Fantasy writers have warned us for years that the dark is rising. It’s definitely been rising in popularity for user interfaces, and that’s not a bad thing. Many applications deliver a more satisfactory user experience in dark mode, either as an option or the default.
Interest in dark mode rose out of concerns that too much blue light can be bad for us, especially in the evening. It signals to the brain that it’s still daytime, so users may have a harder time getting to sleep. Another benefit is that darker colors may extend battery life by requiring less energy, depending on the technology.
Whether dark mode works better depends on several factors. In a dim environment, a bright screen background looks harsh. People reading their phones in bed will generally find that less brightness is more comfortable. It’s less likely to annoy someone who’s trying to sleep in the same room.
A dark background helps to focus on a few design elements on the screen. It offers fewer distractions. It’s effective when the primary content is graphics.
If an application is text-heavy, the traditional light mode offers better readability. We’re used to reading dark text on a light background, and bright characters tend to blur into a dark background. People with astigmatism find it especially hard to read bright text against a dark screen.
A dark-mode interface helps in reaching certain emotional effects. Designers can use it to suggest elegance, formality, or romance.
Designing for Dark Mode
Creating a dark display is a design task in itself. Merely inverting the color palette won’t produce attractive results. A good design requires an eye for color coordination and testing with users.
A muted design works better than saturated colors against pure black. At the same time, it’s necessary to maintain sufficient contrast. Shadows are a common design element, but a shadow of light on a dark background would look strange.
Having both dark and light options keeps the largest number of users happy. It can be a user preference, or the application can select it automatically based on the local time. The brightness of the environment doesn’t always correspond to the time of day, and some people prefer one or the other all the time, so the user should be able to override a time-based setting.
If the operating system supports dark-mode elements, use them if possible. They’ll provide a better tested and more coordinated user experience than picking colors at random.
Taking the User Into Account
Whether a dark theme would help an application depends strongly on how it will be used. Business applications get most of their use in well-lit offices during the daytime, so there’s less of a case for a dark set of colors. Apps for personal use are more likely to be used in the evening and in dimly-lit places, so their users will benefit more from a subdued display.
Users vary in their visual abilities and their personal preferences. An application shouldn’t lock them into a mode which they don’t like. A choice among display options will satisfy more of them than any design by itself will.
Battery life shouldn’t be a deciding consideration. OLED screens will use somewhat less power with dark elements, but LED displays won’t gain any benefit. The difference isn’t huge even in the best case. The deciding question should be whether the look works well.
Learn More About a Dark Mode in Your UI
A dark mode option is a good fit for many use cases. If users are likely to use an application in low light or after dark, if the application is more oriented toward graphics than text, and if the look fits the intended tone and branding, it’s worth looking into the option. Contact us to learn more.