Our screens have been swept with a radical design paradigm: the Dark Mode. But wasn’t it only a year ago that this dark theme was just an experimental feature buried away in our devices’ settings pages? Wasn’t it just a way to distinguish beta version software from mainstream releases? So, how did we end up here? Let’s get back to when it all started.
The beginning of all things dark
Perhaps in your computer science textbooks back in school, or in several old sci-fi movies, you must have seen the terminal displays; those clunky CRT monitors with phosphorescent green text and highlights on a black background. Such a two-tone display was easy to produce considering the technology of the times. So, the next time you wonder where this dark theme fad actually started, remember, the past has always been dark!
The white background takes up the frontline
But what about the bright screens we have been with for most of our lives? How did they become mainstream? This is because of some basic principles of how light behaves. Contrast a picture drawn on a black background with a white background. The white one obviously looks more vibrant, doesn’t it? It seems to give us the impression of seeing an object in broad daylight (which is primarily white), therefore colours, shadows and gradients are much simpler for the human brain to break down. White is often perceived as a colour for emptiness and cleanliness and contrasts well with other vibrant colours. There was a reason why many classrooms in private schools switched over to whiteboards from blackboards. Since multimedia and a demand for an ink-like experience was increasing, backgrounds were made white, for the most part in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. White meant that all the RGB pixels are lit to their maximum capacities. So, it made perfect sense to start with a “fresh page,” a white background for the display of several colours at once.
The Modern Adaption
Fast forward to the unveiling ceremony of the 2007 Sony XEL-1, the world’s first TV with an OLED panel — which was posed as the modern solution to the ever-growing demands of better display quality on screens without making the screen a power-guzzling beast. You might be wondering how they achieved that. Whenever an OLED panel has to display the colour black on a certain pixel, the pixel turns off entirely. That means what you are actually seeing is a true black, irrespective of device brightness. This way, the new display technology promised “richer blacks” and thus a greater picture contrast, as advertised by TV giants such as Sony, Samsung and LG. Since the OLED pixel has the capacity to turn off entirely, a darker display would also save battery. Now, couple this with a dark theme that promises to retain darkness of the screen by either keeping the pixels dimly lit, or turning them off altogether. What you get is a screen that’s six times as power-efficient as the same OLED panel with a white background!
However, TVs are always connected to a power source, so these tremendous power savings didn’t mean much to the average consumer. What truly put dark themes on the map is the concomitant rise of OLED displays on smartphones starting with the Samsung Galaxy Note way back in 2011. Since then, we have observed the ubiquity of OLED panels on several mid-range to high-range smartphones of recent times.
The average smartphone screen usage has only been increasing in the past decade or so. A 2019 study showed that Indian adults spend as much as 3.5 hours on their phone and TV screens per day. This number is expected to bloat up to around 4 hours in 2020. So, this is where the average consumer really feels the impact of the dark theme’s power savings.
Do users like it?
There’s an increasing trend in the adoption of the dark theme. But still, it fails to penetrate some sections of computer/phone users because of historic and psychological reasons. Light-on-dark themes can be tricky to design, and they don’t allow for as much flexibility as the conventional, purely white backgrounds.
Even if there’s no conclusive psychological evidence as of now, the dark displays have anecdotal evidence of being easier on the eyes, especially so at night. That’s where the alternative, popular name to the dark theme — the night theme/mode, comes from. The dark theme seems to have originated from the days of the CRT programming terminals, and now that the average user spends a similar amount of time in front of the screen, the adoption of the dark theme seems reasonable.
If you’re now left thinking that something as simple as colour inversion can have such a huge impact, the modern dark theme is actually more sophisticated in its design.
Not simple colour inversion
There are certain things which make a dark theme much different from pure colour inversion. In fact, flipping white for black is not preferred, as it makes the display look “flat” and the high contrast generated by the white text on a black background is reported to hurt the user experience, more so for long pieces of text. The trick here is to reduce the contrast by the usage of a background slightly lighter than black and text slightly darker than white.
fig 1 Overlayed light and dark themes of the Telegram, Notion and Wikipedia apps on the Android platform
To achieve this result, there exist different variants of dark themes. While some users are okay with colour inversion (high contrast), others might be not grey at all, but dark blue (solarized dark) or brown/gold (Kimbie dark), in addition to several different variants of grey. Each organization adapts to its own dark theme, depending on the use case.
Things are a little trickier for apps. That’s why a delay in adopting a dark theme is often seen with apps with a strong user base. Social media apps that thrive on user engagement, have to make sure that what they offer to the user is a visual treat to their eyes. While text-focussed apps like Notion implemented an effectively simple grey-silver colour scheme, Instagram took its time and rolled out a mostly black theme with hints of grey, which was developed keeping in mind that users will view a lot of vibrant photos on their platform. You will notice more grey elements in the Direct Messaging section, but there’s greater usage of black in the home feed. Videos and images have obvious problems with being in the dark theme (that’s why we had white displays for a while) but a nocturnal solution proposed was to dim their brightness in the night mode to reduce the strain on the eyes (as in the Wikipedia app).
With the rise in adaptation of OLED display technologies in various devices (even the more budget-oriented ones), it is expected that light-on-dark displays will be the way software developers choose to go. The aesthetic, psychological and power efficiency benefits of a dark theme, might actually be the biggest contributor in tethering us to our screens in the years to come.
Cover Image by Andrew Guan on Unsplash