Adding colors to applications

Colors and styles can make your command-line applications look nice, and also make output easier to understand by leveraging human pattern recognition. However, adding them requires a significant amount of care.

General recommendations

These rules apply to all command-line programs, not just Rust ones.

  1. Applications should have a global --color option, with the values always, auto (default) and never. If this is specified as always or never, applications must enable or disable colors respectively.
  2. Otherwise, if one of a number of environment variables is specified, applications should do what it says.1
  3. Otherwise, if the output stream (stdout or stderr) is a pipe, applications must disable colors. (Each output stream must be evaluated separately. For example, if stdout is a pipe but stderr isn't, applications must disable colors on stdout but may enable them on stderr.)
  4. Otherwise, applications may enable colors.

2 and 3 are covered by the supports-color Rust library. The exact set of environment variables is too complicated to describe here. See the source code of supports-color for a full list.

It must be possible to disable colors. Some users's terminals may have broken color support; in other cases, pipe detection may not work as expected.


This recommendation is somewhat controversial. See this discussion in the Rust repository for more about this. I generally believe that using environment variables is OK in any output that's not designed to be machine readable.

Color palettes

Terminals may support one of three color palettes:

  • 16 colors: 4-bit color; black, red, green, yellow, blue, magenta, cyan, white, and a "bright" version of each.
  • 256 colors: 8-bit color; the 16 colors above, a 6×6×6 cube for each of red, green and blue, and 24 grayscale tones. This page by Pádraig Brady has more information about them.
  • Truecolor (16 million colors): 24-bit color; 8 bits for each of red, green and blue. This is the standard that web pages and most monitors support. You may have seen these colors written as e.g. #9b4fd1.

The default color schemes in applications must be restricted to 12 colors: red, green, yellow, blue, magenta, cyan, and the bright versions of each of these.

  • While the wider palettes are useful for terminal theming controlled by the user, applications must not use them by default. The reason is that users may be using a variety of terminal themes with different backgrounds. Truecolors and 8-bit colors will not render properly with all terminal themes. Light-colored text will fade into a light background, and dark-colored text will fade into a dark background.
  • Most terminals allow you to configure these colors to whatever one pleases. In most themes, these 12 colors are set to contrast with the background. Themes with dark backgrounds set "blue" to be lighter, while themes with light backgrounds set "blue" to be darker. (These examples are from real themes.)
  • The "black" and "white" colors generally do not contrast with the background.

Applications may allow users to set their own color schemes. If users can set their own color schemes, like ls, emacs or vim do, wider palettes of colors be supported. In these cases, users can match their color schemes with their terminal themes.


Terminals use the same escape codes to support both colors and styles---bold, italic, etc.

Applications may use bold text. Almost all terminals support bold text. Some terminals do not support italic text or strikethroughs: you can use them in your applications, but relying on them can cause issues.

Applications must not use blinking text. Blinking text can be distracting or difficult to read for many people. The HTML <blink> tag, which had similar behavior, was removed from web pages around 2013.

TODO: add information about ASCII and Unicode symbols (including emoji) that are safe to use in terminals.

ANSI color codes and Windows color APIs

Most Unix terminals support ANSI color codes. For example, turning the foreground color to "green" involves writing the characters \x1b (ESC), [, 32 (for green), and m to the terminal.

Historically, Windows provided a set of Console APIs for the same purpose. These APIs have since been deprecated, and Windows now supports the same ANSI color codes other platforms do.

Cross-platform applications should not target the Windows Console APIs. Instead, they should rely on the ANSI color code support built into modern Windows terminals. Note that Windows requires ANSI color code support to be initialized: the enable-ansi-support crate does that for you if you're using Rust. Call it early in main.