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January 13, 2021

Color Management Best Practices for Web Design

Color swatches spread out.

Color management doesn’t often come to mind as an essential part of website design and development — but it is!

Colors are important. Beyond their ability to convey mood or sentiment, they are also a large part of portraying your brand visually and building awareness and affinity with those who interact with it. If your colors look different across displays, that can lead visitors to have an inconsistent experience with your brand and your website

Color management ensures that the colors featured on your website look the same to every visitor. That means the same branded blue that you see and choose to feature is exactly what your visitors see. Utilizing color spaces and these best practices for common design tools will help you nail your website’s color management. 

What is a Color Space? 

A color space is a collection of information and data that informs how a system or device displays color to a viewer. In other words, different color spaces will portray the same color differently. 

The default color space of the web is sRGB — the “s” meaning standard. Originally created by Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard in 1996, it was widely adopted for software, displays and other website applications. 

You may occasionally hear color space and color profile used interchangeably, but they are technically different. 

While a color space ensures your website or display portrays colors how you want them to, a color profile is embedded in a visual asset’s metadata to have it adhere to a given color space. An asset exported to an Adobe RGB color profile will not look the same in Photoshop as it does on the web, which runs off the sRGB color space.  

Color Management Best Practices

Set your working space and profile 

Since the default color space of the web is sRGB, it stands to reason that your visual assets should be created in sRGB as well. With that in mind, you should ensure that your design tool of choice is set to the sRGB color space and that new documents are assigned an sRGB profile. 

At the moment, common web design tools like Figma and Sketch don’t enable users to change their color settings because they default to sRGB — which is ideal. While tools like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator generally default to sRGB, you can check and update through “Color Settings” located in the “Edit” menu. 

Color Settings menu in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator

Your RGB working space should be set to sRGB. Additionally, you can update your color management policies to turn off preserving embedded profiles. That way, imported assets will default to the sRGB profile.

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Update your monitor

While most design tools default to the sRGB space, your monitor may not. That means that even if your assets are set to sRGB, they may not appear how others will see them if your monitor is not set correctly. 

Monitors come out of the box with custom color settings that often need to be adjusted. How you update these settings will depend on your monitor or operating system. 

Monitor display color profiles on a MacBook.

For instance, Mac users can head to their Display preferences and set their color space to sRGB.  

Save for web

In addition to setting the right color space for your design tools and your monitor, you can ensure that your visual assets are in alignment by exporting for the web. 

Save for web window in Adobe Photoshop

The “Save for Web” function in Illustrator and Photoshop offers greater control over the compression, output and metadata of the assets that you’re exporting for the web. Not only does this ensure that your assets are exporting with the preferred color profile, but it also helps you keep file size under control which can benefit your site speed. 

The Future of Color on the Web

sRGB may be the current standard for color on the web, but it may not be the future. HDR or high dynamic range color is an emerging technology that incorporates greater contrast and the ability to visualize a wider range of colors. 

While modern televisions and higher-end displays have the technology to support HDR, most do not. Much like video and the emergence of higher available resolutions like 4K, the adoption of HDR color spaces will be dependent on the technology to effectively view it becoming more universally accessible. 

sRGB was popularized because it was one of the few color management solutions available at the time it was created in 1996. It was also a low-cost and simple to implement space for software and hardware developers. 

In order for HDR to become popularized and the new standard for web and digital design, it will require the same level of adoption by developers and users. 

Print Color Management 

While a lot of marketing is done digitally and on the web, print media still plays a large role in many industries. Brand consistency can be a challenge when faced with how colors in your brand palette appear on the web versus how they appear in print. 

The same principles for web color management apply to print. While we provided settings that are ideal for web design and aligning with the sRGB color space, most commercial printing is done in CMYK. 

Most design tools like Photoshop and Illustrator feature conversion tools to convert your RGB colors for the web to CMYK colors for print. Updating your tool and monitor’s color space to match that of your printer will give you a good sense of what you can expect to see once printed. 

That said, using a swatch book to find your brand colors under ideal lighting and human eye conditions is still the oldest trick in the book for making sure your brand colors look similar on print and on the web.

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This post was originally published April 2014.

Tag(s): Websites

Chris Singlemann

Chris is a Brand Marketer at New Breed where he is responsible for crafting design and video assets that support our brand. When he's not behind the camera, he enjoys kayaking and tending to his sourdough starter.

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