Skip to content
Thoughtful, detailed coverage of everything Apple for 29 years
and the TidBITS Content Network for Apple professionals
Freaky photo of a guy in a LED mask

Photo by Sebastiaan Stam from Pexels

62 comments

The Dark Side of Dark Mode

Dark Mode is the marquee feature of macOS 10.14 Mojave. Apple even gives it the top spot on the macOS product page, saying:

Dark Mode is a dramatic new look that helps you focus on your work. The subtle colors and fine points of your content take center screen as toolbars and menus recede into the background. Switch it on in the General pane in System Preferences to create a beautiful, distraction-free working environment that’s easy on the eyes—in every way. Dark Mode works with built-in apps that come with your Mac, and third-party apps can adopt it, too.

And third-party apps have adopted it in droves. For months after Mojave shipped, our Watchlist items dutifully reported that this app and that app now supported Dark Mode or had tweaked their support for it in some important way.

Photo of an Apple IIe
Apple IIe with 2 Disk II drives and Apple Monitor II by Mystère Martin is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Have you ever wondered why, if Dark Mode is such a revelation, it took Apple 35 years after the first Macintosh to revert to the look of the light-on-dark CRT-based monitors of the Apple ][ and IBM PC era? Were those green-on-black and amber-on-black screens really so wonderful?

No, they weren’t, and one of the Mac’s most significant design decisions back in 1984 was an interface that put black text and graphics on a white screen, just as had been done in print for hundreds of years. This wasn’t exactly an innovation since the designers of the experimental Xerox Alto (which Apple’s engineers copied liberally) also chose to display text as black on a white background. Going even farther back, Douglas Engelbart’s “Mother of All Demos” of the NLS also used a black-on-white display. But the Macintosh was the first mainstream personal computer whose screen tried to mimic paper.

Unfortunately, Apple’s marketing claims about Dark Mode’s benefits fly in the face of the science of human visual perception. Except in extraordinary situations, Dark Mode is not easy on the eyes, in any way. The human eyes and brain prefer dark-on-light, and reversing that forces them to work harder to read text, parse controls, and comprehend what you’re seeing.

It may be hip and trendy, but put bluntly, Dark Mode likely makes those who turn it on slower and less productive. Here’s why, if you adopted Dark Mode purely because Apple promoted it as the new hotness, you should think hard about switching back to the Light Mode that your eyes and brain prefer in System Preferences > General.

Dark-on-Light: The Background

Vision research has shown that humans prefer dark-on-light. That’s because, in the real world, the background of any scene around you is usually bright. Humans evolved outside, and we are generally active during the daytime and asleep when it’s dark. What we care about are the objects in front of the background, whether food, tools, predators, or whatever. Those objects are by definition darker than the background because they’re illuminated by the sun, or indoors, by whatever lights may be on. Even light-colored objects stand out from a bright background because they’re illuminated from some direction other than precisely behind you. That makes for indirect illumination, putting much of the object in shadow and thus darker than the background.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. Backgrounds are not always brighter than objects in front of them (think of a campfire at dusk), and indoor lighting can be much more variable. But the general rule holds—the background is generally brighter than the objects in a scene, and so the human brain becomes much more used to dark objects against light backgrounds and thus prefers them. This preference may even be hard-wired into our brains. Three-month-old babies shown images with both light-on-dark and dark-on-light components look toward the latter first.

For an example, let me reach into our archives. In “Better than the Printed Page: Reading on an iPad” (15 March 2018), Charles Maurer illustrated this preference with a couple of overly colorized pictures of Abraham Lincoln. Both use bizarre colors to eliminate any sense of familiarity with one or the other, but you’ll find that the right-hand image is intrinsically easier to identify. (And yes, since faces are easier to recognize than most other objects, this image is meant to illustrate, not prove the point.)

Weird color photo of Abraham Lincoln

(I’m referencing Charles’s articles for TidBITS here because his wife Daphne Maurer is an experimental psychologist at McMaster University and a prominent visual scientist who was recently named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for her ground-breaking research on the development of vision in human infants. Charles has worked extensively with Daphne over the years, and they are in the midst of preparing a book about perception, which is why I couldn’t persuade Charles to write this article himself.)

Applying Dark-on-Light to Screens

Photo of a backlit cactus illustrating optical flare
Click to zoom to see the effect better.

Images like Technicolor Abe above aren’t really in question here—we’re mainly talking about text, which is made up of thin lines. When text is white on a black background as it would be in Dark Mode, the whiteness of the lines lightens the edges of each line broadly on both sides, blurring the edge. If the thin lines of the text are black and the background is white, however, white from both sides washes over the entire line, lightening it evenly, so the edges aren’t blurred. Charles illustrated this for me with a photo of a cactus backlit by the sun, in which you can see the bright optical flare making the cactus lighter in front of it.

Blur is a bad thing because of how the human eye relies primarily on contrast when extracting detail from an image. In “Reality and Digital Pictures” (12 December 2005), Charles wrote:

The eye does not see light per se, it sees changes in light – contrast. If two objects do not contrast with one another, to the eye they meld into one. This fact makes controlling the contrast of adjacent details to be paramount in importance.

He was focused on issues revolving around photographs, but contrast has been shown to be paramount in numerous studies of textual legibility as well. Of course, contrast goes in both directions—black on white and white on black both have high contrast. In the scientific literature, black on white is called “positive polarity,” whereas white on black is called “negative polarity.” Numerous studies over decades of research have found that positive polarity displays provide improved performance in a variety of areas. (While early studies used CRTs, all recent studies rely on LCD-based displays.) To quote from the introduction of a 2013 paper by Piepenbrock, Mayr, Mund, and Buchner in the journal Ergonomics:

For instance, a positive polarity advantage has been found in error rates and reading speed in a letter identification task (Bauer and Cavonius 1980), the number of transcribed letters onto paper (Radl 1980), subjective ratings on visual comfort (Saito, Taptagaporn, and Salvendy 1993; Taptagaporn and Saito 1990, 1993), text comprehension (A. H. Wang, Fang, and Chen 2003), reading speed (Chan and Lee 2005) and proofreading performance (Buchner and Baumgartner 2007). Taptagaporn and Saito (1990, 1993) tracked changes in pupil size for different illumination levels as well as for the viewing of different visual targets, such as a cathode ray tube (CRT) display, script and keyboard. They found less visual fatigue as measured by the frequency of changes in pupil size when working was accomplished with a positive than with a negative polarity display. Likewise, Saito, Taptagaporn, and Salvendy (1993) found faster lens accommodation and thus faster focusing of the eye with positive than with negative polarity displays.

