Dark mode vs light mode: Which is better and why?

In the prehistoric days, when computers were huge and resided only in office buildings and when they had CRT monitors for their faces—CRT which stands for cathode ray tube works by shooting electron beams onto the screen rather than by activation of photons as in LEDs—dark screen was standard. Text—this was before modern graphical user interfaces with icons were a thing—was usually in green. Most terminals likewise operated on dark screens. Then the white screen took over becoming the preponderant mode: light won over darkness, momentarily. The force of darkness, however, is on the rise again. The cycle is nearly complete—or is it?

The struggle between light and dark

Reading any technology-focused blog or forum would have us believe that an overwhelming number of people prefer dark mode to light mode; and accordingly, it ought to be the default choice. But the technology nerds represent a tiny percentage of the world population. They have the microphone but should you listen to them and implement dark mode across the board?

Perhaps—but wait. There is more than meets the eye. A survey by Nielsen Norman Group found the divide between the preference for dark mode and light mode to be evenly split: one-third lean toward dark, a third light, and the other third are non-partisan. 

Each party has its reasons. Advocates of light mode say it’s more natural and more suitable especially for text-rich pages and it allows better absorption of information. It offers better clarity and brightness, which is particularly beneficial in a well-lit environment, and it represents color more accurately. This helps reduce eye strain and fatigue. It is also, they say, more professional and effuses seriousness. 

Adherents of the dark mode school likewise believe it aids in minimizing eye strain and reduces the emission of blue light—a major culprit of a condition known as digital eye strain and for disruption of sleep patterns. It also reduces glare and reflections. And, they assert, it looks modern and cool.

What does science say?

Light mode may seem professional and dark mode cool, but style is not the be-all and end-all. Indeed, things are not at all as they seem. And what’s good for the eyes may diverge from the aesthetic appeal.

The pupil of the eye contracts and dilates depending on the amount of light. Dark mode emits less light which requires the pupils to dilate to allow more light into the retina. This can increase eye strain, while also making vision less clear. It may also cause what is known as the “halation”—a halo-like effect around text and images, giving them a foggy and blurry appearance. This may be particularly pronounced in people with certain visual defects such as myopia and astigmatism. On the other hand—or should we say eye?—dark mode reduces glare, such as those caused by car headlights at night. As we age, the susceptibility to glare becomes more pronounced; dark mode mitigates this to a degree.

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Dark mode also emits less blue light, which though essential during daytime and for certain activities—it boosts attention, increases reaction time, and enhances mood—has a deleterious effect during nighttime. Exposure to any kind of light is not desirable but blue light more so, as it more strongly than others suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm). So, if abstention from the screen is not an option, then dark mode is a good option.

And what about improving battery life (for devices with OLED displays), a major selling point of dark mode? The folk knowledge that dark mode conserves battery life is true; but the difference is not day and night. A study by researchers at Purdue University found that at brightness levels between 30-50%, switching to dark mode leads to a reduction in power usage of only 3-9% on average for several OLED displays. At full screen brightness, though, the switch can result in a saving of 39-47%. Dark mode then is not without its bright sight, after all.

With that clear, let us consider some practical considerations between dark mode and light mode. 

Readability

Advocates in both camps claim that their respective preferred mode enhances readability. They are both right—that’s because readability is not entirely dependent on the background. Indeed, ensuring higher contrast between the background and the foreground is more important than the color scheme. If the level of contrast is the same, the difference in legibility is minuscule, if any. However, as black on white is more familiar and seems more natural, light mode may have an edge.

A study published in Applied Ergonomics concurs with the above conclusion. The researchers concluded that “positive contrast polarity”—meaning light theme—was better for visual sharpness and proofreading: participants made quicker and more accurate judgments. Other factors that affect legibility and mental acuity are time of day and font size.

Bigger font size results in faster judgment. And dark mode makes smaller fonts harder to read. This effect is particularly marked in dim environments.

Accessibility

Legibility and professionalism/coolness are one thing; accessibility is another thing entirely. While the former are important, the latter is no less important. Very often, the debate about light mode and dark mode revolves around usability with little consideration for accessibility. This should change.

