We all know screen time doesn’t end when the sun goes down. More and more hours in front of phones, laptops, and tablets can often mean eye strain, headaches, and even long-term vision changes.

Cue dark mode: a display setting for user interfaces designed to provide an all-hours user experience without creating distracting excess light, and potentially, a reduction in vision problems associated with screen use.

Whether it’s called black mode, dark theme, night mode, or light-on-dark, dark mode reduces the light emitted by device screens while maintaining the minimum color contrast ratios required for readability. Instead of the default dark text showing up against a light screen, a light color text is presented against a dark or black screen

Proponents say there are many advantages to this type of display:

  • It’s better for low-light settings, so you can use it in bed or the movie theater without disturbing others. 
  • Less blue light is emitted from your phone. Blue light is known to be bad before bed because it can keep you awake, so dark mode display can create fewer screen-related sleep issues.
  • Dark mode generally uses less energy, so your phone battery will last longer. 
  • Some studies show dark mode can reduce eye strain and dry eyes when using your phone, tablet, or computer in low-light conditions.

The truth is, dark mode isn’t new. Computer screens originally used what we now call dark mode, because of the capacities of the cathode-ray tubes used several decades ago. But once people who weren’t programmers started to use computers, interfaces were adapted to resemble paper. Today, light mode is the default setting for most phones and apps (except for a few outliers, like Spotify) but both iPhone and Android handsets offer system wide dark modes. (You will still need to set up dark mode on some individual apps.) Some PC operating systems offer dark mode, too, so you can set it up on your desktop or laptop.

All that aside, there’s some debate as to whether or not dark mode provides any relief for your eyes — or if, in fact, it is causing its own damage. Our vision depends on how much light is entering in our eyes. When we use light mode on our screens, a lot of light enters into our eyes, makes the pupils contract, and provides us a clearer and sharper image of whatever it is we’re viewing. When we use dark mode, much less light enters the eye, making the pupils dilated, which results in blurry vision and contributes to eye strain.

So, is light mode or dark mode the right choice for your app or website? Ask yourself the following four questions:

Is your web audience the general population?
If your audience is the general public, light mode is likely your best bet. In people with normal vision, visual performance tends to be better with light mode. Human beings are naturally adept at seeing things more clearly in the day time, and not so much at night. There’s some debate over whether dark mode improves accessibility for individuals with vision issues — or whether that benefit depends on the vision condition in question. For example, research shows dark mode provides improved readability for people with cataracts, while other studies say dark mode can actually create further visual challenges for those with astigmatism. In general, light mode will provide the best experience for the most people.

Is your site or app used for long-form reading?
Apps or sites like news outlets, magazines, or book readers should definitely offer dark mode. These sites are likely to be used in dark environments for longer periods of time than sites with “glanceable” content. A dark mode option can make your user experience as comfortable as possible.

Is your site visual heavy?
We all know how important visuals are on any app or website. In light mode, colors on screen appear to be brighter and more vibrant — so, keep that in mind if the photos, infographics, or illustrations on your site are the hero content.

Does your site or app see frequent, around-the-clock use?
If a website or application sees frequent use, consider providing a dark mode option for your users. This allows them to comfortably use your site day or night, in any environment.

Still wondering whether dark mode is right for your app or site? Here are a few general guidelines to point you in the right direction.

Use dark mode when:

  • There is little text to read and more images/videos to watch 
  • There are very few elements in the design and are spaced well 
  • You want to give your users the feel of a dark environment like in a movie 
  • You want the core element of the page to stand out and gain prominence 
  • You want to reduce eye strain and make it comfortable for users to stay long in your website.

Use light mode when:

  • Your website or app will be used mostly in the daytime 
  • Your readers will be reading a lot of text 
  • There are a lot of elements on the screen 
  • You are using different color elements 

But at the end of the day, remember: When all is said and done, some users simply prefer dark mode. And that’s OK, too!

Need a partner to create a web or app design perfect for your audience’s needs? Willow can help – contact us today to learn how!

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Written by Erin Witt

"She believed she could, so she did."