To summarize, a dark-on-light (positive polarity) display like a Mac in Light Mode provides better performance in focusing of the eye, identifying letters, transcribing letters, text comprehension, reading speed, and proofreading performance, and at least some older studies suggest that using a positive polarity display results in less visual fatigue and increased visual comfort. The benefits apply to both the young and the old, as that paper concludes:

In an ageing society, age-related vision changes need to be considered when designing digital displays. Visual acuity testing and a proofreading task revealed a positive polarity advantage for younger and older adults. Dark characters on light background lead to better legibility and are strongly recommended independent of observer’s age.

In another study published in the Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society that focused on how positive display polarity helps when reading small text in small font sizes, Piepenbrock, Mayr, and Buchner concluded:

The implications seem important for the design of text on such displays as those of computers, automotive control and entertainment systems, and smartphones that are increasingly used for the consumption of text-based media and communication. The sizes of these displays are limited, and it is tempting to use small font sizes to convey as much information as possible. Especially with small font sizes, negative polarity displays should be avoided.

Since Apple has now announced that iOS 13 will introduce a Dark Mode similar to Mojave’s, you’ll want to avoid it there too or take a performance and productivity hit.

Screen Brightness and Ambient Brightness

There’s an obvious caveat to the comment about the human eye preferring dark objects against a light background. Apart from a few exceptions like fire, lightning, and bioluminescent fireflies, almost nothing in the natural world emits light.

In our modern world, however, screens do emit light, and quite a lot of it. (There’s truth in advertising here—many, if not most modern-day screens are lit from behind by LEDs, or light-emitting diodes. Those that aren’t use fluorescent lamps instead.)

So what, then, is the role of both screen and ambient brightness in the question? From a comfort standpoint, there’s no question that a bright white screen can be glaring and hard to view. Paper reflects about 90 percent of whatever light strikes it and is thus always slightly dimmer than the surrounding light, but an iPhone or iPad screen, for instance, is often brighter than the surrounding light sources.

When there’s a mismatch between the two—the screen is too dim outside or too bright inside—it’s hard to look at. That’s why Apple implemented automatic brightness control in iOS (find it in Settings > General > Accessibility > Display Accommodations) to reduce the screen brightness when you’re reading in a dark bedroom and increase it when you’re trying to take a picture on a sunny day. Apple’s algorithms might not fit what your eyes prefer, but it’s easy to adjust the brightness manually in Control Center if necessary.

Similarly, Apple’s True Tone technology on many devices tries to adapt the display to the colors in the surrounding environment to reduce the harshness of glancing from a warmly lit room to a cold white iPad screen. Keep True Tone enabled in Settings > Display & Brightness (iOS) and System Preferences > Displays (macOS, when supported by hardware) for most situations.

Notice that I haven’t said anything about all the cognitive benefits of a dark-on-light positive polarity display with respect to light in the surrounding environment. That’s because the research suggests that ambient light is irrelevant. In another paper in Ergonomics, Buchner and Baumgartner showed that the benefits of positive polarity displays were independent of ambient light when they compared results of the same experiment run in a darkened room versus one with typical office lighting. (Nor did chromaticity—blue and yellow as opposed to black and white—make a difference. It’s all about positive polarity, baby.)

So while night-owl programmers can say that they find Dark Mode more comfortable during stints of nocturnal coding in unlit rooms, they might finish sooner if they stick with traditional dark text on a light background (while keeping the brightness of the light background appropriate for the room lighting, of course).

Go Toward the Light

All that said, there are always people who are outliers. For instance, sleep research suggests that nearly all adults need 7–9 hours of sleep per night, but about 1% of people naturally sleep less. (Most of those who say they need less sleep are actually operating as though they were 8 years older than they actually are.) In much the same vein, I’m sure there are some people for whom Dark Mode is legitimately better, perhaps due to vision problems like floaters or light-triggered migraines. But for the vast majority of people, the science is pretty clear—Dark Mode can hurt your productivity.

There are also excellent niche uses for Dark Mode. Let’s say you’re a musician who uses a MacBook Pro as part of your performance on a darkened stage. Even though the MacBook Pro will likely be harder and slower to use in Dark Mode, those downsides are probably worthwhile to avoid a glowing white light illuminating your face. Similarly, if you read at night on your iPhone while someone else is sleeping next to you, it’s only kind to switch to light-on-dark—whether in an ebook app or in iOS 13 if it does gain Dark Mode—to reduce the chance your insomnia will wake up your bed partner.

Finally, everyone is, of course, welcome to make their own choices concerning Dark Mode. We all make decisions about what we prefer even when research suggests those decisions may not be optimal.

But whatever you choose, it’s important to understand that Apple’s marketers don’t have any science backing up their promotion of Dark Mode. The fact that macOS has long had an Invert Colors option in System Preferences > Accessibility > Display for those whose vision requires it suggests that Dark Mode exists largely because it has somehow become trendy.

Use it if you wish, but know that it’s a productivity hit for most people most of the time.

 

Subscribe today so you don’t miss any TidBITS articles!

Every week you’ll get tech tips, in-depth reviews, and insightful news analysis for discerning Apple users. For 29 years, we’ve published professional, member-supported tech journalism that makes you smarter.

