How Dark Mode Took Over Our Screens
A quiet addition the the latest version of Google’s Chrome browser has got swathes of the internet crowing in jubilation. The reason for all this joy? Dark mode.
Dark mode, or dark theme, is a light-on-dark colour scheme. Imagine a standard text document with black text against the white background of the digital page. In dark mode, the text becomes white and the page becomes dark. Aficionados are quick to point out, however, that the mode is not just a simple inversion. Android’s dark mode, for instance, uses grey text on a dark background.
But Google isn’t the first firm to jump on the dark mode bandwagon. Twitter, which is working to rectify criticisms that their dark mode isn’t dark enough, rolled out its own dark mode for Android phones all the way back in 2016. There are dark modes for Android phones, Microsoft Outlook, Reddit, YouTube, Gmail, Pocket, Reddit, Safari and Apple’s Mojave operating system.
Such was the previous scale of demand for a darker browser, unofficial apps like Dark Reader and Morpheon Dark have provided fans of the darkness a way of switching up their browser colours for years. Some apps, such as Spotify, have always leaned to the shadier side of the colour spectrum. So why did we all decide that darker was better?
“All the apps are doing it differently,” says Cennydd Bowles, a digital product designer who worked on TweetDeck, which also has a dark mode. “It's a complete mess from a design perspective. They clearly haven't settled into a concrete pattern yet.” It was Apple’s adoption, says Bowles, that forced Google’s hand. Mojave’s dark mode has also been criticised for not being dark enough. Dark mode users, you may have noticed, are a picky bunch.
The benefits of dark mode, acolytes say, are twofold. First, the device uses less light and so consumes less battery or electricity. And, even more crucially, dark mode cuts the amount of light flooding into your peepers, reducing eye strain and perhaps making it easier for you to get to sleep.
Regarding the latter claim, the scientific evidence leaves a lot of questions unresolved. According to Silas Brown, a partially-sighted computer scientist from the University of Cambridge, looking at a dark backgrounds does reduce video glare and eye fatigue. Yet there is contrasting evidence that if you are reading large amounts text, black on a white background is easier on the eye.
Like the science behind it, the history of dark mode is mired in confusion. Paris Martineau of Wired US argues that the first modern operating system to offer it was probably Apple’s System 7 OS, which debuted in 1991. Apple called it CloseView. But there are also other uses for dark mode that antecede Apple’s OS – photo or video editing programs, where you need a neutral background, and early monitors that often had a green-on-black look.
“One of my clients is a pretty major cyber security company,” says Andy Clarke, founder of the web design studio Stuff & Nonsense. “There [dark mode] is used by people who often work in control centers. Because they’re looking at very large monitors, a very white bright interface would basically light up the roof.”
Bullock, Clarke and Bowles all agree that its origins were likely to be found in coding, and that the mode is a kind of throwback to the heavy early use of computer terminals. “Technical developers have been using dark themes in their code editors for about as long as I can remember,” says Clarke. He notes that the most popular code editors, like Visual Studio code, all offer a dark mode or theme.
“Developers have been writing code in dark mode for a long time,” Bullock says. He suggests that the current vouge for dark user interfaces (UI), like in Spotify and Adobe products, may be because we all now clock in a coder’s level of screen time. Dark mode just makes sense.
If the trend continues, it poses interesting dilemmas for website and product designers. Clark, points out that an option was added to CSS, the language which formats a webpage’s layout, which allows a website owner to see if a user is using dark mode. It’s a change web designers have to bear in mind, Clark says, when they are considering the design of their UI and brand.
Bowles points out that product and user experience designers are heavily influenced by trends like these, and so our switch to the dark side is unlikely to halt anytime soon. “I think we may well see some pretty bad, nighttime mode toggles and all that sort of stuff. I wouldn't be surprised if that becomes a bit of a rolling trend.”