Written by Stéphane Richard (Mystikshadows)


In the course of many decades, programmers have tried just about any combination of the 16 colors available in DOS. There was a point in time when each program (application or game) that came out pretty much invented their own color combinations either to seperate themselves from the rest of the existing programs or simply because the author thought that his color combination was better than the the rest of them. When you create a program, the colors you decide to use will ultimately impact what users think of your application or game. And in the course of these decades of DOS/CONSOLE development, we can see that a certain standard has formed. Not a standard per se, but more of a popular and accepted set of color combinations so to speak.

In this document, we'll see what these combinations have come to be and I'll try to explain why these colors were chosen as well as alternate colors since there are some popular alternate color combinations that were almost as widely accepted. Please note that this is not a study on the psychological effects of colors on the human mind but rather a study on what color combinations became the most popular choices and why. Another quick note is to say that this pertains more to applications than games, sure some games can follow these if you want, but this is aimed more at application development.


Just what are these 16 colors that we are talking about? In DOS text mode applications, all you have are those 16 colors which limits the combinations you can make to give an intelligent visual aspect to your applications. These colors are:

0 - Black

8 - Grey

1 - Blue

9 - Light Blue

2 - Green

10 - Light Green

3 - Cyan

11 - Light Cyan

4 - Red

12 - Light Red

5 - Magenta

13 - Light Magenta

6 - Brown

14 - Yellow

7 - White

15 - Bright White

And there they are, these 16 colors are the only colors you can choose from in the design of your screens as you might imagine, some colors, when combined with other are close to unreadable for most of us. Avoiding those obviously bad combinations is already a step in the right direction to make sure the colors you select are clear and crisp for the eye to see.


To answer this question I would suggest you take a look around at the widely spread application programs you can find on the internet. In essence they all have certain things in common and they can be seperated in intelligent roles. These colors combinations are usually on a per screen role basis and as I mentionned, over the years, people started to accept/expect as standard or close to it. So then, let's take a look at these different screen roles as well as what color combinations have been selected for them shall we?


By considerations I mean of course care for your users here. There are color combinations that simply don't make sense at all. The most obvious is of course having the same foreground and background color (which makes text unreadable as they cannot be seen). Another is for example, any low shade colors (left column in the color chart above) in combination with any other low intensity colors except black, these will be very hard to read. The same goes for the high intensity colors (right column in the color chart) in combination with any other color than 9 - Dark Gray. Again they might be easier to read in some cases but they would probably be to harsh on the eye which would tire the eye alot quicker.

I would say that common sense is important here. We're all different as individuals but our eyes pretty much work the same as the next person. If your eyes like what they are seeing regardless of the chosen color, maybe it's not a bad combination. If you have to look away from the screen when you are looking at a combination, well everyone else just might feel like looking away too. So use your logic and common sense and I'm sure you'll select at least a halfway decent color scheme for your application without too much of a problem.


As a final word, I would have to say to remember that the combinations listed here are not standard, they just came to be the popular chose for the given screen role. You could try other combinations if you want in your applications, maybe you'll like the outcome of those selection. For example a Yellow Text on a brown background isn't all that bad to look at, it just seems that the majority of users simply did not like that combination for all types of reasons. So go ahead and experiment with your colors. See if you can find something that doesn't look too bad to the eye, if you can read clearly, chances are so will your users.

Color is a matter of personal taste and that's the reason why alot of applications come with the option to change the colors of any and all parts of a program. If you want to experiment with color combinations, perhaps giving the users that ability to change those colors wouldn't be a bad idea especially when you think about the color blind people that might not see reds or greens as well as you might. You can always email me (see my signature below for my email) to give me comments and suggestions about this or other articles and techniques I've written. I write these in the hope that they will be useful in some way to whoever reads them and that is my first goal when selected the subject of my articles and techniques.

Stéphane Richard