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Text Color Combinations and Eye Strain? 27

jalewis asks: "I was staring at the screen and the white background started to pulsate. It made me wonder if maybe my Eterm color choices are bad for my eyes. Is there a combo that put the least amount of strain on your eyes?" I can understand this. I remember back when those monochrome (yes, monochrome! I'm dating myself again) monitors came in terrible shades of red or green. I really appreciated CGA cards with their better handling of text colors when I first started working on PCs, as for general text, I'm still partial to greyish-white text on dark backgrounds. What foreground/background text colors work best for you?
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Text Color Combinations and Eye Strain?

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  • Yellow text on a blue background is supposed to be best, but I would worry more about the font size than colours.
  • I have a couple that I use. I like white or yellow on dark blue; dark blue ("midnightblue") on off-white ("antiquewhite"); light green on black (or very very dark blue.)

    The best contrast, I've heard, is yellow and black, but I find that a little harsh for regular use.

    Experiment! Your eyes are not mine.

  • Make sure you set your refresh rate as high as your monitor/video card will support. I know some people who set there resolution all the way to 1600 x 1200 but they have to have the refresh rate at 60 hertz or lower, it flickers so much at that rate I don't know how they can stand to look at it.
    • similarly it might be worth getting a new monitor - that can make a *big* difference. When I upgraded the difference was noticeable in terms of tiredness, eye strain, etc (was a dodgy 14", now a Iiyama 22", 1600x1200 @ 100Hz)
  • I have heard that it's best to have a blue background and a yellow text and somebody did scientific research to prove this.

    I have not seen such research, actually, but blue backrground and yellow or white text is actually pretty relaxing. My Apple IIgs (I'm dating myself here, too) had a blue background and white text.

    I think the reasoning behind this is that:

    • Blue, generally, promotes relaxation
    • Having the screen area being more evenly illuminated, but still distinguishable, is handy.
    • The eye isn't particularly sensitive to blue, so it isn't especially distracting.

    To this end, if memory serves it was Jerry Pournelle, suggested to MS that they include an option in office that didn't involve a black-on-white display, so there is a little checkbox that lets you have a blue background and white text hidden away in the prefs.

    Also, on paper, a white background with black text is more very much accepted as being more readable than the other way around. However, this is not always the case on the PC, because a solid area of white is where you start to notice the refresh rate of the monitor.

    • Re:I have heard.... (Score:3, Informative)

      by sharkey ( 16670 )
      To this end, if memory serves it was Jerry Pournelle, suggested to MS that they include an option in office that didn't involve a black-on-white display, so there is a little checkbox that lets you have a blue background and white text hidden away in the prefs.

      In Word2000, go to the Tools menu, and select Options. The setting is on the General tab.
    • Also, on paper, a white background with black text is more very much accepted as being more readable than the other way around.

      That, of course, is a consequence of the two facts that 1) light is reflected from white paper, and 2) the text is printed with black ink. Reflected light is much easier on the eyes than emitted light, such as from a CRT. And printing black characters precisely is far easier than leaving out white ones. Ever looked at a mostly black page in a cheap mag? Check those fuzzy outlines along the black borders, and note the (mis)alignment of cyan, magenta and yellow ink passes...

      A CRT is basically a fancy light source. You really don't want to stare at a light source for an extended period, however low its energy might be. Hence the recommendations to use dark backgrounds with bright text.

      I can personally attest that white and yellow on dark blue works great. I was introduced to this by SGI's factory defaults for their terminal windows and have stuck with it ever since (8 years). Thanks SGI!

    • Re:I have heard.... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by SamHill ( 9044 ) on Friday September 14, 2001 @07:01PM (#2300914)

      To this end, if memory serves it was Jerry Pournelle, suggested to MS that they include an option in office that didn't involve a black-on-white display, so there is a little checkbox that lets you have a blue background and white text hidden away in the prefs

      My understanding was that the white on blue text in Word was a ``compatibility option'' so people who were forced to stop using WordPerfect could feel slightly more at home.

