The Webcomicker

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Webcomickry: Website Design (Part 3: Color)

Ok, I promise I've got reviews of Zap and Shortpacked coming to the head of the line. I swear it. But I've been meaning to finish up my series on webcomic website design for quite some time now, and I feel like I've got to get it done so it's not hanging over my head and I can move on to other things. So here goes.

So far in this series we've discussed the pros and cons of different site structures (news first, comic first, blog style) and we've talked about all the various features available for archiving. Now I'd like to talk about something a little less technical, but no less important: color.

What colors should you use in your website? This is perhaps the single most important decision you must make when designing your site. Color is frequently the dividing line between someone say "Wow, that's a really cool looking site" and someone saying "Well, that website is not very attractive." Having an unattractive website can truly be death to a comic. It doesn't matter how great your comic is, if you website is just pathetic, you're going to lose a lot of people.

Now, I don't claim to be an expert artist. Far from it, in fact. However, I do know something about aesthetic design for the web, and I think I know enough about the different schools of thought to competently present them and comment on them.

Let's begin with the golden rule of color choice:

1. The colors used in a website must not distract the viewer from the content.

I cannot stress this enough. I don't care how interesting you think it makes your site look, if the colors are distracting, people are going to get turned off. People come to your website looking for your comic, not for some wacked out set of colors. Now, I can think of two webcomics I've read which clearly violate this rule: Panda Xpress and Candi. Both of them have a very loud background colors, at bright pink and red, respectively. And it's pretty obvious in both cases that the creators are trying to make their site memorable. I mean, you see enough blue and green and black on the internet to really make you feel like warm colors have been straight up outlawed, and there's a certain part of you that says: "if I really do something different, I can be noticed." But you forget that all you will be noticed for is your outrageous choice of color. Panda Xpress has absolutely fabulous art, some of the greatest I've ever seen. But I imagine that the majority of people that visit the site remember it only as "that comic with the hideous pink background." And while Candi is somewhat more forgiveable because the red kind of fits with Candi's personality, it's still a lot to deal with for a first time reader.

Now, does this mean these creators should give up on their bold color choices and put in something bland and sterile? By no means! But the colors should be handled in such a way that they do not distract from the content. Pink and red make great accent colors. But as the primary color for 95% of your page? NO.

Now, this isn't to say that having some gaudy background is the only way to make your site's color scheme distract from the content. Take a look at VGCats. Now, some of the busy-ness there comes from the fact that he's got a lot of different ads and links and whatnot running on the site. But notice that even in the site design itself he uses no less than FIVE shades of blue, plus white. And take a look at HOUSD, which has a very distracting red and white scheme. The acid test for distracting colors is to look at your computer monitor and kind of let your eyes unfocus. If they drift somewhere other than the comic or a newspost, you've got trouble.

Ok, now let's look at the silver rule, which applies more directly to webcomics. This is not as universal or as important as the golden rule, but still necessary for quality site design:

2. The colors used in a webcomic website must complement the colors used in the comic.

Now, this is the area which is open to debate. There are two schools of thought, but before I delve into them it must be made clear that this rule has entirely different implications depending on if you draw a color comic or a black and white comic. So each of the two schools of thought has differing opinions for color vs. black and white, and I'll be discussing both.

The first school of thought is that the website colors should be chosen so that they draw attention to the comic. This principle is demonstrated very eloquently by the new Penny Arcade site. Click on the link to their comic page and let your eye casually fall on the screen. Where does it land? Depending on the loudness of the ad at the top, your eye should land either on the ad or on the comic. The dark, subdued grays and blues used in the page are designed to let your eye draw naturally to the areas of high color, and since Penny Arcade is a very colorful strip, your eye will probably land on the strip quite easily. And that easy landing is what makes the site aesthetically pleasing: it's "pleasing to the eye". The eye has less work to do to find what it's looking for because it lands there naturally. When you see a website that uses very dark colored backgrounds and box colors, they are subscribing to this school of thought. Some popular webcomics which use this technique are of course Penny Arcade, Questionable Content, Ctrl+Alt+Del, Megatokyo, and Applegeeks.

Now, this philosophy can spell trouble for a black and white comic because the vast expanse of whiteness can be a rather glaring contrast with the rest of the page. A good example of the trouble this can cause can be seen at Nowhere University (I'm linking into the archive right now because there's some rather sketchy guest art up on the main page right now and I don't want you to get the wrong idea about the artwork of the strip itself). Nowhere University has servicable artwork. But it looks like an eyesore in contrast with those dark blue-gray backgrounds. It you want to have the "eye-catcher" with a black and white comic without it being TOO eye catching, you need to blend in osme lighter shades that are still considered to be in the cool range, and maybe soften the borders of your comic. I love the way Fred Gallagher does it at Megatokyo with the dark gray transitioning to a lighter gray, and then the shadow gradient to the comic. It really prevents his comic from being overly dominant without losing the eye draw that his choice of background color has allowed.

Now, the other school of thought for choice of website colors is to pick colors so that the comic blends in with the rest of the site. This is a completely separate, and yet completely viable line of thought. By using this design principle, the rest of the site does not distract from the comic because everything flows together. This technique is much more commonly seen with black and white comics, where the comic strip itself is surrounded by either a white background or a white box which extends into other content. There are a lot of great examples of this, such as PvP, Starslip Crisis, Gossamer Commons, and The Big Three-Oh. Obviously the key with a black and white strip blending into a white background is to have some nice accent colors to keep the site interesting, and this is where some nice warm colors can come into play. Nothing too loud, but some tans, light blues, oranges, and lighter reds can work nicely.

