Dark Mode UI in the Spotlight: 11 Tips for Dark Theme Design in 2024

Photo of Mateusz Przytuła

Mateusz Przytuła

Updated Jun 2, 2024 • 14 min read
10 Tips for Stunning  Dark Mode Design (1)

Stepping into the dark mode of digital interfaces has become a global trend among major brands.

Dark mode has become increasingly popular in recent years, with tech giants like Google and Apple introducing native dark mode support in Android and iOS. As more brands highlight the availability of dark themes in their products or systems, it's essential to understand how to design for this trend effectively. In this article, we'll define dark mode, explore the differences between light and dark themes, and provide tips for creating a successful dark theme design.

What is dark mode UI?

Dark mode is a display setting for user interfaces that presents light-colored text, icons, and other UI elements on black or dark grey backgrounds or dark surfaces. It's the opposite of the commonly used light theme design. Dark mode can also be referred to as a dark theme, black theme, black mode, or night mode.

To implement a dark theme successfully, it's essential first to define the goal of implementing it. This will help guide the planning process and ensure that the design meets user expectations.

Dark UI vs. light UI

When designing user interfaces, it's essential to consider which theme, dark or light, will best serve the user's needs and provide the optimal experience. The choice between only a dark appearance, and light UI should be based on the target audience, the purpose of the website or app, and the desired user experience.

Here are some factors to consider when choosing between a dark and light UI:

  • Who is your user?
  • What will your user do on the website?
  • When will your visitors use your app or website?
  • Where do you want your user to focus?

Keep in mind that UX and business goals should help inform the decision, and it's crucial to give users the option to choose between light and dark themes.

Best practices for dark mode UI

As you dive into the world of dark mode UI design, you might find yourself pondering over some key questions: What's the ideal color palette for dark themes? How should you handle font styles? Are there specific UI elements to steer clear of? And how can you best introduce this alternative UI to your users? No worries, we've got your back! Let's explore these questions and more, as we share top-notch tips and best practices for crafting a captivating dark mode UI experience.

Tip 1: Avoid pure white fonts

You might wonder why pure white text on a black background doesn't work as well as pure black text on a white background. The reason is that we perceive color contrast differently with dark backgrounds, and white on black can be too stark and difficult to read.

To create a more comfortable reading experience in dark mode, opt for a dark, desaturated background (such as dark grey or a subtle dark blue tint) and pair it with a slightly dimmed white color for objects like text, buttons, and more.

Tip 2: Tone down vibrant colors

Creating an optimal dark theme color palette and involves more than just avoiding black or white. You also need to consider the saturation levels of your colors on dark backgrounds.

Vibrant and saturated colors can appear jarring when placed on dark surfaces. If your brand's color palette includes such vivid hues, consider toning them down by adding a touch of white or dark grey to prevent an eye-straining effect for your users.

Tip 3: Make smart use of your brand colors

When approaching dark mode design, let's take a step back from usability aspects and view it from a different angle. Semi-black backgrounds in interfaces exude a strong, sophisticated look, drawing attention with their stylish appearance.

So, how can you merge this new vision with your brand identity? Keep in mind that your dark theme color palette doesn't necessarily have to be derived from the light mode. For a color scheme featuring a dark background and light text, incorporate your brand color (slightly desaturated, if needed) as an accent. This way, you'll maintain consistency across both UIs without overwhelming the overall visual experience.

Tip 4: Avoid shadows in dark mode

While it may seem extreme to exclude a design element from a UI, there's a good reason to avoid shadows in dark mode. To create a shadow, you need an object and a light source from a specific direction.

In a light theme's UI, the background naturally accommodates shadows, but in a dark theme, shadows don't have the same effect and can instead create confusion rather than enhance the design. To establish depth and elevation in a dark theme design, focus on the proper use of light as a more effective alternative.

Tip 5: Utilize light for elevations

With shadows removed from your dark mode UI design, you can now work in reverse, using light to create elevation and visual hierarchy essential for every interface. Lighter layers will appear more elevated than darker ones.

