Dark User Interfaces. The Positive and Negative. Don’ts and Dos

Dark user interfaces have the potential to be visually stunning, aesthetically pleasing, and mesmerising. However, despite their numerous advantages, there are several drawbacks that designers must take into account before utilising this design. These negatives can comprise readability problems, contrast issues, and the complexity of navigating intricate user interfaces. It is, therefore, crucial to assess the advantages and disadvantages of dark user interfaces thoughtfully before deciding to implement them in your designs.

Dark user interfaces have a captivating, alluring, and exquisite appeal. However, designers should be careful while designing on the “dark side.”

One of the key roles of a designer is to create the visual appearance and atmosphere of a product, guaranteeing that the initial design is fitting for the intended purpose, environment, and audience. The choice of colour scheme is an important decision, which will have a permanent effect and must be chosen thoughtfully; it all commences with the selection of canvas, which is often a white background.

Opting for a bright background as a canvas for content is a valid option for various reasons. This choice offers advantages such as contrast, text clarity and readability, as well as the ability to incorporate a wide range of subtle colours. Indeed, numerous scientific studies have proven that black text on a white background ensures the highest readability. Moreover, when branding is a consideration, corporate logos and colours may not be clearly visible with a dark colour palette, making a bright background a superior choice.

According to multiple studies, dark text on a light background is simpler to read than light text on a dark backdrop. A research conducted by Bauer, D., Bonacker, M., and Cavonius, C. R. (1983) found that individuals experienced considerably higher levels of “visual fatigue” when reading bright text on a dark canvas in comparison to reading dark letters on a light background.

It is a widely acknowledged norm for consumers to encounter visual content that incorporate dark text exhibited against a white backdrop, accompanied by images. This trend can be witnessed in various print media formats, such as newspapers and magazines, which have existed for nearly 350 years. Intriguingly, the concept of dark letters against a bright background has an even more extended history, going back to the Paleolithic period (35,000 years ago) when animals’ cave paintings were made using charcoal or burned bones, which frequently featured a light background.

While light colours are frequently used to establish a comfortable and welcoming ambiance, there are times when a darker colour palette may be more fitting. These situations may arise from artistic intents, such as creating a dramatic atmosphere or evoking emotions, as well as integrating branding or guaranteeing that visuals are more noticeable. In these circumstances, digital product designers may prefer a darker colour scheme.

Nonetheless, if a designer decides to pursue an unconventional artistic style, they may encounter various obstacles. Problems with usability may develop because of inadequate scannability, legibility, and contrast. It is vital to preserve an appropriate contrast between the letters and their backdrop. Furthermore, the environment and the device on which the UI is established must also be taken into account.

As technology advances, individuals are spending an increasing amount of time viewing digital screens, which frequently results in digital eye fatigue. This occurrence can result in a variety of symptoms such as headaches, neck pain, blurred vision, and burning, or stinging eyes, and can be ascribed to extensive exposure to bright light or excessive computer usage. To alleviate the effects of digital eye strain, some user interfaces have dark backgrounds. By doing so, it is hoped that individuals can use their displays for longer periods without suffering from digital eye fatigue’s detrimental effects.

Recent research has exposed that an extensive proportion of Americans spend a considerable amount of time on digital devices every day, with over 83% using them for more than two hours daily. Unsurprisingly, this increased usage has been linked to a concomitant rise in instances of computer vision syndrome and visual discomfort; 60.5% of those surveyed reported symptoms of digital eye strain. This phenomenon has been referred to as the ‘Digital Device Dilemma: Overexposed Eyes‘.

Business-to-business Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) products and multimedia editing software are commonly used for extended periods. To alleviate visual fatigue while maintaining clear vision, many of these applications have a user interface designed with a dark theme. However, implementing such an approach requires an extensive analysis of the design objectives.

Incorporating darker themes in gaming user interfaces is gaining in popularity. By utilising a dark colour scheme, game developers can establish a more captivating atmosphere for players, one that better represents the game’s settings and various game-play scenarios. Furthermore, a dark background can instil a sense of intrigue and enigma into the game, while also enhancing the contrast and visual ranking of the UI.

Appropriate Instances for Dark User Interfaces

Since most entertainment activities occur in the evening, at a viewing distance of 6-10 feet, and in low-light conditions, it is not surprising that most user interfaces for Smart TVs, Game Consoles, and TV and Movie Apps adopt dark themes. This type of design enables the screen to blend in with the surrounding environment while also making the prominent content, such as cover art and promotions, stand out clearly.