This principle can be used with color strips as well. The best example is of course Count Your Sheep. The strip and the website blend together so seamlessly that it really is a thing of beauty. However, Count Your Sheep is kind of a special case, since Adis specifically limits himself to shades of blue and purple, making it very easy to build a site which will blend with the strip and look good every day. Most other comics use a much wider pallete and it can be very difficult to find a set of colors that will always look good with your comic, no matter what you decide to draw on any given day. That's not too say it can't be done, though. Both Tweep and Inverloch have done a good job of it.

Still, it's a great temptation for artists to use a white background with their color strip, just like the black and white folk do, since they know white will never clash with anything. But this typically doesn't work out too well. Instead of feeling like the strip is blending with the page, you really get a feel that the strip has been pasted on top of it. Take a look at Winger, for example. Carson Fire has even bothered to include exagerrated white space between his panels to try to fit the color strip onto a white background, but it's just not working. The strip looks like four boxes slapped on top of a white background. Now, there are two color strips which use a white background which I feel have successfully managed to blend their strip with the page: Real Life and Ugly Hill. And in both cases they've broken the white background with some blues and some more elaborate background work than just a solid color. So if you want to make a color strip blend using a white background, you've got to have that white background run into some other colors so that the overall feel is one of colorful pieces brought together with white.

So that's it for the colors in webcomic website design. I hope this information was useful and helpful to people out there, so that they can turn around and use it to improve their own webcomic's website. I think we need more better looking sites and fewer site which are either too busy or too bland. Sites which really present a comic looking it best by surrounding it with the optimal colors to complement it.

So what does everyone else think? Do you agree with one school of thought over the other? Did I miss anything? Did I diss someone's color scheme that you really thought was fabulous? Do you have an example of a great color scheme you want to share with the rest of us?

Post it up!


At 1:29 PM, Blogger tedzsee said...

My favourite examples of website design are Scary Go Round and Sam and Fuzzy.

Especially the latter, who just has it RIGHT. But scarygoround too... it is a great example of a comic that blends well with the background behind it. And what a background scheme too! It just SETS such an AUTUMN tone to the whole thing that it's amazing.

And Sam and Fuzzy's site is great because the comic is infused with such a large amount of black and an undertone of sadness that the comic just pulls your eye there.

With my comic (which is black and white), I tried to fuse what I saw as the successful elements of those sites together to get something that worked for me. I had a few people email me and tell me that it looked like a funeral. Oh well, we try and that's all we can do, yes?

Also, I hate IE. it doesn't read CSS properly and makes my site site (and others as well, no doubt) look worse than nature intended.

At 1:29 PM, Blogger tedzsee said...

also, you forgot one thing... the location of comments can be important.

At 5:07 PM, Blogger Gilead Pellaeon said...

The location of comments is in fact important, but in this particular post I'm just talking about color.

And IE isn't really THAT bad with parsing CSS. You've just got to work with it a bit. You've got work work with Firefox as well to make it work, Firefox is just fortunate enough that the W3C people aren't specifically out to screw them like they are IE.

But I don't think I want to open up that debate...

At 5:08 PM, Blogger Gilead Pellaeon said...

Oh yeah, and both Scary Go Round and Sam and Fuzzy do have pretty awesome sites, colorwise. They did a good job creating a mood with their colors.

At 6:00 PM, Anonymous Philippe Gaboury said...

Pretty spot on with most of your comments. I actually like how Panda Express uses the pink in its composition but I have to admit that it starts to irk me after a short while. Escpecially since the author would have us read all the text on that same background. Candi is just too obvious in design. Everything could be a bit more subdued.

A lot of examples of bad sites aren't about color though. Reallife and Ugly Hill use at least as many shades of blue as VG Cats does but what they do correctly is prioritize content. As a graphic designer it's something I've had to confront clients on often. If you want everything to jump out then nothing will. If you mark every chore you have to do as urgent then you'll just go through the same motions as if nothing was urgent. Prioritize, prioritize! I'm sure we could clean up VG Cats perfectly using the same color scheme if we just took the time to set content in order. It's not just that the comic isn't on the front page it's that its link is no more important in the current layout than the Livejournal or comments box. Not to mention the featured comic and product Spotlight. With the header and 2 spots of advertising that's at least 8 different spots shouting out for our attention. It's too much!. Housd does a much better job because it keeps all distractions below the fold, so to speak.

As one of my readers once told me, too many comickers do away with the KISS principle and that is what hurts them most.

Also, I was mentionned in the same sentence as PvP. That is cool.

At 8:44 PM, Blogger tedzsee said...

Yeah, see, I missed the subhead ("color") when I read it.

*Shakes head*.

Good points all around.

At 8:56 AM, Anonymous brad said...

My strip is black-and-white as well, and in the past I've tried some purely black-and-white schemes for the site, and have always been very dissatisfied with the lack of color. My feeling is that some color is almost always necessary or it becomes boring as hell.

At present I'm keeping the number of colors (not counting black and white) to two. Sometimes I still feel it lacks something, but I've got a theme going on which I'm mostly satisfied with.

At 2:30 PM, Blogger tedzsee said...

Hey brad,

I think your site works. It draws attention to the strip, and the colour scheme is simple enough to not distract from the comic at all while reading.

At 12:18 AM, Blogger Wildnet Technologies said...

Your blog looks good, have a nice day.
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