There’s often a story behind why a certain thing is a certain color (or colors), be it a school bus, a barn, a referee’s shirt, a green screen, or the McDonald’s logo. So it seems safe to assume that blue wasn’t a totally arbitrary choice for hyperlinks on the internet. Why, then, was it chosen?
For a while, nobody really knew. But user experience designer Elise Blanchard recently dug deep into internet history to solve the mystery, sharing her findings in two articles published on Mozilla’s blog in 2021 and 2022, respectively. It all started around 1985, when students under the tutelage of computer science professor Ben Shneiderman at the University of Maryland conducted a series of experiments regarding how different-colored hyperlinks affected users.
“Red highlighting made the links more visible, but reduced the user’s capacity to read and retain the context of the text,” Shneiderman told Blanchard. Blue won out: Not only was it dark enough to show up on a white background and light enough to show up on a black background, but it also “didn’t interfere with retention.”
User interface for the internet was a hot topic in the mid- to late 1980s; developers were eager to learn what design elements worked best and which ones to standardize. So it’s no surprise that Shneiderman and his students’ extensive research on hypertext design and other related matters was featured widely in journals and at conferences.
Blue for hyperlinks proved to be a popular idea. By the mid-1990s, it had cropped up in some seminal software, including a version of Tim Berners-Lee’s WorldWideWeb browser and Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina’s Mosaic browser. The latter was licensed by Microsoft to build Internet Explorer, which also used blue hyperlinks from the jump.
These days, the internet is vast and varied enough that it’s not uncommon for a website to display hyperlinks in a color that complements the brand—say, orange. But there’s another reason sources still sometimes recommend sticking with blue: It’s the color least often affected by color blindness.
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