Registration confirmation will be emailed to you.

Comments About The Dark Side of Dark Mode

Notable Replies

  1. This is interesting, but there is nothing here about light mode versus dark mode for those of us afflicted with migraines. Having bright light shining directly in my eyes for anything longer than a couple of hours definitely aggravates my migraine condition. Has any research been done on this?

  2. I’m not aware of any such research, but my limited understanding of migraines is that they’re poorly understood in general and tend to differ quite significantly between people. So it might be hard to assemble a representative group of people to test.

  3. Dark mode comes from developers who work a lot at night or in dimly lit conditions. I think that the modern incarnations of displays that auto adjust the brightness and color shift based on daylight vs night eliminate the need for dark mode.

    Those that used dark mode in code editors generally like fluorescent syntax highlighted text on a dark background. It draws their eyes to what is important. Flipping open a GUI window with a bright white background is jarring. Most pro apps for graphics and video editing are dark to draw your eyes to the work and not the user interface.

    But now that your monitor can shift color and reduce brightness in dim conditions it’s less important. Yet, not everyone uses a monitor that can do this effectively. Certainly not as well as Apples built-in displays.

    It’s a choice. If you like Dark Mode then you can keep your Dark Mode. If you hate it you don’t have to use it.

    Dark mode on iOS makes sense with OLED screens as it uses less power giving you more battery life.

    I personally use an app to turn on Dark Mode at sundown and turn it off during the day. There are a few of these apps and at least two are free. There’s a hot key to toggle it quickly.

    I spend a lot of time in Terminals and I love the Atom derived One Dark theme that I have applied everywhere from editors to IDE’s. It’s kinda nice with Mojave’s Dark Mode. Making things much more consistent.

  4. I’m amazed by all this buzz about Dark Mode. First in macOS last year and now in iOS this year. In fact, it seems to be the major “feature” for each of these updates. I find that a bit laughable. Not only do I have zero interest in a dark mode (when did everybody go early 90s hacker movie?), but if that’s the thing you’re advertising about your annual release, well maybe that’s a good sign it’s time to finally do away with forced annual update schedules (assuming you can’t get your billions of R&D money to generate more interesting update features). You’re welcome, Tim.

  5. Boom. Adam puts a lid on it.

    Unfortunately, Apple’s marketing claims about Dark Mode’s benefits fly in the face of the science of human visual perception. … It may be hip and trendy, but put bluntly, Dark Mode makes everyone who turns it on slower and stupider.

    So indeed, it’s a feature aimed at the 25 year olds with beards that appear to now make up 98.6% of the male population of San Francisco. :wink:

  6. I read your article this morning and dutifully switched my OS and development environment to light mode to give it a fair shake. Now it’s after 4:00, I have a blinding headache and can barely look at a screen. I’m typing this using a dark mode browser extension.

    Having all those white pixels shining light into my eyes just destroys me. I tried turning the brightness down as far as I could tolerate, but when I do that it’s too dim to read text. I was completely unable to find a happy medium. My vision isn’t amazing (20/30 corrected), but it’s not terrible either.

    There’s also the issue of floaters - those little dark shapes that move around your field of vision. Everyone has them; people with severe myopia or older eyes have a lot more of them. In my case, staring into a white light source makes floaters very obvious and very annoying. They’re essentially invisible with a dark background.

    I respect that everyone’s needs are different, and appreciate that you cited multiple studies to support your argument. However, the article could definitely have used a lot less snark when it came to people who use dark color schemes. I can honestly say I could not do my job if I had to stare at a white screen all day.

  7. Thanks Adam! I’ve been saying this to various users as it takes me much longer to fix their otherwise easy problems, but they think it’s only me.

    Except that it’s not purely an individual choice–it escapes and permeates. In Mojave, dark mode bleeds into light mode to the point that I run into text boxes that have me typing black on very dark and I can’t see what I type. Partly this is because ‘reduce transparency’ doesn’t, but it’s also a problem in other places like the login screen. I have that set to need the username entered as well as the password, and I can’t see typos.

    More and more screenshots in blog posts and tutorials are dark mode, thus unreadable, so I have to skip them. (Often it’s a double whammy, with microscopic text as well.)

    It’s also going to be a problem if developers drop light mode support as ‘too much extra work and no one uses it’. Photo/video apps mostly have already and it’s a real problem for me. I’m still looking for a replacement to Aperture (which I can mostly turn into light mode). Despite not currently having any management features, it’s looking like Affinity is the only choice even though I’m not crazy about it, because on the Mac, it’s the only one of two tolerable ones with a light mode. (Acorn has light mode and I mostly like it but its raw processing is too clumsy.) Capture One used to be able to turn the interface light with some work, but I tried a recent demo and that seems to have been removed. Not a good trend.

  8. Your brightness is almost certainly set too high. Almost everyone’s brightness is set way too high. Monitors (including iMacs) ship with it that way because because it superficially looks great.

    I have plenty of floaters, to the extent that I can’t use a microscope directly at more than 100x. (Wifi camera + ipad to the rescue.) I also have cataracts that aren’t yet bad enough to replace. Bright light is a real problem for me but a light interface on a properly adjusted monitor isn’t.

    Brains are flexible but not instantly–they need some retraining. What usually works is to do it in steps. Turn down your brightness until you’re dissatisfied but not repelled. Go away and do something else for an hour or more that doesn’t involve a screen, or before bed. When you come back, it will probably look just fine, or at least a lot better than when you set it. Keep it set there until you don’t notice anymore, then repeat the process until it’s clearly too low. Do it for all of your screens at the same time so your brain doesn’t get mixed signals.

    My 1 year old 5K iMac is set to about 10% of the maximum brightness with no automatic adjustment (tends to pull it somewhat too high, ymmv). For me it’s a good compromise between being just right at night (room lights on–using monitors/TVs in the dark is an additional recipe for eyestrain) and a tiny bit too dim if the sun is out but leaves aren’t. I don’t get a huge range of light through my window so you may need a larger monitor brightness range through the day, in which case automatic is probably a good idea.

