When specifying colors for use in a software user interface, what's the best way to ensure that those colors will look acceptable on all common display technologies: CRT, LCD, and in particular projectors?

This topic comes up frequently during design reviews, where a work-in-progress piece of software is presented to an internal audience, and the initial reaction is "the color of that widget looks weird." The presenter then responds with "it looks fine on my laptop!"

Note that I'm not just concerned with the one or two projectors in our meeting rooms at the office, but projectors in general, as the colors also need to look acceptable when demoed in a sales presentation.

The software is a Java applet embedded in a website, if that matters. I believe our UI designers use Adobe Illustrator for most of their work.

Update: I'm not looking for 100% accurate color reproduction of the sort that motivates a full color managed workflow. I just want it to look "close enough" for lay people.

  • Can I say that good might be too strong of a word, acceptable might be enough? Mar 1, 2011 at 23:00
  • Indeed. Question updated to reflect that. Mar 2, 2011 at 1:29

3 Answers 3


The short answer is that you can't reasonably ensure that colors are going to look good on all, or even a wide variety of, display devices.

The long answer is that this is possible but there are a number of caveats:

  • You need to invest in color-calibration devices and the truly good ones don't come cheap
  • For internal use, you would also need to strictly control lighting in the rooms you are reviewing
  • As soon as you release your product to anyone outside of the review team, like your customers, all of that work you put into it is for naught.

There are some battles that, really, just aren't worth fighting unless you have a clear business case that color management is core to your business.

UPDATE per OP's Edit:

Since there is such a wide variety of monitors and projectors out there, it is impossible give a range in the RGB gamut that will guarantee that those colors would look good in even half the cases. Even if there were, I'm sure your designers would balk at such a limitation.

  • Truer words are rarely spoken. Just get it right internally, make the higher ups happy then release it. There's no telling how it will look from oner person's device to another. :) +1 Philip!
    – Kyle
    Mar 1, 2011 at 20:38

Projectors are crap. It's not an issue of picking the right color, it's just an issue of projector technology being really crappy.

  • 2
    IT IS TRUE! The only decent projectors are the old 3-gun tube projectors, for which black is an actual absence of light (vs. an darkened LCD pixel with light behind lit, which is what you get from anything short of what you might find in a megaplex) -- but those [the old tube models] are each about the size of a fridge. So yeah, DA01 is right, you are left with crapola.
    – fish2000
    Aug 14, 2011 at 1:16

Unfortunately Philips answer is correct; that said i produce small works weekly to be displayed on both a projector and on the web and am able to make both mediums look reasonably similar.

In my experience; while almost all home monitors are not colour calibrated, the variation is quite slight (as perceived by Joe Public). i.e. something that was meant to be dark red will kind of resemble something dark red - most of the time.

Projectors, on the other hand, vary wildly. We use two main projectors (different models); we've now got the colour temperature to be somewhat similar, but both contrast luminosity are not even close between projectors, let alone when compared to the laptop screen. i.e what is dark red on the screen could very well appear black from the projector. This is just a reality that has to be considered when producing the art work.

Also with projectors there are some of the additional factors to consider that can dramatically affect the projected image:

  • distance between projector and surface
  • ambient light of room
  • direct light on surface
  • age of projector blub
  • projector display technologies

if you can control most of these factors, in that they don't change or change very in-frequently, you can start plan your art works so that the projected image will sort-of resemble what you see on your screen.

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