When it comes to deciding whether dark mode or light mode is best for coding, the answer isn’t always straightforward. Some programmers may experience better readability with dark mode, while others praise light mode for catering to people with conditions like dyslexia. Ultimately, though, the difference between dark mode and light mode comes down to mere preference.
From personal opinions to health-related issues, various factors continue to fuel the debate between dark mode and light mode. Below we look at some of the reasons programmers choose dark mode — and whether it’s a better option than light mode.
Why Some Programmers Use Dark Mode
Each individual has their own unique needs and wants, so dark mode shouldn’t be viewed as the best option for every programmer. But for some, this display setting delivers numerous benefits that make coding tasks easier.
Dark mode doesn’t increase readability in general, but it can make a positive impact in specific situations. Certain coding languages may become more legible in dark mode, depending on the style and font. In addition, the light-on-black color scheme of dark mode can assist with syntax highlighting by allowing programmers to more easily distinguish different-colored fonts.
Programmers who suffer from specific disabilities rely on dark mode as a crucial accessibility feature. Dark mode caters to those with photophobia — a condition characterized by extreme sensitivity to light — by reducing the brightness of a screen and decreasing the chances of one developing a migraine as a result. Including dark mode among a screen’s display options allows a wider audience to comfortably interact with a product.
The type of display and task can affect whether dark mode saves energy or not. Screens with an OLED display require less battery power when dark mode is applied, but LCD screens are unaffected. Complex coding tasks may also void dark mode’s impact, so programmers who work in areas like 3D graphics may not enjoy the same type of benefits.
Less Blue Light
Some programmers take in reduced blue light when choosing dark mode, but this can vary between individuals. Those impacted most by dark mode can appreciate less eye strain. Programmers may also decide to apply dark mode in a dimly-lit room, creating the perfect environment to relax one’s visual senses before bedtime.
Some programmers like dark mode simply because of the way it looks.
Erik Dietrich, a software developer, learned to love the dark aesthetic in college, where the majority of coding tools he used, like Emacs and VI, featured light text on a dark background. The school’s computer labs had Linux machines, whose default light-on-dark command-line tools harkened back to the pre-graphical user interface days.
“Windows didn’t initially have the aesthetic. That was the Linux and Unix aesthetic — the green or white on black,” Dietrich said. “Twenty years ago, people in the programming community viewed doing stuff in Windows as kind of less technical. ... [So] I think there was an element, when I was younger, of vanity — ‘This is how real techies customize it!’”
Does Dark Mode Improve Focus?
In 2020, Raluca Budiu, director of research at UI/UX consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group, wrote a review of the existing academic research on the topic, and the conclusion doesn’t paint the most favorable picture of dark mode.
A 2020 study at Oslo Metropolitan University had participants perform a text copying task with a keyboard in both dark mode and light mode. The results revealed no difference in performance between the display settings, weakening the argument that dark mode enhances productivity.
On the contrary, some research has shown participants to perform better at proofreading and reading comprehension tasks with a lighter display. This reality check makes it seem like programmers may lean toward dark mode based more on preference rather than real productivity gains.
But research into this topic is sparse, and it doesn’t help that reading from a computer screen is fundamentally different from reading text on paper, which means that conclusions from regular color theory don’t carry over to digital.
“Reflective and transmissive colors are completely different,” said user experience design consultant Steven Hoober, who wrote about designing for dark mode. He said that light mode was designed “just like a piece of paper, but it doesn’t look right because it’s what’s called transmissive color — it’s emitting light.”
More studies are needed to further explore the effects of dark mode and whether it has a noticeable impact on users’ productivity. For the time being, current findings seem to dismiss the claim that dark mode raises one’s performance and focus.
When to Use Light Mode
Light mode doesn’t work under all circumstances, but in some cases it serves as the perfect complement to dark mode.
It can be difficult reading text or code while using dark mode in a bright setting. If an office features plenty of light, then match the environment with light mode. On the other hand, your eyes may need a dark mode display if a space offers low or ambient lighting.
People with conditions like dyslexia and glaucoma struggle to discern white text on a dark background. Programmers should consider any visual impairments when deciding between light mode and dark mode.
Short- and Long-Term Health
Many people with normal vision are better accustomed to reading dark letters on a white background. However, light mode may cause and accelerate myopia over longer periods of time. It may help to take breaks and switch between light and dark mode during the day and nighttime.
Accessibility Considerations for Dark Mode
Eric Bailey, who works with The A11Y Project, an open-source site that provides accessibility resources, said it’s important for creators of software to give users the option of selecting the mode they want to use.
“Just give people [a] choice,” Bailey said. “It’s nice to have [dark mode], but give me the ability to toggle it on and off if you’re going to do it, because you don’t know my circumstances.”
He said designers should keep in mind that it is just as important to follow accessibility standards when designing for dark mode as it is for light mode.
“From an accessibility perspective, dark mode doesn’t exempt you from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines,” Bailey said. “Just make sure that your dark mode theme is compliant the same way your light mode theme would be.”
For designers like Hoober, creating an accessible dark theme for an application involves considerations of contrast: the difference in color between the text and the background. But color itself is more complex than most people realize.
“Color is fundamentally defined in three different ways: hue, saturation and brightness,” Hoober said. “‘Hue’ is what I call the spectrum, the rainbow part. Red versus green are not colors, they’re hues.”
Saturation is how much of the hue there is, and brightness is determined by how much white or black is mixed with the hue. Tools like WebAIM and Contrast Checker make it easy to take into account all three factors when reviewing a design’s contrast.
“It’s considering the entire thing,” Hoober said. “You can’t just change from red to green and not adapt the contrast. They all interact with each other.”