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Dark mode is cool. A large percentage of the human population disagrees. Dark mode, unless properly implemented, can affect user experience negatively and create accessibility issues. The halation effect that dark mode induces makes it hard to read fine text for people with astigmatism—estimation of people with this condition varies; it hovers around 50%. For some, the effect can be considerable.

Dark mode also generally uses total contrast—so does light mode but less pervasively—which makes it harder for people with dyslexia to read. For persons with conditions like Irlen Syndrome which makes them highly sensitive to certain types of light, though, dark mode can be beneficial. And the high contrast in dark mode may make text more legible for people with visual impairments.

Aesthetics

Aesthetics, though not as critical as usability or accessibility (arguably), must not be overlooked. Dark may appear cool and light professional but both are naught unless they are complemented by usability, and either of these factors is not compelling enough to lean one way or another.

The choice of the mode may be shaped by function and user preference. For instance, light mode can be considered the default in all settings and environments, especially those with lots of text. And for streaming and visual presentations, dark mode may be preferred. The user interface elements fading into a dark background can increase emphasis on the imagery and provide a theater-like environment. This is part of the reasons streaming services such as Spotify, Netflix, and Amazon Prime have a default dark mode—and only dark.

The color scheme is, however, unlikely to be the biggest concern for users. The package is important. The content of the package is important still. And still more important is implementing the elements well, that web development service providers can suitably help.

Eye strain

The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in what is known as digital eye strain, also called computer vision syndrome, as a result of increased exposure to digital screens. It is estimated to be prevalent among at least half of computer users. Most displays have white screens, and it may be therefore easy to implicate white mode for condition. But is it fair? And is the solution being offered—dark mode—a timely remedy?

Dark mode indeed appears to reduce eye strain; but putting the blame on white mode is unfair—it is not so much the color as it is the screen time that is causing the problem to arise. It is not the color of the design per se but the level of brightness of the screen and the surrounding environment that strain the eyes. Dark mode, though, reduces the amount of light entering the retina and thus may make it easier for the eye. This is true in a dim or dark environment where the main source of light is the screen. In bright settings, however, dark mode, instead of reducing eye strain, may have the converse effect.

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Concentration and distraction

The design aesthetic catches the eye. But what catches the attention? Which is more propitious—dark mode or light mode?

There is no definitive answer. But there are clues. A study found that for static information, a white background results in better concentration and higher comprehension. White mode is more conducive to visual acuity and precision in judgment. Dark mode, in contrast, has the opposite effect. Both the effects, however, are marginal.

This is, the researchers say, because the pupils of the eye constrict when looking at a light-colored background, increasing the visual sharpness while scanning text. With dark background and light foreground, the pupils dilate, increasing the difficulty of focusing on the text.

So, light mode or dark mode?

There is no conclusive answer. Neither is objectively better or preferable—each has its bright and dark sides, the weightiness of which depends on business considerations. Light mode conveys a sense of seriousness but it may be perceived as dated—or become dated soon. Dark mode, on the other hand, is considered cool and modern but it may be deemed less professional.

The debate is unlikely to be settled soon—or ever. But that’s fine. There are plenty of options to offer users on either side of the party. Make it easy to toggle between light mode and dark mode. (But what about the default? Keep it light, for now at least until user preference swings decisively in favor of the other.) And keep the font size sufficiently large, especially for dark mode, and make it easier to adjust.

This requires professionals who understand the intricacies of web development and UI/UX experts. Hire web developers to set things the right way.

Nathan SmithAuthor Bio: Nathan Smith is an experienced app and web developer, currently working with TechnoScore- a leading software development company. As a technology enthusiast, he is passionate about sharing his web and application development knowledge through his articles. Nathan keeps himself up-to-date with all the latest trends, innovations, and disruptions happening in and around the IT industry. He is also keen on sharing his ideas and understanding of the innovations in the IT domain with individuals and entrepreneurs interested in the trade.