The steadiness of colour

I will be teaching about colour in the coming weeks. One of the things I definitely want to discuss is the idea that you cannot be certain of how people will view your colours. Of course there are environmental differences: is the viewer standing in the sunshine, is it dark, are there reflections, is the room lit by light-bulbs, halogen or candles? Is the user colour blind? These factors are not unique to the web though, they also apply to paint, printed material and all other coloured things.

The chaos of the web

On the web there is another disturbing factor: the quality of the hardware. If we look at new screens, we know that very few screens are calibrated. Most screens are not that good. Cheap phones often come with screens with pumped up saturation. Other new computer screens look dull. Some computers have terrible graphics cards. There’s black-and-white e-paper, and there’s e-paper with colour. And there are projectors.

And then there are old screens. They are known to deteriorate over the years. I have an old laptop which has a yellowish haze. I can imagine there are millions of nicotine stained screens out there with a similar yellow filter. And even with a very good screen we have things like f.lux, an app that changes the colour on your screen on purpose.

This is a constant though

I always thought this medium of ours was chaotic because of these differences in hardware and software. But it turns out that colours on the web can be trusted more than colours in real life — if we assume that CSS will be readable by computers 500 years from now. In the year 2500 we will still have good screens and bad screens, but the difference in quality will be similar to what we have today. So a webpage with an orange background will still look like orange on some screens, and like poop on others.

But a painting of an orange, what will that look like in 500 years? It will definitely not look the same anymore. 500 years ago people didn’t like dark paintings, their paintings became dark over the years. Colours faded. Or changed completely, like this painting of white roses. The same will happen with the physical stuff we create today.

Except for the CSS we write. We will know that in 500 years from now everybody will still see something else, sure. But at least it will be similar to the chaos we see today.