    Look at something other than the monitor frequently, ideally out a window or somewhere else that lengthens your focus considerably, which relaxes the ciliary eye muscles. Take plenty of breaks (even 30 seconds) that include moving around with no screens and a lot of long distance focussing. We aren’t evolved for lots of close focussing so it’s best done tactfully,

  9. I am 60 years old and am bothered by vitreous floaters in my eyes. The effect is like someone passing a dirty window in front of your eyes. I find that dark mode is very helpful in mitigating the effects of the “floaters”. So for me, it’s a good feature.

  10. I am testing Remotix, and they have a connection info button that gives you (presumably) a lot of info about the connection, including how long you’ve been connected. I bill for my time so that’s important.

    Except I can barely read it. Thankfully the connection time is at the top so I can find it a bit easier.

    It’s grey on a black background with 6-7 point type.

    I tried to take a screenshot but it wouldn’t work.

    Remotix customer support was happy to talk to me until I had actual questions on the program (file share and print). Now it’s crickets.

    Diane

  11. I get migraines as well, and I find that keeping the total amount of light AND the level of contrast to the minimum possible amounts. In other words, make the screen as close to the rest of your environment as possible.

    I think what most people don’t realize vs. paper is that reading paper by an LED light source isn’t different to reading from an LED backlit screen. It’s still LED light that’s being conveyed into your eyes and onto your retinas. I used to call it the Kindle Fallacy, but even Kindles have their own light sources now. :slight_smile:

  12. Great article! I’ve been wondering for quite a while who thought that Dark Mode was suddenly a general purpose usability boon. We used to say “it gives good demo”, which meant what you think it means, but also strongly implied that it’s value ended there.

    A long time ago, it was pointed out to me that we don’t read the letter forms (glyphs) on a page so much as the white space around them. Interesting, but it wasn’t all that useful at the time in any applied way.

    Then I watched the documentary “Helvetica” (highly recommended!) and they pointed out that one of the primary characteristics of Helvetica that makes it so readable is the balance between white space and glyph features. But not just around each letter, but in two dimensions: the white space around/between lines of Helvetica “lock” the white space to the glyphs and vice versa, keeping both stable as you read it.

    I tried it myself, and when I inverted the section of text, that stability no longer held.

  13. I tried to read the whole article but my eyes started hurting. I probably could have read the whole thing if it was white on black. I try to turn all my code windows to colored on black because it’s easier on the eyes. Staring at bright pixels is not the same as being outside or reading a book. Your article is complete bs. Your comparing apples to oranges the whole time. I’m also 40 not 25.

  14. Another big problem I have with black on white is thin fonts - thin fonts are much, much more difficult to read. For instance, the typography on this site is quite good. The fonts are very readable with both black and white color schemes. By contrast, theverge.com uses a very thin font for articles. I can’t read this font at all with a black on white color scheme. If I invert the colors, I can easily read it (it’s still unpleasantly thin though). This issue can largely be solved with better font choices, but tons of designers make poor choices and a dark color scheme is far more forgiving. I frequently come across fonts on the web I can only read with colors inverted.

  15. A big thanks for this article. Yes, DarkMode isn’t really good for the eyes. When Apple says “DarkMode is important” then all us developers have to waste weeks or months of work to support it. During development my eyes hurt pretty badly. But I get quite a few screenshots in DarkMode so I know that my users use it.

  16. Adam’s article is bang on for most people but it does not address unusual eye conditions. If you have an unusual number of floaters, excessive brightness might indeed generate greater flare light (optical noise) than the negative display, but it would be sensible first to try a positive display with the brightness dimmed and the colours warmer.

    Migraines are another story. If you get migraines, dimming the screen may help but the first thing to do is to take the quick test at http://tidbits.com/article/17850#tint. If you see any difference at all among the colours in stability or clarity, tint the display until the type looks the cleanest and have yourself tested for coloured lenses.

  17. Migraines affect me like a kick in the forehead by a horse. Seriously. I become very sensitive to light, especially overhead fluorescent fixtures, loud sounds cause shooting pain, I become nauseous, and if I don’t seek a cool dark place and lay down I will likely feel like or even begin vomiting.

    I see a doctor regularly for migraines and I gather the impression that he is studying me, rather than treating me. Dark mode helps me slightly as the screen of my iMac is not glaring into my eyes by default but honestly - I am well able to adjust fonts and brightness to better effect a more pleasant screen environment by myself. However, Dark Mode IS less tedious in practice.

    I do not like the presettable time-switched environment that Apple offers with color shifting, as it seems to make my headache onsets more unpleasant and often accompanied by nausea. The color shifting may help many people sleep after staring at monitors but I don’t need that assistance and frankly can’t stand those sickly colors.

  18. Citation please. I expect there are many differences between light that passes through liquid crystal and multiple filters including the red, green, and blue ones creating each pixel and light that is partially reflected and diffused by paper or any other surface.

    I don’t know what LED lamps vs. backlights have to do with Dark Mode.

  19. I have eye difficulty and when Apple moved to the light lettering on bright background it made so many things impossible to read. All I could think of is a bunch of kids sitting around looking for the coolest and latest styles of pretty writing vs. readable writing on computer screens. It drove me crazy. Much of that silliness has diminished and things are readable once more. The dark screen makes reading very difficult. However, it seems to me as long as they give us the option to select that which works best for us that is a winner for all. Not having that choice would be the last straw in the continuing effort by Apple to determine for us what we want. Been all Mac since 1985 and a lot of that was because they worked to provide us with options without limitations.

    Great article - well researched and very interesting. Thank you!!

  20. In the late 70s when the University bought new monitors, the student lab switched to dark mode. I noticed right away that nearly every monitor had reflections from the room lighting making them hard to read. On white monitors, it made no difference.

