Years ago, it was always strongly recommended that web designers should only use web-safe colors.

Have studies been done to see if this is still the case? If so, what's the answer?

Does anyone know of or have a reference to a study or report that covers this?

  • I'm not sure there were ever really web-safe colours (a set of colours which would always render without dithering on any 256 colour platform). At least not the classic 216.
    – e100
    Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 15:36
  • Edit: here's an article written in 2000 or so which points out that there were significant issues with the classic 216-colour palette, especially on 16-bit systems: physics.ohio-state.edu/~wilkins/color/websafecolors.html
    – e100
    Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 17:49
  • Relevant: stackoverflow.com/q/1041113/2890522
    – Hugo Rocha
    Commented May 8, 2014 at 12:54

6 Answers 6


Mostly you have nothing to worry about. An extraordinary majority of visitors to a site will be able to support more than 256 colors these days.

If for some reason your userbase is likely to have a higher than normal proportion of members using systems from the early 90s, then you might want to consider it.. but in any typical scenario it's no longer an issue.

The w3schools browser display statistics shows that in january of 2010 0% of internet users were still at 256 colours

  • 14
    What's this talk about colors? I still use monochrome! Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 1:17
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    "In my day we had to put white-out on the screen!"
    – Kaji
    Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 5:04
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    And any user who is still using a 256-colour display will likely (a) be very used to poor colour reproduction across the board; or perhaps (b) have worked around it, for example by forcing sites to display in black text on a white background.
    – e100
    Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 12:39
  • @Kaji No, see, that was just you.
    – Sylverdrag
    Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 12:37
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    W3schools.com is not a representative site for browser statistics: it's aimed at web developers and attracts a lot of developers, which are more likely to have a higher resolution screen with more colours than other users (except graphic designers, of course). That said, it's safe to assume that ordinary users nowadays use graphics cards that are able to produce a lot of colours in a high resolution. Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 18:57

Short answer:


Long answer:

The average user has a nice enough graphics card/monitor that "web-safe" is no longer an issue.


Way back in the early nineties most graphics cards (including those on £20K SGI Indy 'graphics workstations') did not have enough memory to render hi-res, true-color images. The work around was to use 256 colours that worked with a look up table and dithering algorithms.

The 256 colours of the 'look up table' could be any of the 2^24 colours you get with a modern PC, however, some of these were reserved for the operating system to use. Typically 32-40 colours were used for window borders, menu text and other screen decoration leaving 216 colours for the application.

With PC applications on an 8 bit display each window/application could have its own color set, particularly with Unix workstations. This could lead to flashing of colours when going from one window to the next - the selected window would look good but the background windows could be a bit weird.

When the web came along with the Mosaic browser (and later Netscape) the browser had to work with the other applications, showing however many images the web designer included on the page. These could be automatically dithered down to the 216 (6 x 6 x 6) 'web safe' colours. Naturally the other page elements (e.g. 'H1 - H6') could also be dithered down to the 216 colours that the palette had available.

If one did not stick to the 216 'web safe colours' (that any browser could render) then the results were unpredictable, a subtle red might get rendered as an unsubtle red etc. As others in this thread have mentioned, 16 bit and true-colour came along for most PCs in the mid-nineties, making 'web safe' less of a problem. However, 16 bit screens used less bits for each colour rather than a look up table, as was the way with 8 bit colour. 5 bits for each of the red, green and blue components gave an approximation of true-colour, but was not really. A given RGB value, e.g. #ABCDEF would not be rendered exactly as #ABCDEF so 'web safe' still had some relevancy if you wanted colours to be the same from PC to PC.


Back when the internet (and computers) was new, screens didn't have the color support they currently have, we've got 24 or 32-bit colors now, where we used to have only 8-bit color.

Because some computers couldn't display certain colors (only 256 (2^8)), if a color that wasn't one of those web-safe ones was used, the computer would attempt to display the closest color to it (sometimes it was really off).

Now we don't have to worry, we've got screens that can display thousands or millions of colors, so the web-safe pallet is a bit outdated (fifteen years or so).

  • 16 bit colour is 2^16 = 65536 colours. It's not 16x16. What you probably mean is 8 bit colour. That is 2^8= 256. Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 4:06

Roughly 99% of people use monitors/mobile phones with 24 bit or 32 bit display. Dithering won't occur with these (it can still occur with 16 bit display, but it's uncommon and simply causes trivially small longer loading times). So this is mostly not an issue in terms of dithering. However, there are different reasons why the web safe colors are useful.

They provide consistently differing and contrasting colors, which are useful to work with when it comes to color-blind audiences, as they'll have a better chance of telling a part the different colors compared to using most other pallets or just randomly deciding on whatever colors you think looks good. The colors are all useful for CSS shorthand code, in other words coding colors with just 3 characters instead of 6 (e.g. #663399 can be #639).

  • Kudos for mentioning accessibility for color blind audiences. That said, it's much better to put in the effort to pick precise colors that really do contrast for deuteranopes (and protanopes, ideally) rather than just hoping that web safe colors will work. I'd suggest creating a custom palette at paletton.com with the simulation for "deuteranopia" turned on. (If that's too daunting, "deuteranomaly" should work for most of them.) Colour Contrast Analyser is a great free tool as well. Consider just using shades of blue, yellow, green, magenta, and gray.
    – Jon Coombs
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 4:34

One time web safe colours still apply is when using GIF images as they are limited to 256 colours. Of course those colours can be almost any set of colours you want, but there can only be 256 in 1 image.

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    But those 256 colors in the GIF palette does not need to contain the 216 web-safe colors.
    – jensgram
    Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 7:28
  • The point is more that if you want use a GIF (because of size possibly) for a portion of a design (like a logo) it'd be better to keep the number of colours down. Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 7:53
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    -1: this isn't relevant.
    – e100
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 17:05
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    Probably not relevant most of the time, but I can imagine cases in which it would be. If you did get in a situation where you wanted many GIFs (or large ones that compile lots of content) to use a consistent palette, then this would be a good way to do that, right?
    – Jon Coombs
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 4:38

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