Screen Colours

Subject: Screen Colours
From: Stuart Burnfield <slb -at- FS -dot- COM -dot- AU>
Date: Mon, 15 Apr 1996 14:06:38 +0800

Thanks to the people who have contributed so far. Based on your discussion,
I've formed some opinions:

- generally, it's desirable to let users customise colours. For many
reasons (screen capabilities, colour-blindness, aesthetics), one size
does not fit all
- in a few cases, the need for consistency overrides personal preference.
Users should not be able to customise colours, though a system
administrator should be able to change colours for all users
- there may be cases where an administrator should not be allowed to
customise colours for their organisation. I can't think of any.

I'd like to explore the question of cultural connotations a bit more.

The standard colours all have multiple associations (e.g. blue = sad,
cool, pornographic). None are universal. Which association is intended
depends on the context. Blue on a water tap (faucet) means cold. Blue in
pop song lyric probably refers to sadness. When we see traffic lights we
don't assume that they refer to envy, cowardice or promiscuity (well I

When we use colour in software or documentation we borrow an existing
association or perhaps invent one. Green-yellow-red is commonly used in
system software to indicate the state of the system -- OK, Warning and
Alert respectively. If the assocations are not intuitive they can be
learned quickly. (And note that though these colours are used by analogy
with traffic signals, the meanings are not the same.)

My point? We can be too careful in avoiding cultural connotations of
colour. Blue has several meanings in Australia (and New Zealand?) that
probably don't apply elsewhere. A 'blue' can be a fight or a mistake.
'Bluey' is an old-fashioned nickname for someone with red hair. You might
avoid the colour blue because of its special significance to Australians,
but you would be wrong to do so.

The trick is not to make the colour do *all* the work, but to give hints
about which of the many possible meanings is the one you intended. Blue
by itself could indicate many things. Blue in a graphic of a thermometer
suggests 'cold' or perhaps 'low'.


- do use colour to differentiate things
- don't worry too much about obscure connotations
- do teach users the meaning of colours, just as you teach them the
meaning of other aspects of the interface
- don't expect a universal emotional reaction to particular colours
- do expect users to make an intellectual association with particular
Stuart Burnfield (slb -at- fs -dot- com -dot- au) Voice: +61 9 328 8288
Functional Software Pty Ltd Fax: +61 9 328 8616

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