    I use night mode when reading in dim light or darkness on Kindle.

  21. As I said, there are always outliers. I wrote the article because Apple is claiming that Dark mode is somehow better and people are switching to it because it has the Apple seal of approval. But when something is literally the major feature in a macOS release, I believe it should have some actual science behind it, not 40 years of research showing that it will make most users slower and less productive.

    I am curious though. You say that you could not do your job if you had to stare at a white screen all day. Assuming that you’ve been working with computers for more than a year, how did you do your job before the advent of Dark mode?

  22. @charles4 can likely answer this. I suspect what @godofbiscuits was getting at is that paper will reflect the color of light being shown on it, so if you’re reading a book illuminated by a rather blue LED light, that will probably be pretty similar to reading a screen emanating a similarly blue LED light.

  23. cwilcox
    Curtis Wilcox

        June 1
    

    godofbiscuits:
    I think what most people don’t realize vs. paper is that reading paper by an LED light source isn’t different to reading from an LED backlit screen. It’s still LED light that’s being conveyed into your eyes and onto your retinas.

    Citation please. I expect there are many differences between light that passes through liquid crystal and multiple filters including the red, green, and blue ones creating each pixel and light that is partially reflected and diffused by paper or any other surface.

    I don’t know what LED lamps vs. backlights have to do with Dark Mode.

    I agree 100%. And if I remember correctly, most LED screens don’t actually emit pure white light. There are different combinations of RGB groupings manufacturers use to solve this problem. From what I heard from some IT people I worked with, getting a bunch of LED screens calibrated for production groups is a big PITA.

  24. Before dark mode, I used inverted colors, dark mode browser extensions, and dark color schemes in any apps that would let you customize the colors.

    Actually, I still use all these features…

  25. We’re talking about several different things here and probably conflating things that should be viewed separately. Adam’s concern looks to be that Apple is overhyping Dark Mode and I can understand that. However, I don’t want people with normally functioning eyes to pile on to the idea that Dark Mode is a bad thing. I’ve fought with a genetic eye disease for 76 years now, and I find that Dark Mode helps me to use my Mac a great deal.

    I’m a scientist myself and I think that the research that is cited here is likely pretty well done, but before using it it to condemn a feature that you don’t need to use, please consider that there are people who find the feature very useful and life changing. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that we are often more different from each other than I’d ever imagined, though not unworkably so. So go ahead and offer your comments from your viewpoint, but please don’t assume that because it works for you, that it works the same for everyone.

    Jerry

  26. That’s really the key fact, and thanks for noticing. When Apple promotes a feature like this, people assume there’s a good reason for it, and in this case, 40 years of research shows that it isn’t for most people, most of the time. Obviously, everyone is free to choose, as in so many other things in life, but they should also know what science says about the choice.

  27. I found myself using dark mode more and more, and just the day before Adam published his article I finally had an epiphany that I was actually having eye trouble causing a bloom around bright lights (likely a posterior capsular opacification) and made an appointment with my ophthalmologist. In the last few days, it has progressed to the point where it’s obvious, and dark mode is now a necessity for me, to the point where I’ve even made some Javascript bookmarks to force some web sites to use darker backgrounds. (The condition is probably easily corrected with laser surgery, so my need for dark mode is temporary.)

    I remember being kind of frustrated by a lot of what seemed conflicting or just plain wrong advice in the field of ergonomics, until I encountered the aphorism “the best position is the next position.” That is, the goal of ergonomic design shouldn’t be to find the one perfect position, but to strive for a setup that allows for movement and change. I see dark mode in a similar light (ugh, sorry). It’s an option for when you just need a change or to accommodate specific conditions.

    I have to agree, though, that making it the flagship feature of a major release seems excessive.

    –Ron

  28. Much the article and discussion is as though everything in Dark Mode was white text on black, which isn’t the case. In many app the menus are dark mode but the content is light mode or there is an option. I like how this separates the menu stuff from the content.
    The one app I am not happy with is Calendar in dark mode. Doesn’t work for me and there is no option, (except BusyCal which I use instead).

  29. I suspect a big reason Apple is making such a big deal about Dark Mode is that the big majority of people currently in the market for a computer don’t know what it is and might think it’s one of many cool features that makes shelling out the extra $$$$ you spend for a Mac justifiable. They are getting a lot of favorable press about it, especially in the general consumer market.

  30. Light contains no colours, light is electromagnetic energy at a combination of wavelengths. Light bangs into receptors inside the eye. Those receptors react by emitting neurochemical pulses that travel to the brain. The brain perceives certain patterns of those pulses as colours. No colour exists before this point.

    An incandescent source of light–the sun, a candle, an Edison lamp–all generate a continuum of wavelengths, which vary predictably with the temperature of the source. The curve of these wavelengths forms a lamp’s “colour temperature.” It can be used to measure the temperature of a remote light source. In contrast, fluorescent lamps, LEDs, and LCDs all generate discrete wavelengths, not a continuum

    The colour-sensing receptors in the eye (cones) contain pigments that bias their sensitivity toward different wavelengths. If individual wavelengths strike the cones–if the light is not incandescent–then the cones will not react predictably and the colours we see will not be predictable. This holds no matter whether the LED is pouring light from a display or is illuminating a sheet of paper.

    “Unpredictable” is the key word here. There are no standards for assessing the colour of flourescent lamps, LEDs, and LCDs. You can hold a colour-temperature meter up to an LED and get a reading, but since the LED is not incandescent, it has no colour temperature for the meter to read, so the numbers are meaningless. The “colour temperatures” advertised for these lamps are not technical specifications, they are marketing descriptors no more meaningful than “warmer” and “cooler”, and those numbers are no more comparable from one manufacturer to another than the adjectives would be. Moreover, the numbers provide no information whatsoever about how closely the lamp looks compared to an incandescent source that actually reaches the temperature.

    Since eyes vary and preferences vary, one size probably fits none. That said, I suspect dark mode on a computer is roughly comparable to a size 12 or 13 shoe.

