The Very Mathematical History of a Perfect Color Combination


A few years in the past, I fell in love with a shade scheme: off-white textual content accented with a buttery yellow-orange and a impartial blue towards a deep grey, the “color of television, tuned to a dead channel,” to borrow a phrase from Neuromancer writer William Gibson. The colours had been a part of a theme referred to as Solarized Dark for the favored MacOS code editor TextMate. To be trustworthy, I did not assume a lot of Solarized at first. But I quickly discovered that I could not work with every other shade scheme. Staring at screens all day could make you specific about fonts and colours.

It seems I’m not alone. I’m not a coder by commerce, however I like to make use of code editors for writing and organizing notes. While looking for instruments after switching from a Mac to Windows, I began to see Solarized Dark and its sibling Solarized Light, which makes use of the identical 16-color palette, virtually all over the place I appeared. It’s onerous to say what number of programmers use it. The design is free and open supply, so there’s no tally of purchases. It’s obtainable for each main code editor and plenty of different programming instruments. Microsoft even bundled it with its common code editor VS Code. Solarized has a loyal following.

“If I bring up a terminal window that doesn’t have Solarized, I feel out of place; I don’t feel at home,” says Zachery Bir, a Richmond, Virginia, programmer and artist who has been utilizing Solarized since shortly after it was launched in 2011. Bir likes Solarized a lot he makes use of it as the colour scheme for his computer-generated artwork. “I didn’t trust myself to come up with a palette that was balanced and looked good both in a dark and light medium,” he says.

The Solarized shade scheme isn’t any accident. It displays the obsessive consideration to element of its creator, Ethan Schoonover. “I didn’t release it until I was 1,000 percent sure I loved all the colors and they were all dialed in mathematically,” Schoonover says. “I had multiple monitors, some were color calibrated, others were deliberately messed up. Sometimes I showed my wife, who thought I was a little nuts.”

Too Much Contrast

Schoonover was working as a designer and programmer in Seattle when he began work on Solarized in 2010. He’d just lately switched working programs and was dissatisfied within the shade schemes obtainable for the instruments he used. Many purposes provided solely a easy white-on-black scheme that harkened again to old-school text-based laptop terminals. But Schoonover discovered these throwback shade schemes a lot harsher than the retro shows they tried to emulate. That’s as a result of the backgrounds displayed on previous 1980s displays weren’t actually black, Schoonover says. “They had less contrast.” Today’s LCD’s, then again, are able to displaying a lot darker, and far brighter, colours.

The optimum quantity of distinction for textual content on a display screen is controversial; many individuals favor high-contrast themes. But distinction wasn’t Schoonover’s solely concern. He discovered most low-contrast shade schemes missing as nicely. Even the best-designed themes tended to make use of a minimum of one shade that appeared distractingly brighter than others. That’s as a result of the obvious brightness of a shade varies relying on its background. In different phrases, a particular shade of blue will seem kind of shiny, relying on the encompassing colours.

This phenomenon, generally known as the Helmholtz–Kohlrausch impact, is especially aggravating for programmers as a result of coding instruments use shade to tell apart completely different components of code. In the code for an online web page in a typical textual content editor utilizing the Solarized Dark theme, for instance, internet hyperlinks seem in inexperienced; the syntax for formatting, comparable to including italics, is blue, and feedback that builders write for themselves are grey. Ideally, the colours ought to assist inform these parts aside, however no single ingredient ought to stand out greater than others.

Schoonover got down to discover a set of colours that might not solely look good collectively, however would have the identical obvious brightness. That activity was made tougher as a result of he wished to make use of the identical palette in each a lightweight and a darkish theme. Hence the necessity for all of the displays and testing.

Examples of the Solarized Dark (left) and Solarized Light (proper) themes displaying HTML code within the code editor Vim.

Ethan Schoonover

Ethan Schoonover

Schoonover talks rather a lot in regards to the mathematical nature of his shade picks, however he picked the beginning colours, a blue and a yellow, for very private causes. The blue reminds him of his long-standing thalassophobia, the concern of very deep water. And although he says he does not in any other case expertise synesthesia—comparable to listening to colours or tasting phrases—the yellow invokes tastes and smells he associates along with his childhood. “My parents are artists, I’m comfortable picking things for obscure reasons,” he says.

With these beginning factors, Schoonover sought out different colours that supplied simply sufficient—however not an excessive amount of—distinction between parts, and that maintained the identical stage of distinction in mild and darkish variations. The result’s a palette of simply 16 colours that retain the identical relationships even when inverted. “I suppose it’s a little like composing music with only a limited number of notes,” Schoonover says. “There can be something sparse and beautiful about it.”

An Open Source Program Takes Off

Schoonover launched Solarized without cost in April 2011 on GitHub, a code-hosting platform and collaboration service. He says he by no means supposed to commercialize it. “It would kill something special about it, taint it,” he says. “I believe in open source software, I believe in giving something special to the world that anyone can use.”

Although he’d examined the colour scheme in a wide range of purposes, Schoonover initially launched themes for just a few instruments he utilized in his personal work, just like the code editor Vim and the text-based e mail shopper Mutt. He introduced the discharge of Solarized on the Vim mailing record; quickly after, the challenge hit the entrance web page of the web group Hacker News. It was an instantaneous hit with programmers, who quickly went to work adapting it to different programming instruments past these Schoonover initially supported. In 2013, Solarized Dark appeared on the displays of builders in a Facebook industrial—look ahead to these darkish rectangles on the screens and spot the faintly coloured strains that cross them.

Solarized is slowly beginning to discover its approach into purposes for non-geeks. Ulysses, a writing utility for MacOS, contains Solarized themes as an possibility. The shade scheme was used for lots of the graphics within the videogame N++ in 2014. The note-taking app MicroPad even advertises Solarized as a characteristic on its web site. “Solarized Dark for MicroPad is especially useful for late-night studying, which I do more often than I would like to admit,” says MicroPad creator Nick Webster, a pc science scholar at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.

But it nonetheless hasn’t actually crossed over to the mainstream as a shade scheme for, say, a significant internet utility or software program suite. “When Apple introduced dark mode for MacOS, I thought it was cool,” says Bir, the Virginia programmer and artist. “But I wish it was Solarized.”

With extra purposes, like Google Chrome, Facebook Messenger, and Slack, releasing dark-mode themes, although, Solarized simply might need its day within the solar.


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