The goal of this UI design is to ensure that it is appropriate for the particular context of the activity, which is “It’s getting dark, I’m relaxing, and I want to watch television.” Digital displays made up of hundreds of tiny light bulbs emit light when a bright pixel is displayed, which would create a luminous UI. However, this is not a desired outcome in the present situation. Therefore, this UI design has been created to meet the device, content, activity, and environment’s specific requirements.

Before deciding to adopt a black-background user interface, it is imperative to contemplate the circumstances in which it will be implemented. This encompasses the environment, purpose, and usage, as well as the type of content and the device on which the interface will be utilised. A thorough evaluation of these elements should be conducted to guarantee that a black-background user interface is the most fitting choice available.

  • To generate a striking, theatrical look for captivating images
  • To emanate a feeling of sophistication and refinement, opulence and splendour
  • To create an atmosphere of enigma and fascination
  • To aid in concentrating and guiding the user’s focus while reducing interruptions
  • To facilitate visual ranking and organisation of information

Dark user interfaces (UIs) should be utilised with discretion, primarily to highlight visual or design components, as opposed to text-heavy content. When text is employed, it should be concise and displayed in a manner that contrasts with the dark background, such as by incorporating a bright hue like pure white or a comparable shade. This will guarantee that the text is readable while still enabling the UI to prioritise aesthetics and concentrate on the visuals.

Situations Inappropriate for Dark User Interfaces

As previously discussed in the article, dark user interfaces (UIs) are not suitable for text-heavy and data-heavy content, or when multiple types of content, such as text, images, video, data tables, dropdowns and fields, are utilised. In the design industry, it is widely believed that creating dark UIs can be challenging, except when the content is minimal, and there is only a small quantity of text.

The matter of preserving adequate contrast holds immense significance, as it has a direct impact on legibility, and consequently, usability and user experience. When a white background is employed, all hues are appropriate. However, this is not the scenario when a dark background is selected, as the range of feasible colours is considerably diminished.

A B2B SaaS project I worked on serves as an illustration of why it is crucial to deliberate thoughtfully before implementing a dark-themed UI. The CEO was insistent that a dark-themed UI was indispensable to distinguish the company from its competitors, and he wanted it to be consistent throughout the entire platform. Nonetheless, after several meetings, and with the assistance of the design and product management teams, we were able to convince the CEO to abandon this concept, thereby avoiding a potential disaster.

The platform encompassed a conventional array of User Interface (UI) components commonly utilised in Software as a Service (SaaS) applications, like forms, widgets, dropdowns, pictograms, and icons, in addition to tables exhibiting text and numerical data. Despite making efforts to ensure ample contrast and a harmonious colour scheme, manoeuvring and arranging the layout, as well as its functionality, posed a significant obstacle. To summarise, executing this task would have been unmanageable in a dark-themed UI.

Depending on the app’s specifications, a blend of luminous and sombre user interfaces may have proven to be the more fitting option. For instance, settings pages consisting of widgets, forms, and data tables might have been devised with a bright background, whereas analytics pages showcasing charts could have been fashioned with a darker colour scheme.

Best Practices for Employing Dark User Interfaces

In conclusion, opting for a dark user interface must be handled with care. Designers should not decide on this approach for purely aesthetic motives, such as keeping up with a trend, attempting to distinguish themselves, or emulating someone else’s design. Instead, a designer should contemplate the specific context, content (contrast and legibility), device, and use case, while also providing a well-reasoned rationale for their decision. It is a delicate balancing act, with various potential advantages and risks to consider.

Instances Where Using Dark UIs is Acceptable:

  • When the branding colour palette permits it
  • When the design is uncomplicated and uncluttered, with only a few types of content
  • When the situation and usage warrant it, such as applications for evening entertainment
  • To reduce eye fatigue, particularly while using analytics sites for prolonged durations
  • To elicit a feeling, such as intrigue and enigma
  • To accomplish a spectacular, theatrical look
  • To instill a sense of opulence and prestige
  • To aid in visual hierarchy

Instances Where Dark User Interfaces Should Be Avoided:

  • When there is a significant amount of text (as reading on a dark background can be challenging)
  • When the screen contains a plethora of cluttered content
  • For B2B applications that entail numerous forms, components, and widgets
  • When the design demands a range of colours

Transitioning to the “dark side” should be approached with utmost care. Before taking any hazardous step, it is suggested to conduct thorough research and assessment. Once a designer chooses this course, it can be challenging to revert to the previous direction. Hence, it is advisable to consider all aspects, including both benefits and drawbacks, as well as the possible pitfalls, before taking the plunge.

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