Experiment with tints and shades to introduce depth to your UI. The same principle applies to text opacity: reserve the highest values for the largest and most important text elements, and tone it down for those lower in the hierarchy.

Tip 6: Enable users to switch preferences

Offering a dark theme means more than just adding another design to your website or app. By allowing users to switch between the two modes, you communicate that you care about their individual preferences, provide them with more control over your product, and seek a deeper connection through a personalized experience.

Ultimately, users choose products they feel comfortable with, and emphasizing your understanding and respect for their preferences can benefit your brand. Adding a toggle or tab is a small tweak with potentially significant results.

If you want a more scientific point of view, look no further than Nielsen Norman Group. After extensive research, they concluded a crystal clear recommendation:

“We strongly recommend that designers allow users to switch to dark themes if they want to – for three reasons:

  • There may be long-term effects associated with light mode.
  • Some people with visual impairments will do better with a dark theme.
  • Some users simply like dark mode better.”

Tip 7: Maintain accessible contrast ratios

The contrast between objects and text in a dark theme interface is crucial, not only from an aesthetic and usability standpoint but also for accessibility. In fact, accessibility guidelines can serve as an ideal reference for contrast ratios in dark theme design.

Contrast testing tools like Accessible Colors, based on Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), can help you validate your ideas or choose the optimal shades and text sizes during the design process.

Tip 8: Adjust text opacity based on emphasis

After discussing contrast and elevations, let's return to the specifics of text in a dark UI design. Ensure that you assign different opacity levels to text elements based on their priority, with the most opaque text taking precedence.

Simultaneously, your least opaque text should have enough high contrast against the dark background to remain easily readable. Google recommends applying 87%, 60%, and 38% opacity of white for high-emphasis, medium-emphasis, and disabled texts, respectively. However, feel free to adjust these values based on your usability test results.

Tip 9: Review your imagery database

For apps or websites with extensive visual content, such as illustrations and photos, you may need to check whether they require adjustments for dark mode. If the contrast between a bright image and dark background is too stark, consider updating your illustrations' color palette or applying a filter to images that reduces brightness and contrast.

Tip 10: Test your solutions with end users

Before you say, “Thanks, Captain Obvious,” let me state this: there’s more to testing a dark mode than your typical UI testing. You need to test dark theme designs in different environmental conditions and levels of light as they can significantly change the look and feel of the UI for the users.

Keeping these factors in mind, you’ll get more valuable feedback that will help you tweak both dark and light mode designs. Apart from that, test different ways your users can switch from one mode to another.

Tip 11: Consider Day/Night Transition Effects

Incorporate subtle transition effects when users switch between light and dark modes. This not only enhances the visual appeal but also provides a seamless and engaging experience.

Gradual color transitions or animations can mitigate abrupt changes, making the shift more comfortable for users. Experiment with smooth fades or adaptive animations to create a polished day-to-night or night-to-day transformation, adding a touch of sophistication to your dark mode implementation.

Benefits of dark UI

Dark UI offers a range of benefits, from improved user experience and enhanced accessibility to a more visually appealing digital environment. This design choice, once limited by the constraints of technology, now boasts a solid scientific foundation.

Google's Material Design guidelines highlight the advantages of dark themes, stating: “Dark themes reduce the luminance emitted by device screens, while still meeting minimum color contrast ratios. They help improve visual ergonomics by reducing eye strain, adjusting brightness to current lighting conditions, and facilitating screen use in dark environments – all while conserving battery power. Devices with OLED screens benefit from the ability to turn off black pixels at any time of day.”

The growing popularity of dark UI is more than just a passing fad. Let’s explore some of the advantages of using dark themes.

1. Reduced eye strain

Visual fatigue is a common issue that arises after prolonged exposure to computer screens or reading fine print on bright backgrounds. Dark themes, or negative polarity schemes (light text on dark backgrounds), have been scientifically proven to be easier on the eyes, reducing symptoms such as stinging eyes, blurred vision, headaches, and neck pain.

