Working With Graphics

In this day and age, anybody who is anybody has, or has toyed with the idea of having, a Web site. Any good Web site has to have graphics, which is why I am going to delve into the world of Web graphics today.

Since the graphics started appearing in Web pages, graphic formats, compared to other various web technologies, really haven’t changed much. Despite its short history, however, Web graphics itself is both an art and a science and there are numerous Web sites that devote their whole site to the various aspects of Web graphics.

For those budding DIY Web enthusiasts, you may be happy to know there are plenty of Web graphic editing tool out there to ease your foray into the internet world. But like all things, Web graphics have their own quirks and idiosyncrasies and knowing more about them could prevent you from pulling out those last tuffs of hair.

Web Graphics Format

Bit-mapped graphics, the type supported by today’s browsers, are, in their natural state, too big to be quickly downloaded over the Web, so you have to compress them. When the first debates on which graphic formats to use for the Web were raging one of the main concerns was compression capabilities. Because of their complimentary compression algorithms, JPEG (also known as JPG, and pronounced “JAY-peg”) and GIF (pronounced either “Jif” or “Gif”) were chosen.

The JPEG file format supports over 16.7 million colors or are, in the industry parlance, 24-bit images regardless of whether your monitor can display them correctly or not. If you have an 8-bit video system, the image will be ‘dithered’ to approximate the effect as best it can from the 256 color available. Because of the large number of colors, JPEG is best for photographs or graphics with lots of colors that blend from one to another. However, JPEG is a “loss-y” compression algorithm, which means that during compression colors are literally being thrown away. Obviously, the higher the compression, the more information is lost and the lower the quality of the graphic (the upside is the file size is much smaller so it downloads much faster).

GIF on the other hand is a “loss-less” compression. Although quality is not compromised during compression, it is limited to handling no more than 256 colors. It is best for images that have text or solid colors for example logos.

Web-safe colors

Web safe colors is no longer as important as it used to be as we are using significantly sophisticated equipment compared to 5 years back. But being a fuddy-duddy that I am, I thought we could touch briefly on how Web safe colors come about.

Some graphics render differently on different systems. We can maximize the odds of having a Web graphic look the same on different monitors and different browsers by using Web-safe colors, sometimes known as the Web palette, the color cube, the 6x6x6 palette, the Netscape palette, the Explorer palette, or the 216-color palette. These colors are composed of 216 specific colors that are universally recognized by browsers and operating systems.

Why only 216 colors? After all, even the simplest computer video systems used nowadays are 8-bit systems that are able to render up to 256 colors.

The reason for only 216 colors is because different operating systems and browsers insist on reserving colors and cannot be changed. The Mac palette has two reserved colors (black and white), the Windows palette reserves 20 and Netscape themselves reserve 13 more colors for its logo leaving 223 colors available to the users. But for technical reasons, Netscape programmers decided reduced the color palette to the newest cube root – 216 colors. By eliminating these 40 variable colors, what we have is a palette that is optimized for cross-platform use.

Unix systems are an entirely different breed. Their palette is based on math, not beauty and many of the 216 colors may be dithered on Unix machines using a 256 color display, because of the way Unix handles color palettes on the fly. So the 216-color Web-safe color palette is a Mac/PC tool only.

So what happens to those colors in the graphics that are not part of the Web-safe color palette? What the browser or operating system will do is to choose those colors that simulate it the closest.

At the time of this writing, most graphic design/development tools (e.g. Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, Illustrator, Freehand, Fireworks, etc.) have the web safe colors palette built into the application, so using it is fairly easy.

However, currently too few users uses an 8-bit computer video systems to view the Web in 256 color, so the justification for using the Web-safe color palette is questionable. But alternative online devices, such as cell phones and PDAs are still in 1-bit (black and white) or 8-bit color, so there is some resurgence in the need for the Web-safe colors.

Also, there’s no harm in using Web-safe colors either. It simply limits your choices to 216 colors. To a professional graphic designer, it is more important to know how to combine colors in pleasing and effective ways rather than knowing the rights or wrongs when it comes to which colors you pick. Since most people don’t have a lot of color picking confidence, working with limited color choices is usually easier.


Web graphics is part science and part art and making the best use of them is part knowledge and part talent. Next month we will delve further into Web graphics.

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