This article, like most of the internet, is presented to you via black text on a white background. Depending on what time of day it is, and how long you have been staring at an obnoxiously bright screen, you might find the experience of reading it a bit … aggravating. Perhaps even exhausting. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
While WIRED is, of course, a beautifully designed site, we spend most of our day staring at bright white screens dotted with colored words and images, and it can quickly take a toll on our poor old eyes. Nearly 60 percent of the American adults surveyed by the Vision Council, which represents members of the optical industry, reported experiencing symptoms of digital eye strain.
Enter dark mode. Oft referred to as night mode, high contrast, or inverted colors, the setting has grown popular with those who claim to experience eye fatigue from a deluge of white screens. Dark mode is an eye-friendly alternative to the traditional blindingly bright user interfaces sported by most apps, sites, and platforms. Instead of featuring a predominantly white background with black text, the typical dark mode displays a black background with white or colored text, making it easier to, say, read your own tweets silently to yourself at 3AM without feeling like you’re staring directly into the sun.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly our rebellion against blinding white screens began. Over the years, many popular apps, sites, and operating systems have released darker versions of their traditional themes and layouts in an attempt to satiate light-averse users and make products more accessible to the visually impaired. Technically, it’s not rebellion at all, but more of a throwback. The displays of early user terminals and personal computers in the ’60s and ’70s bear a stark resemblance to the predominantly black high-contrast themes popular today.
One of the first modern operating systems to offer a darker alternative to the black-on-white theme was Apple’s System 7 OS, which debuted in 1991 and featured an inverted color scheme for the visually impaired. Named CloseView, the optional accessibility program allowed users to toggle between the traditional black-on-white theme and a more moody white-on-black one. Similarly, Windows 95 boasted a High Contrast toggle that did basically the same. Windows XP, released in 2001, featured multiple high-contrast themes and the option to change the color of the user interface, which allowed for a more natural appearance that isn’t much different than the few well-designed dark modes of today.
Over the past two decades, similar features have appeared across a variety of platforms and devices. Most of these dark modes fall into one of two camps: inverted color schemes, which, well … just invert the color scheme of whatever is present on-screen; and designed dark modes, which generally feature a black background with white text, but abstain from transforming images and videos into a nightmarish mess of awkward colors and non-shadows.
A few notable examples: In 2007, a Sydney-based environmentalist launched the website Blackle after reading a (mostly inaccurate) blog post claiming that a dark-mode version of Google would save an absurd amount of energy, because it allegedly required less power to display a black screen than a white one. This was only true in the vaguest sense for tube-based CRT monitors, which had already begun to go out of fashion at the time; still, the site became a brief viral sensation with a reported “hundreds of thousands” of eco-guilt-ridden users, likely netting its creator a significant amount of ad revenue in exchange for his contributions to the dark (mode) side. In 2012, Google Chrome launched its High Contrast extension, which allowed users to change or invert the color scheme of web pages to their heart’s content. The feature continues to be one of the best options for Chrome users seeking a way to cocoon themselves in darkness throughout the web, especially when paired with a theme like Morpheon Dark. In addition to the traditional white-on-black settings, the High Contrast extension also allows users to change sites to grayscale, inverted grayscale, and yellow-on-black. Dark mode came to the Twitter app in 2016 and was adapted for the website the following year. In 2017, YouTube, Android, and Apple’s iOS rolled out their own versions of dark mode (though technically Apple’s was a Smart Invert feature, which auto-inverts basically everything but photos and videos). Reddit didn’t release an official dark-mode setting until mid-2018, citing difficulties with getting the colors just right in a blog post on the highly requested update. One of the most recent high-profile dark-mode rollouts is MacOS Mojave, which features a darker user interface and allows for third-party app integration.
For the fleet of apps and sites that don’t yet have an official dark mode, there’s still hope. Slack, for instance, doesn’t have an official dark theme—users are only allowed to customize the sidebar—but that hasn’t stopped members of the DIY dark-mode community from forcing one into existence anyway. There are countless unofficial dark-mode hacks available via GitHub repositories and third-party apps. (I personally prefer this one, which works for Linux, MacOS and Windows, but I’d highly recommend you stay away from any third-party Slack theme unless you’re comfortable hosting your own CSS file, as regularly injecting an independently controlled file into your work app probably won’t fly with your office’s IT team.) If you use Firefox or Tor, there are a number of well-reviewed third-party extensions available that should take care of all of your bright browsing woes.
For most other activities, the general controls offered by your operating system are likely your best bet. Both Windows 10 and MacOS Mojave now boast official dark-mode settings and allow for the integration of third-party apps and programs, meaning it’ll likely get easier to live in digital darkness as time goes on. Microsoft Office already offers support for Windows’ dark mode, and the next version of Google Chrome will reportedly work with both operating systems’ nighttime themes eventually. Facebook, Platform Ruler of the White Space Kingdom, is even reportedly testing a dark-mode feature for Messenger. Bring on the darkness.