  31. Okay, “incandescence” is light produced by heating matter and the term “color temperature” is called that because the wavelengths of visible EM radiation produced correlate to how hot the matter is. “Luminescence” is light not produced by heating matter, fluorescent lamps, LEDs, lasers, and fireflies are all examples. Why is the color temperature meter’s reading of a luminescent light source meaningless? It’s clearly meaningless if your purpose is determining how hot the light source is but why is it not meaningful for the purpose of knowing something about the light emitted? Why should I not believe my lying eyes if an LED lamp looks like a particular temperature incandescent lamp?

  32. Manufacturers try to make LED lamps look incandescent, and sometimes they succeed, but the reading on a colour-temperature meter does not predict this.

  33. That’s because you cannot describe an entire spectrum with a single figure.

    If the spectrum of a set of LEDs approaches that of sunlight, the lighting (at least in terms of color) will be next to indistinguishable from incandescent bulbs.

  34. I’ve updated the article to clarify a few points that people were tripping over and to acknowledge some additional situations in which Dark Mode is useful. And to focus on the fact that I’m mostly criticizing Apple for promoting Dark Mode heavily despite the science saying that it will likely hurt productivity for most people, most of the time. We need Apple helping us be more productive, not less.

  35. nls

    I am 83 years old and have vision problems. I tried Dark Mode for about 3 days to see what all the fuss was about. I too found that I was straining to see things that I normally see perfectly in normal mode, so I switched back.
    I also bitterly resent Apple having switched off the color icons in the Finder sidebar and in the menubar, as these were of great assistance to me in quickly executing my tasks of the day of which there are many. I was able to use XtraFinder to restore the color and choice of icons to the Finder sidebar, but I still have trouble with the black menubar icons I have to resort to during the day. Why did Apple have to force independent developers to turn their heretofore easily identifiable menubar icons into blobs of black dirt? I resent the extra strain it has added to my hours each day on my MacBookPro.

  36. There are rumors that some color will come back to the sidebar in macOS 10.15, due to be announced on Monday. Fingers crossed!

  37. Adam, I read your article yesterday, and then read some of the National Geographic magazine (May issue) shortly thereafter. The magazine had a sidebar with white-on-black text with a smaller face than the main story. There was no way I could read it without a magnifying glass. It was one of those coincidences of timing that occur occasionally, where I read something (your article) and then saw a demonstration almost immediately afterward that emphasized what I had just read.

  38. This.

    Fortunately there are other measures available though they aren’t perfect: CRI, Color Rendering Index (how close the spectrum comes to natural sunlight) and CCT, Correlated Color Temperature (the human-perceived temperature, which generally varies with viewing conditions).

    It’s possible that CCT is what an LED room bulb states without explicitly calling it CCT.

    CRI is almost always reported for LED lights used for photography, and sometimes for mid to high end flashlights and high end room lighting. I haven’t seen any consumer LED bulbs provide it. For photography, 90 is now considered the minimum for normal use, though some situations may need higher. There are different ways to measure CRI, so for sensitive use cases you have to dig deeper.

    This manufacture’s page shows illustrations of spectra for their 95 CRI LED compared to 80 CRI, halogen (which is incandescent) and fluorescent. Jump to the bottom three graphics:

    https://lumicrest.com/cri-quality-of-light-explained/

  39. nls

    If all the folders in the sidebar are essentially “a continuous color gradient” of the same color, then I fail to see the point when the goal should be near instant recognition. The examples shown attempt to make it into somewhat of a parlor game to stretch out the time needed to select the correct folder.
    Why shouldn’t the user be able to designate the colors and icons to quickly distinguish one from the other?
    Thanks to XtraFinder my sidebar is a mix of colorful icons alongside each folder’s name and/or thumb photos of each family member for whom a folder containing their info is named. But I shouldn’t have to use a kludge to do this - shouldn’t it be built into the MacOS?
    My guess is that going to all-black non-descript organizational tools was simply a way to fake a non-operatrional speed increase in MacOS upgrades, or to cover up an actual speed decrease.

  40. For whatever reason I strongly prefer dark mode MOST OF THE TIME. It all depends on the underlying work I’m doing.

    And as a separate issue the red lettering on a black background can drive me nuts. I’m in the 15% of males with N. European heritage that have a LOT of trouble with that combination and a few others.

    (We don’t go into graphic and design mostly due to that reason so the people in the field have no idea how hard it is for us to read that kind of lettering. Oh, well.)

  41. I’m afraid that “colour temperature” and “correlated colour temperature” are identical. The former is the informal term, the latter is the formal. CRI is another test that is designed for incandescent lamps and works poorly with LEDs and the like. Wikipedia has good articles on both of these.

  42. I switch back to light mode occasionally, but I find myself reverting to Dark Mode for most tasks. I do not like Dark Mode for email, but it’s definitely easier for me to work on photos or videos within a dark UI.

    I think Apple’s heavy promotion of it probably comes as a response to the creatives, programmers and gamers who’ve been asking for it for a long time.

    For me, it’s a matter of personal preference. I was happy when the feature was introduced because it added some customization and choice to the overall UI. As long as the choice is there, I’m happy, but if they choose to make everything dark (which I doubt that they would do), I like many others would have a problem.

  43. The most suitable background for editing pictures depends on how you expect to see the pictures when you’re done. If you are editing them for viewing them in dim surroundings, then editing them with dark surroundings gives a more accurate representation. However, if you are editing them to be printed, then white surroundings gives a more accurate representation.

    Black backgrounds make colours stand out, so when I used to present transparencies to art directors, I always presented them in a black mask. However, since the transparencies were always going to be printed, I always selected them on an un-masked light table.

  44. It is great that the problems of Dark Mode are being addresed, but this article doesn’t even mention the reason why it’s a huge problem for me… astigmatism. I’m in my mid-40s and have had astigmatism since my 20s. By now it’s what I would describe as “moderate-plus.”

