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I have noticed many high traffic and/or new and popular websites use a gray background. Websites such as Gmail, Google+, Facebook, Instagram, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Vine and many others all seem to use variations and shades of gray with white foregrounds.

Since this pattern is so common I am wondering if there is a specific reason it is being used such as for visibility, organization or familiarity? And if so are there any other patterns/colors that can pull off the same effect?

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It's quite simple really, the background should not be prominent, it should provide some contrast to allow the content to stand out but not in any way distract the user from consuming the content.

Light grey is therefore a very good choice, it's an unobtrusive, neutral colour which isn't going to glare, be too contrasting or clash with the colours used in the design of the site. In the case of facebook, where the content colour is often user generated this has more effect.

Feint textures also work well.

In contrast, an image, or a bright colour, or worse still, a flash advert, will prove to be distracting for the user and will hamper content consumption.

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Usually the darker background is used draw your attention to the brighter spot of the web site. It is known that people tend to look first at the brighter spots, so in the example of facebook they want you to look on your news feed first, because it is the place where the most imporntat stuff happens. Gmail uses this same technique but a little different, they have made everything white and after that faded out (used grey color) parts of the website that now are secondary for you to look at.

So the conclusion is to correctly draw your attention in the application or website.

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