      ObOnTopic: I generally use black text on a light yellow background. That's closer to ink on paper without being quite so glarey.

      My partner was happy for years with her monochrome NeXT. Somehow the addition of color makes everything a lot more dodgy.

    • Anybody remember the IDEs for Turbo Pascal 6 and 7 and Turbo C++? Yellow on Blue is the way to go - especially if you have reserved words in white, comments and strings in green, and operators and numbers in different shades of cyan. :-) Even on my puny CGA monitor, I never got eye strain.
    • that BSOD's don't cause eyestrain.
  • First, if you are noticing the flicker, it is probably time to take a ten minute break, for your eyes, back, wrists, etc.

    That said, I always kinda liked the green on black.

  • I like darkish, low saturation backgrounds (#202020, #205060, #307040) with white/yellowish not extremely bright foregrounds (#e8e8e8, #e8e8d0).
    Font selection is of the utmost importance. For terminals I like lucidasanstypewriter-12 or the Microsoft "Andale Mono" []which I use under Win.
    • I use pale blue (think Mozilla's modern theme) background and black text. A big readability change was to switch to non-serif fixed space fonts at least size 12. I tend to use Lucida Console and Tahoma on Windows, Lucida Console and Helvetica on Linux.

      Dark colors are also helpful, and look good with the blue palette -- for wallpapers I use black and blue themes a lot. See if you care.
  • I read once, that when giving a presentation with slides, black-text-on-white (or dark-on-light) is the best when you are projecting the image (eg. acetate overhead sheets), while white-text-on-black (or light-on-dark) is best for when it is displayed on a video screen. So it would follow to use light-text-on-dark-background color schemes on a terminal.

    While I think they were more concerned with contrast, I believe it applies well to eyestrain; with a video screen, the light is being directed right at your eyes; more black = less light for your eyes to deal with. Reading a white-background screen for an extended period is sort of like driving in snow, skiing, or anything with a lot of glare; your eyes get overloaded by the amount of light they have to deal with, and get tired.

    You might also try turning down the brightness of your monitor a tad, and see if muting the colors that way helps.
  • This was recommended to me by my UNIX Professor some years ago when I had the same question.

    This seems to be a great combination.

  • I've never understood why every OS vendor in the world makes their terminals default to white on black. It makes my eyes hurt after only 4 or 5 minutes of use, especially if the room lighting is low.

    I'll typically just go with reverse video, but when my eyes hurt, and I can't stop working for the day yet, a 10 minute break and a switch to white on blue is perfect. Maybe even a switch to 800x600 for a while.

    The other thing that helps reduce eyestrain that noone has meantioned yet is to make sure your eyes have the nutrients they need. At the very minimum, I take 25,000 IU of beta carotine a day, and maybe some eyebright. It's made a world of difference in how strained my eyes get.

  • Several points (Score:3, Informative)

    by dutky ( 20510 ) on Friday September 14, 2001 @05:51PM (#2300548) Homepage Journal
    Several points about text readability:
    • No matter how high resolution your monitor, or how fast the refresh rate, any region of illuminated (i.e. non-black) pixels will show up as discrete spots of light. On older, lower resolution, displays this is because you can distinguish between separate raster scans. On newer displays you have the shadow mask to contend with. In either case, the only way to make the text characters appear as actual continuous regions is to display them as non-illuminated pixels (i.e. black text on a non-black background).
    • There have been studies done (do a google search on "contrast" and "readability") that show that black text on a pale background may be better than black text on a pure white background. The studies don't seem to agree on what the best background colors are (they range from cream to pale green to light grey to pink). here [] is a page that is a good introduction to the topic (WARNING: the page has a mildly anoying web gizmo).
    • You might also consider that there could be something wrong with your monitor. I have some old monitors that ripple and pulse for a few minutes after you power them up or when the line power sags (I don't keep the monitors on the UPS in order to maximize battery life). It may be time to get a new monitor.
    • Finally, as others have said, maybe your eyes are just tired. Take a break. Go look out a window at some distant objects. Get out into the Big Blue Room.
  • I find that using a high resolution LCD display reduces eye strain for me personally. Since they don't refresh the same way as a CRT there isn't any flicker at all.