2. Increased visibility in low ambient lighting

Another health-related aspect of dark theme use is the visibility of content in low-light areas. The symptoms you might have experienced after long exposure to screen light can be even stronger when you work at night or in dim-lit rooms.

The dark user interface will relieve you (and your users) from these issues, allowing for a safer and healthier experience. Switching to dark mode can dramatically reduce eye strain and other negative effects of long in-app sessions in low ambient light environments.

3. Accessibility

For users with severe migraines, visual impairments, or other visual disorders, dark-themed interfaces are a necessity rather than a mere convenience. As accessibility becomes a standard in design, dark themes play a crucial role in accommodating users with special needs.

4. Enhanced focus

The benefits listed above obviously translate into better focus – you can definitely do and remember more without a headache and stinging eyes that may occur while using light themes. But that’s not all. You’ll also notice that, with light elements on a dark background, it’s easier to focus on specific content as it pops above the unobtrusive background.

What’s why many specialists, such as software developers, enjoy the dark-themed interfaces of code editors. As light colors highlight specific elements in the code, the structure is visible at a glance and moving through the lines takes less time.

5. Consistency with other apps

As more websites and apps offer dual color schemes, users increasingly expect this choice from all interfaces they interact with. Providing a consistent visual experience through dark mode options can help retain users and meet their expectations.

6. Enhanced brand image

Dark colors evoke feelings of sophistication, mystery, elegance, and high-end experiences. A well-executed dark theme, like those found in Netflix and Spotify, can accentuate your brand's image, putting content front and center while the app interface remains unobtrusive.

7. Energy saving

Lastly, dark mode designs consume less energy than their light-themed counterparts, especially on devices with OLED screens that can turn off black pixel areas. This advantage not only benefits users but also contributes to a greener digital environment.

When to use dark mode

Dark mode can be an excellent choice for certain design situations, offering both aesthetic and functional benefits. Here are some scenarios in which dark mode is particularly effective:

  • Bold and impactful visuals: Dark mode creates dramatic aesthetics, allowing for striking visuals that leave a lasting impression on users.
  • Sophistication, luxury, and prestige: Dark UIs convey a sense of elegance, making them ideal for brands that want to project an image of sophistication and exclusivity.
  • Intrigue and mystique: A dark theme can generate an atmosphere of mystery and allure, drawing users into the design and piquing their curiosity.
  • Minimizing distractions: Dark mode helps guide users' focus to the most important elements, supporting effective communication and reducing distractions in the interface.
  • Minimalistic UI: When designing a minimalistic UI, dark mode can improve usability by emphasizing key elements and enhancing the overall user experience.

When not to use dark mode

While dark mode offers numerous benefits, it may not be suitable for all design situations. Here are some instances where dark mode may not be the best choice:

  • Text-heavy UIs: When designing interfaces with large amounts of text, dark mode may not be the most comfortable option for users, as it can be harder to read long passages on a dark background.
  • Variety of content types: If the screen contains a mix of content types, such as images, videos, and text, dark mode may not provide the optimal user experience, as it could affect the visibility and presentation of certain elements.
  • Complex components: When dealing with intricate components, forms, or graphs, dark mode may not be the most suitable choice, as it might make it more challenging for users to distinguish between different elements and interpret the information accurately.
  • Rich color palettes: If your design relies on a diverse and vibrant color palette, dark mode may not be the best option as it could potentially dampen the impact of your colors and compromise the visual appeal of your design.

Summary

Dark mode interfaces are gaining popularity in the digital design landscape thanks to their visual appeal as well as health and accessibility benefits. As users increasingly expect the option to choose between light and dark modes in the apps they interact with, it's essential for designers to adapt accordingly. By keeping in mind the tips and considerations shared in this article, you'll be better equipped to confidently design dark-themed UIs. In the world of software, the future of darkness is indeed bright.

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Mateusz Przytuła

Mateusz is a designer who believes that combining knowledge from different fields such as...

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