. Printing Press Inks image from Shutterstock. But then again, you might have gone for 4 colours, particularly if you are a graphic designer primarily producing print work. Colour printers use cyan, magenta, yellow and black to produce countless secondary colours through a range of different printing techniques: halftone, pantone etc. CMYK Gift Bag on White image from Shutterstock. RGB or CMYK both produce a sub-set of colours but at their core are made up from 3 or 4 colours.

216 or 256?

If you’re saving as a GIF or a PNG or creating something for screen you might say 216 or 256 web-safe colours.

Why 216 or 256?

You might have started off saying 256 as this is the number of colours in monitors of the time. A 256 colour display. When saving as a GIF you have the option to save with 256 colours, as a GIF is palette based. If you wanted to reduce your file size of your GIF further you might start to reduce the colours used in the palette while trying to retain the quality of the final image. As the web continues to evolve and Internet speeds keep increasing, file sizes of images will become less of an issue, meaning that you can keep your 256 colours in your GIF. You might also say 216 as while there are 256 colours in the web-safe palette, operating systems reserved some of the colours for their own use resulting in 216. This number is also easily divisible by 6 and so allows for 6 different shades of red, green and blue to create one colour. These 6 different shades, or hexadecimal, can be used in HTML either through the hex code or through the different RGB values. Open Pantone Sample Colors image from Shutterstock.

Too many to count?

With all the advances in technology we’re moved on from the initial ‘web-safe’ colours and we’re now enjoying far more colourful days in front of our screens, 16 million colours to be precise. 16384 of which most modern monitors are capable of displaying according to the w3c: summaries the issue of why web-safe colours were first introduced succiently and is credited as creating the web-safe palette. It’s still an interesting and useful read today:

Does it matter?

Well in a nutshell, yes. With some caveats of course! If you’re designing for screen, colour, and more specifically colour contrast, can play a huge part in making text accessible to people with visual impairments. Your audience might also be based somewhere without our technological advances and be using a basic monitor and browser and using a colour outside of the web-safe 256 might affect your content/design. If you’re designing for print using black, how do you make sure that you are using black? While all blacks look the same on screen there can be noticeable differences when printing resulting in a different result than expected: Interestingly while the number of web colours have increased from the initial web-safe palette, the number of print colours have remained the same since the introduction of the modern process. Although Pantone introduced their Hexachrome system, within recent years, adding orange and green to turn CMYK into CMYKOG.

It’s a colourful life

Color Pencils image from Shutterstock. At the end of the day it’s a colourful life and there are plenty of resources out there to make life easier for us such as: But it’s important to use colour wisely, it’s easy to get carried away with an entire rainbow at the end of your mouse but keeping it simple will help focus a user’s attention and not overwhelm or distract from what you really want them to focus on, whether it’s a link, email address or text. How many colours would you say there are? Is it possible to provide a definite answer? Or does it depend on how, or what, you are creating?

You might also like…

25 Free Color Tools, Apps and Palette Generators » Beginners Guide to Using the Power of Color in Web Design » Understanding and the Meaning of Color Within Design » The Complete Web Design Style Series (700 Designs in 14 Categories) »

About the Author: (3 Articles)

Emma Davies is an unashamed geek for all things web and print and is taking her knowledge of effective web copy, flexible design and baked goods to branch out in a creative partnership as Original Biscuit.
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