    On the topic of colour I've always used green on black. It seems to make smaller text easier to read.

  • Best for me... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by chrysrobyn ( 106763 )
    I realize this will likely be different for different people.
    Personally, I set all my xterms to green on black. It makes me look like an old-schooler at work, which gets annoying after the twentieth person points out that I'm using $20k worth of equipment to look like something from 1980, but I digress.
    My goal was to first get rid of white backgrounds -- the refresh rate on my monitor at work was too low for my comfort, and white flashed. Black became my default. Next, for a foreground color. One would think that shelling out that much dough for a high powered UNIX workstation, they'd toss in a higher quality monitor, but the colors diverged on the periphery and there weren't enough controls to make them converge on all corners simultanously. So, my goal became to find a color that could be activated by one color gun alone -- blue, red or green. Blue appeared too dim (the human eye is least sensitive to blue, most to yellow), red was hard to look at for much time at all, and green was something I could stare into for 10-12 hours a day and not get a headache. So, for me, all my text windows became green on black, my headaches went away, and my job satisfaction soared. The downside was that my coworkers started to ask me UNIX questions as if I was tech support (I have the deepest respect for tech support, but since my job was as a circuit designer).
  • by adolf ( 21054 ) <> on Saturday September 15, 2001 @11:04AM (#2302809) Journal
    A large portion of eyestrain at a computer is probably caused by poorly configured monitors.

    It's easy to set them up in a more-or-less correct fashion, without such gizmos as color analyzers (though they certainly make things easy).

    Some of this is might seem trivial and obvious. For some reason, however, most people still don't get it right. The following is a quick-and-dirty guide to setting up all manner of CRT displays.

    First, get the monitor's geometry right. You'll need a solid image for this - almost anything will do, as long as it stretches to all edges of the display. A solid-color desktop is fine. Tweak the size and pincushion and slant and rotation and whatever else you've got, until the displayed image stretches as far to the edges as possible without going over. After that, work on making it square, from -your- perspective, as you normally use it. Some, most, or all of these adjustments will interact with eachother, so you may have to revisit each several times to get things right.

    Now that your display is as big as possible (always a good thing), it's time to start on the finer points of eyestrain reduction.

    Find a screen that is mostly (or preferably all) black, and use this to adjust black level using the brightness control. Start by cranking it up until everything turns grey, and then back it down until that grey is invisible under ambient light, and then reduce it another step or so. The idea is that black should -always- be as black as possible under your typical lighting, but not so dark that shades of grey also become invisible.

    After that, adjust the white level, otherwise known as "Contrast" or "Picture." Find or make a large (full-screen is nice) greyscale gradient, with consistant steps from white to black. This might be easier with a palletized 8-bit image, so that there's fewer levels of grey for your eye to discern. Turn up the contrast until the white end of this image loses its definition, and then turn it down until you see even steps of grey. No two strips should looks any closer to eachother in shade than any other two, ideally.

    Double-check that your black level adjustment is sane, as changing the contrast will often interact with that. *sigh*

    At this point, your monitor will probably look much darker than usual. It also is not overdriven anymore. This is not a coincidence. :) Your monitor will last markedly longer, and your eyes will be appreciative.

    The darkness is due to a CRT and the associated electronics are only capable of producing a certain amount of light. Ask it to do more of this, and it won't. This has the effect of pushing midtones up in luminosity, while flattening out the top end. This is not good for the electronics, or your eyes, as an overdriven white will not appear as sharply focused as one which is within the display's range of linearity.

    Your display is now vastly more accurate than most others.

    So. It is now time to adjust gamma, which will bring up midtones without overdriving things. There is, unlike NTSC, no standard gamma for PC displays, and thus there is no right or wrong way to do it. :-/ I like to set mine up so that it has a final gamma of 1, which is to say that if the video card produces 50% of maximum voltage, the monitor shows 50% of maximum brightness. As a bonus, this matches the characteristics of my printer, so things really are WYSIWYG.