    Light-on-dark text (a.k.a. “Dark Mode”) causes a tremendous amount of eye fatigue for those of us with astigmatism. If you’ve ever done one of those things where you stare at a reversed-color image for a minute and then look at a blank wall, and you can see the image because of temporary “burn-in” on your eyes… well, imagine that with all of the lines of text, and after only a few seconds.

    I can’t read light-on-dark text for more than 3 or 4 seconds before the lines all start to blur and then everywhere I look for a minute or so afterwards, I see stripes. Dark Mode is absolutely a no-go for me.

    Of course if you don’t have astigmatism, it doesn’t cause this level of strain… but I think this is illustrative of why our eyes don’t really handle it very well.

  45. I have this issue too. My eyes totally adapt to focal changes real slowly. I wear glasses for astigmatic nearsightedness but take them off for close work, (and switch to a different device (iPad)in a comfy chair if it’s just reading) - but i do a lot of Logic Studio work which involves following many tracks and precision edits. I welcome visual Interface changes on devices… (I was a huge Appearance/Kaleidoscope fanatic in the OS9 days- though i think Steve Jobs did not like this so much ) I like - larger- not too seraphy type and icons - non-conflicting colors, b/w backgrounds, yellow highlights, good ambient lighting, hate bright Pop up ads and notification distractions (these make your eyes work harder across large screens) !!! all affect screen work, i do like dark mode aesthetically - I’m not sure why it’s “New” - Apple has to purge some of Steve’s totally subjective opinion sometimes.

  46. ekc

    I wish there was a more fine-grained control over dark mode. I’ve been using it for awhile and find it’s nice for image-heavy content and not so nice for text-heavy content. So for example, I think it would be nice if you could configure Safari’s reader mode to remain dark text on a light background.

    If you’re old enough to remember when the Mac first came out, most computers at the time were dark and the Mac was a standout. I really liked that reading text on it felt like reading a book. They were pitching it at the time as a wysiwyg user interface, so it’s interesting that they’re moving away from that now.

    For my part, I do most of my work in TextMate and it has custom themes so I can still have dark on light even if the rest of the OS is dark. That’s actually a pretty nice effect since it keeps me focused on the code.

    One thing I wonder about is if there is an appreciable effect on the power consumption of your display depending on which mode you use?

  47. A dark-colored background with light-colored text just puts me in a better mood. I think it lowers anxiety. When someone is interrogated, they shine a bright light on them; they don’t put them in a dark room. Now, I don’t have any diagnosed anxiety conditions. I’m not into goth music or emo music or anything like that. In fact, two of my favorite songwriters are The Moody Blues and Bonnie Raitt. But I definitely appreciate Megadeth and Metallica, too.

    Ever since I started using a computer in the early 1980s, I’ve always preferred dark backgrounds with light text, throughout the whole operating system, when possible. I’m not trying to fix any ophthalmological problems or headaches, though I do have some floaters. I’m just not into bright light being all over the room. It doesn’t have to be a pitch-black environment, but I don’t want the whole room to be glowing. My preference is in line with Rick Deckard’s apartment in the film “Blade Runner”.

    Maybe for some people in the evening, a screen background color that differs greatly from the room light may keep them more focused on their tasks. But for me, feeling in-tune with my environment is vital to maintaining my focus on tasks. Indeed, when I look around a shady room, and then look at a dark screen with light letters, the experience of the screen background feels coherent with my experience in the room. As I stated before, I believe it reduces anxiety. And everybody could use a little of that.

    Another point: All of the research on reading comprehension utilized test subjects who were used to reading physical books and/or periodicals and/or writing on white paper, which are primarily black letters on a white background. None of the research utilized people who very seldom (if ever) read. Such people are not as conditioned to utilize text comprehension inside a black-on-white visual space. In other words, if a person is used to reading books, that will increase reading comprehension on a black-on-white computer screen. But if a person is not used to reading books, I suspect the psychological (and occaisional physiological) benefits of a white-on-black computer screen will outweigh the productivity benefits.

  48. There is, but only if you’re using an OLED-based display (such as on the iPhone X, XS, and XS Max) and the black is a true black and not a dark gray. The pixels have to be turned off completely. On a Mac, it’s no help at all.

    This doesn’t seem like a relevant criticism. Everyone reads (and is trained to do so for years in school), and everyone reads all the time because there’s a vast amount of text in the world that you can’t avoid seeing. Research into reading comprehension makes sense only in the context of people who can and do read.

  49. Babies will look at the light background first because there’s more total light emitted there.
    Lincoln is better recognized with dark hair because people don’t have glow in the dark hair and color inverted facial
    features.
    People can generally read better with light in the background because the total light in your face makes for a smaller pupil, which consequently adds better depth perception. This masks eye defects of focusing on the screen. Most people probably don’t have perfect vision. So this can be seen as a brutal way to improve “productivity”, you can probably expose yourself to more and more light and do better as well, but that’s not recommended.
    Light in your face may prod you to get it out of your face quicker than not thereby resulting in better “productivity” in test situations.
    As noted in another comment people are also more used to looking at a light background.
    None of this has anything to do with dark mode being any kind of a problem.
    If you have poor vision you should start with getting proper eye glasses or increase font size, shining more light on your face is a caveman’s way to address poor vision.
    The science is not clear in any way that dark mode can hurt your productivity any more than saying that not giving you a shock of electricity can hurt your productivity.
    Nothing said here says anything that goes against dark mode, or shows that there is any productivity hit. Any perceived benefits noted are incidental, irrelevant, and have not been tied to any productivity outcomes.
    There’s no quantification cited, exactly how much productivity is suppoed to suffer here? In any case is dark mode all about “productivity”, is coffee over green tea recommended because it’s better for “productivity”…none of this is relevant and is very misleading. dark mode and the like are long overdue.

