The Dark Side of Dark Mode

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Apple has pushed Dark Mode hard in Mojave, and rumors suggest that it will appear in iOS 13 as well. If Apple thinks Dark Mode is such a good idea, should you switch to it? Only if you’re more interested in being trendy than productive, since the science behind human visual perception is resoundingly against Dark Mode.

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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?

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.

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.

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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.


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. ;)


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.

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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.

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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,


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.

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.


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:

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.


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.

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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, 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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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.

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 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!!