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First of all, my apologies to Paul McCartney!

One of the decisions I had to make when setting up this blog was what colours I should use. As I am not a paying user of WordPress, I am somewhat limited in what I can do, as the full adjustment of colours tool is part of an optional, paid upgrade to which I have no interest in subscribing. However, my chosen (free) blog theme—Chateau—does offer the choice between a “light” and a “dark” colour theme. I instinctively chose the dark theme, because I thought that it would be more aesthetically pleasing in combination with my space-themed heading image (a subject about which I posted previously), and because I dimly recalled reading the FAQ of a website, also featuring white text on a black background (WTBB), which claimed that this colour combination was easier to read and required the display apparatus to use less power.

However, after further consideration, I decided to do some further research, in order to see if this claim (and my memory) was in fact accurate. I soon found a blog post by Joe Dolson, a web designer, which summarises the issues of text readability (including several relevant studies), and an academic conference article by Richard H. Hall and Patrick Hanna on the relationship between text and background colours and its effects on a number of different user factors.

The information from these two sources makes for interesting reading. Dolson links to a survey carried out by Dr Lauren Scharff and Alyson Hill, which concludes that website designs featuring the colours black and white are generally more readable than when other colours are introduced, due to the high contrast between these colours. Unfortunately for me, WTBB did not score as highly as its inverse, black text on a white background (BTWB). The second study, carried out by Chris Ridpath, Jutta Treviranus and Patrice L. (Tamar) Weiss at the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre of the University of Toronto, was also worrying, as its results suggest that webpage readability improves when a “brightness difference” exists between the text and the background. If you compare the brightness of the white used for the standard text of the blog compared to the brighter shade used for hyperlinks, you should notice that the default shade of white is fairly dim. However, the default shade of black used for the background is also lacking in intensity (the shade of black used for the comments boxes and the footer area is significantly darker).  Had I made a terrible mistake?

In despair, I turned to the study conducted by Hall and Hanna.  This experiment not only concerns itself with text readability, but also several other factors, namely retention, aesthetics, and behavioural intention.  Whilst retention and behavioural intention do not produce any meaningful statistical differences, WTBB predictably comes out ahead once more in terms of readability, and also for ease of studying and the perception of professionalism.  However, BTWB edges in front in the crucial aesthetic battlegrounds of producing a “pleasing” and “stimulating” effect.  I was particularly encouraged by this sentence from the concluding remarks:

Users rate more traditional, and subtler color combinations as the most readable, and rate these more subtle colors as more pleasing and stimulating.

As my blog is not intended to be an exemplar of rigorous, professional academic work, and instead rather more of an informal place for reflection and discussion of LIS issues, this sounded perfect, particularly as the word “subtle” could easily apply to the dimmer, paler shades of white and black that predominate.

Whilst my chosen colour scheme may then indeed be suitable for this blog, the information that I had found out intrigued me, particularly in regard to how it could apply to libraries. My previous experience of libraries online has mostly been using academic Online Public Access Catalogues (OPACs), so I decided to take a quick tour of some UK university library homepages in order to make a note of their various colour schemes, starting with those with which I already had a personal connection.

    1. City University London (who else?): white background, black text, complementary colours: red, purple (in the logo), light and dark grey.
    2. University of Cambridge (my undergraduate university): white background, black text, complementary colours: light blue, teal, dark blue, pale light blue, pale orange, green.
    3. Durham University (my former employer): white background, black text, complementary colours: purple, pale purple, pale blue, black, green.

I decided to continue by going through the Russell Group, as a manageable and representative sample of British universities:

  1. University of Birmingham: light blue and white background, black text, complementary colours: green, purple, grey.
  2. University of Bristol: white background, black text, complementary colours: blue, light blue, beige, deep red.
  3. Cardiff University: white background, black text, complementary colours: blue, light blue, turquoise, deep red.
  4. University of Edinburgh: white background, black text, complementary colours: blue, red, grey.
  5. University of Exeter: white background, black text, complementary colours: orange, deep blue, light blue, turquoise, grey.
  6. University of Glasgow: white background, black text, complementary colours: three shades of blue, two grey.
  7. Imperial College London: white background, black text, complementary colours: dark blue, blue, teal, bright blue, orange, grey (gradient), beige.
  8. King’s College London: white background, black text, complementary colours: dark grey, light grey, teal, pink, pale red, green.
  9. University of Leeds: white background, black and grey text, complementary colours: dark grey, light grey, green, orange, light blue, yellow.
  10. University of Liverpool: white and light blue-grey background, black text, complementary colours: dark blue, pale blue, bright blue, purple, dark purple, lime green, dark green, dark red.
  11. London School of Economics and Political Science: white background, black text, complementary colours: black, red, grey, light grey, light pale blue.
  12. University of Manchester: white background, black text, complementary colours: purple, orange, pink, light grey.
  13. Newcastle University: white background, black text, complementary colours: dark blue, light blue, pale red, brown, green, pink, dark grey.
  14. University of Nottingham: white background, black and grey text, complementary colours: dark blue, turquoise, dark grey, light grey.
  15. University of Oxford: white background, black text, complementary colours: dark blue, pale light blue, dark grey, pale grey.
  16. Queen Mary, University of London: white background, black text, complementary colours: pale blue, light pale blue, dark grey, light grey.
  17. Queen’s University Belfast: white background, black text, complementary colours: dark grey, light grey, dark blue, indigo.
  18. University of Sheffield: white background, black text, complementary colours: black, dark grey, light grey, blue, light blue.
  19. University of Southampton: white background, black text, complementary colours: blue, dark blue, light blue, teal, dark grey, grey.
  20. University College London: white background, black text, complementary colours: black, blue, light blue, red.
  21. University of Warwick: greyscale image background, black text, complementary colours: black, dark grey, light grey, dark blue, blue, teal, purple, beige.
  22. University of York: white background, black text, complementary colours: purple, dark grey, grey, light grey.

It is clear to see the common feature of WBBT—according to the cited studies, the libraries are all aiming for professionalism and easy user readability access. Many of the websites do use BTWB, but only within limited areas, for example in a box format, on their main pages. Another predictable feature is that many of the websites’ complementary colours are determined by the traditional or symbolic colours of the university; it’s no surprise that the Cambridge and Oxford University Library websites both make extensive use of blue, but with different shades. The other complementary colours also seem to follow Hall and Hanna’s conclusion that subtle combinations of colours result in a pleasing aesthetic experience: many websites use multiple shades of the same colour (and the same colours, such as blue and grey, appear again and again), or make limited use unusual colours for emphasis. I noticed, for instance, that several websites used a certain colour for the catalogue search bar that was not repeated anywhere else on the main page. What is perhaps surprising is that several websites featured colour clashes that I for one found jarring: Exeter is a good example, with a split between bright blue and bright orange in the first instance, but also the use of at least three different shades of blue in discrete boxes on the same page, which is then exacerbated by the presence of several social media logos which also use various shades of the same colour.

If anyone does have feedback regarding the colour palette of my blog, please let me know!

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