  50. Feel free to cite the studies supporting your criticisms of the research I cited to back up my general claims.

    Obviously, there’s no way to quantify the exact amount that productivity will suffer because the studies are designed to create replicable, quantifiable tests, and you won’t be engaging in those exact tests day in and day out.

  51. I think you missed my point. I guess I will just use myself as an example. For the past four years, I have had a very time-consuming job, one that doesn’t involve reading or looking at a computer at all, and is very physical. Thus, 95% of my weekly reading is Apple news through the MacHash app. I use its dark mode. Whenever I do crack open a book, or periodical, or try to read a computer screen without also having a black background and white text, it’s uncomfortable. I don’t really know why. But, I feel more relaxed when I’m in a familiar environment.

    And that was my point. If you’re always looking at things with a white background and black letters, and then you try the new dark mode, of course you’re not gonna like it. Of course your productivity will suffer. What I’m saying is, I believe the test subjects in the aforementioned research are inherently biased, as they have far more experience at comprehending text blocks with white backgrounds and black letters.

    I guess it is kind of a stupid point. Maybe the only value in mentioning this is to say that I believe that a person’s reading comprehension will be hardly affected by dark mode if it’s all they use for years, and they also don’t read very much print media (as it is primarily white backgrounds and black letters). Yes, there’s not much research done on this, as test subjects would be hard to find.

  52. All aircraft use white on black gauges in the instrument cluster for good reason. The sun shining on the instrument does not wash it out.

    The first car I owned with white instruments was gone within the year. White instruments and no-sale to me.

    Needless to say no dark side for me.

  53. The hype around dark mode strikes me as very similar to the hype around glossy screens a few years ago. Both demo well but are less practical than what they replace. Certainly, some people will see better with dark mode or will prefer the look, but it should not be the main attraction in an OS release. It should be listed under miscellaneous features and enabled in the Accessibility settings.

  54. True Tone is absent from iOS 12.3.1 on my iPhone. Is there an alternative?
    It is also absent from Mojave 10.14.5
    Rob

  55. Exactly my thoughts.

  56. I never knew why this was! It makes perfect sense.

    Although I love my ancient MacBook Pro, I was talked into buying the anti-glare screen by my husband who regretted not having the option when he got his. The Apple Store salesperson tried to talk me out of it, telling us that it will affect color on screen and in print. He was right, it does distort color, and I’m sorry I paid a few hundred dollars extra for the screen. I almost always used it plugged in to a big monitor, but it is an annoyance otherwise.

    It makes me feel very nostalgic for the days of Apple Store salespeople who were trained and very knowledgeable and put the interests of the customer first.

  57. Perhaps I’ve missed them, but I have two issues that I haven’t seen addressed yet.

    1. Dark-text-on-white-background “inside” applications while dark mode is turned on
      My typical screen has one or more “reading” windows (TextEdit, Microsoft Word, Safari, etc.) and many open finder windows. Having those open finder windows in dark mode reduces the amount of light entering my eyes and reduces my eye strain.
    2. Given that dark-text-on-white-background is better for so many people, why do so many web designers abandon this benefit by rendering text as grey instead of black? I find that black text on a white background is much easier to read than grey text on a white background.
  58. TrueTone requires hardware support, I believe, so the question is what models of iPhone and Mac you have.

    You can also check out f.lux. Not sure how it works in iOS, but it has been around for the Mac for a long time.

  59. I think that’s mostly a matter of your screen and how you choose to arrange your environment. Try just hiding the Finder (Option-click from the Finder into the app you want to read in) so you see a darker background wallpaper instead.

    Dark Mode would have something of the same effect but then you’ll be slower to read and parse Finder windows and other controls.

    Web designers often go with what’s trendy or (to them) attractive, not what is easiest to read.

  60. Thanks Adam. My only Apple device with TrueTone is my iPad Pro 9.7. The iPhone 7 and late 2015 iMac are out of the picture.
    Rob
    From imore.com:
    True Tone is a display technology first introduced in 2016 on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro that has since made it’s way into Apple’s 2017 iPad Pros, along with the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X. Most recently, True Tone has made the jump to the Mac lineup with the 2018 MacBook Pro.

  61. Ditto. My eyes are sensitive to light, more so the older I get. A white screen is almost painful these days. I reverse the screen, which turns the white page black and text white. As is your case, this is demonstrably easier on my eyes. Admittedly I am one of those outliers that Adam gives lip service to, but I find Dark Mode a magical improvement. While reverse screen mauls most colors, Safari has long turned colored images (not video) to their proper color when the screen is reversed. I find this very helpful, in that I only need to go back to a white screen to view video. For text, for me, white text on a black backgroung works just fine. YMMV.

    Even on my Kindle Paperwhite, which has much less glare than an LDC powered tablet like the iPad, I have found that reversing the screen is easier on my eyes. If I used an iPad for reading, I would have to reverse the screen, too. Actually, reversing the screen is more reliable than Dark Mode, as not all apps are adjusted for it—like MS Word—so that you have to reverse the screen to read much there. In the end, I’m glad we have choices, as one size definitely does not fit all, despite what the studies say.

    Yes they do. I’ve been using a Kindle Paperwhite for years and, in fact, I’m on my second model, the latest Kindle 7, 2019.

    I must also respond to the fellow who doesn’t like the dark interface in most graphics apps these days. Both Photoshop and Lightroom have long had interface options where you can choose a variety of backgrounds from white to black, and a number of grays in between. I have a friend who likes the old white Photoshop background, so when I installed CS6 for him, I showed him how to restore the old familiar interface. Photoshop CC has the same options in Preferences>Interface. He also didn’t like tabs (though I find them quite useful). But you can open documents the old fashioned way, in Windows—in Workspace, uncheck Open Documents as Tabs. Then you get to see the desktop behind your documents, if that’s how you like it. These apps have always been very customizable. If you haven’t found these options, you haven’t looked.

Join the discussion in the TidBITS Discourse forum

Participants