    It's easy to adjust gamma, provided that your video card and OS support it (xgamma under xfree86). Do a quick Google search for a gamma correction image - what you want is something with a checkerboard of small white and black squares, and a 50% grey box for comparison. Turn the gamma up until the checkerboard pattern matches the brightness of the box, and leave it there. You might find it helpful, depending on the image you use, to squint slightly and blur the checkerboard into something solid while adjusting this. Fortunately, since this happens digitally, there's no impact on any other adjustments, and you're done with it.

    Your display should now appear glorious.

    Next, color temperature. This is really the first step, but since most people -never- care about it, I put it last. Which doesn't make it unimportant, just neglected and largely unknown. An explanation is thus in order.

    Color temperature represents the color of white. You've noticed that a white shirt appears differently under incandescent lights, or on a cloudy day, or in stark sunlight, or under harsh flourescents, or at a football game under metal halides -- even though, in all instances, the white shirt is still obviously white. This is color temperature. Metal halides, as used in stadiums, often have color temperature in excess of 15,000 Kelvin, which is largely blue. Incandescents are often as low as 4300k, which is yellow or brown (depending on your interpretation). The higher the number, the more blue it is. Lower, is more yellow/brown.

    Like gamma, and also unlike NTSC (standard of 6500k) there's no standard color temperature for computer displays. I like my monitor at ~7000k, which to my eyes, looks like the sunlight that comes through my NW Ohio window as it appears on a sheet of paper.

    Most monitors (and TVs alike, dispite the known, functional standard) have ghastly high color temperatures from the factory. This, as far as anyone can tell, is because of some human tendancy to think that a bluer picture is brighter, and thus better. Sony displays are notoriously blue out of the box.

    I haven't seen a monitor sold in the past couple of years which did not allow adjustment of color temperature, and I also haven't seen one at all which has temperature presets which match reality. Ignore the presets.

    So, first, you'll need to find a reference. A Kodak grey card and a lamp of known temperature would be nice. A color analyzer would be better, if one can be borrowed. Or, just use a sheet of plain white paper (not coated stock for inkjets) and ambient sunlight.

    Use a full-screen image that's just plain white, or grey. You'll then tweak the individual gain of the red, green, and blue guns on your monitor until the displayed image matches the color (-not- brightness) of your reference. Alternate between white and grey images until you get as close a match as you can on each. Then (as this is the first step), go through and do all the other things mentioned above.


    It will look darker again, but in reality, the light output hasn't been changed much by the temperature adjustment, but perception brightness has. Let it sit that way for a few days, and you'll soon look at other monitors with disdain.

    Load up some pr0n, or fire up your favorite black-on-white application, and notice how much easier things are to read and discern. You'll see details in photographs that you positively couldn't before, because your monitor couldn't show them to you as it was stuck in "buy-me" mode, like a stereo turned up to 11.

    If, after this rough calibration, you find that your monitor is overcome with glare, the obvious solution is to reduce ambient light. Don't try to turn up the monitor, because it can't do it. If you can't reduce the amount of light in the room, buy a new monitor. The one you have presently is aging, as vacuum tubes (particularly CRTs) tend to do, and it can't produce as much light as it used to be able to.
  • I generally use greyish/whiteish foreground text with a black background. Most computers I used before windows had this style of display. I find it's much easier on the eyes then a white background which to me is similiar to staring into a lightbulb.
    Other stuff I do:
    • Use KDE's anti aliased fonts
    • Use a LCD monitor
    • I have a sed script that zips through local HTML documents and changes attributes like BGCOLOR

    The only thing I don't have is a web browser that will absolutely enforce my style preferences. If anyone knows how to do this with konqueror or mozilla or whatever, please post!

I've finally learned what "upward compatible" means. It means we get to keep all our old mistakes. -- Dennie van Tassel