Are you using the right colorspace?

If you’re like me, a programmer with no formal UI design training, you’re probably accustomed to working with colors in terms of their RGB values. And, if you’re like me, you’ve probably been frustrated by the seeming irrationality of that colorspace. For example, suppose you want to find the right foreground color for a given background to ensure high legibility. If you’re stuck in RGB-land, there’s no reliable way to get from point A to point B. If you do find a combination that works, the relationship between the two colors often seems arbitrary.

I recently learned that my singular focus on RGB is the problem, because it has no relationship to the way that the human eye perceives color. Switch to a different colorspace, like HSV (for hue, saturation, and value) and voila! Suddenly colors make sense. If you’re doing any sort of UI design, and you’re working exclusively in the RGB colorspace, you’re doing it wrong.

For legibility, use HSV

Unfortunately, I’ve found that there’s no single “best” colorspace. Some problems are better solved in one colorspace, other problems in another. When choosing a text color to maximize legibility against a given background, HSV works really well. Here’s some examples, with the foreground and background colors in both RGB and HSV:

The quick brown fox … 147 196 147 120 25 77 Foreground
51 68 51 120 25 27 Background
The quick brown fox … 110 127 127 180 13 50 Foreground
221 255 255 180 13 100 Background
The quick brown fox … 51 76 102 210 50 30 Foreground
102 153 204 210 50 80 Background

I could keep going, but I’m sure you see the point: in the RGB colorspace, there’s no predictable relationship between the foreground and background colors. In HSV, it’s a nice, regular pattern. That definitely appeals to the rational programmer in me. If you’re looking for a foreground color yourself, I suggest starting with a delta in value of at least 30.

For gradients, use HSL

When you’re trying to generate a color gradient, I’ve found that the best choice is HSL, for hue, saturation and lightness (note that hue and saturation here have slightly different meanings than in HSV). Here’s an example, with both RGB and HSL values:

The quick brown fox … 51 149 204 56 60 50
71 160 209 56 60 55
92 170 214 56 60 60
112 181 219 56 60 65
133 191 224 56 60 70
153 202 230 56 60 75
173 213 235 56 60 80
194 223 240 56 60 85
214 234 245 56 60 90

Again, the progression in RGB is awkward and seemingly unpredictable; the progression in HSL is simple.

Is RGB good for anything?

Obviously RGB is good for something: hardware, where colors are literally created by the combination of red, green and blue LED’s (or phosphors, if you’re old school) in varying intensities. That’s why RGB is so prevalent in graphics libraries and programming in general — the concept just bled up through the abstraction layers.

Also, keep in mind that you can convert back-and-forth between RGB and HSV, or RGB and HSL. That means that the RGB values shown above are not really as “arbitrary” as I made them out to be — but the conversions are complex, much too difficult to do in your head. So it’s much easier to work in HSV or HSL, then convert only at the end, just before you have to specify the color to the computer.

I wrote a little Tcl/Tk app that lets me play around with all three colorspaces simultaneously; you’re welcome to it here. If you want to read more about color selection, I highly recommend Choosing Colors for Data Visualization [PDF], by Maureen Stone.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: