August 25, 2013

Dark-on-light color schemes making computer users less productive and creative

I was checking out some pictures of old computers, and started to recall how common it was for them to have a dark background and a light-colored foreground, usually text characters but also images. This is what comes to mind when I think of the first computers we learned how to use at school (click any image for not-so-squinty resolution):

Sure looks more futuristic and computer-y than what we have these days. The dark background and brightly colored light in the shape of text and images calls to mind neon lights at night. Just more stimulating and engaging to look at, while the light background with dark text / images feels more soothing and tranquilizing -- like you feel when reading a book, browsing the newspaper, etc. More leisurely than purposeful, more receptive than active, and so on.

I wonder if this difference between stimulating vs. tranquilizing color schemes matters for how well we use computers. We ought to check people whose livelihoods depend on using them, such as coders. Here is a poll confirming my hunch, not being much of a coder myself, that they overwhelmingly prefer dark background and light-colored text. We don't need to know why, just that they do -- something about it works better.

Back in the '80s and even into the '90s somewhat, ordinary people used computers to be productive and creative, whether at work or at home. They've since changed gears, treating computers more like toy gadgets to soothe their boredom during leisure time, or distract them at work (and in public) while still at least keeping their brain online.

And sure enough, in the good old days it wasn't only the command line interface that featured a dark background and light text, but the major productivity programs of the day. They could have chosen to use a lighter background and darker text similar to today's scheme, but uniformly adopted the opposite combination. Below you see what the most widely used spreadsheet and word processing software packages looked like for the user. They are Lotus 1-2-3 and VisiCalc, and WordPerfect and Microsoft Word.

As people have come to use computers more for goofing off, the color scheme has been turned inside-out. The more I think about it, the more it does feel like the average computer experience puts your mind in a more passive and tranquilized mode, like when you're reading the newspaper for leisure.

But some people are still getting paid to use these things for productive work. Aside from all-purpose coders, there are the finance whiz kids (or wannabes, at any rate) who use the Bloomberg terminals:

Pretty '80s looking, right down to the two-tone keyboard design, which also features a variety of bright-colored keys. If you're a quant big-shot, you need to stay awake and visually engaged. The pure desaturated Zen minimalism of the typical Apple set-up would put them to sleep.

I tried reconfiguring Word or WordPad to display a black background, but to no avail. The best you can do is get a single row to show black, not even the entire writing area, let alone the margins (which cannot be darkened). So don't blame me if my posting seems beneath my abilities -- it's this damned black-on-white composer that I have to use.


  1. You can reverse the color of your monitor (Control, Option, Command, pressed together, then press 8; again to revert back). I do that when I read blogs. White on black and zoom (Command and + on Mac) for bigger letters.

  2. "I tried reconfiguring Word or WordPad to display a black background, but to no avail."

    You could do that in Windows XP (but this will change the default background color of all your applications, not only of word)

  3. The background of Microsoft Word can be set to any colour, although it doesn't seem to be a normal option. IIRC, in Windows 7 one right-clicks on the desktop, "personalise", "window color", "advanced appearance settings" and one of these windows should (for no obvious reason) determine the background colour in Word.

    I have set a grey background in Word, and use the "Turn off the lights" extension in Firefox. I also make my monitors dimmer than the minimum setting using "PangoBright". But this is just to save my eyes.

    In Sublime Text 2 I use a dark background, and I much prefer this to coding against a white or grey background. One reason for this preference is that the colour-coded syntax stands out well. I have tried using "night mode" to read books on my tablet, but I find that it strains my eyes more than light text on a grey background. Since command-line interfaces also tend to have a dark background, however, it seems as though light text on a dark background might indeed be more productive when one doesn't have to read through large amounts of text.

  4. *dark text on a grey background

  5. The green on black scheme reminds me of the Matrix - green and black hues were used throughout the movie.


  6. Terminals almost always run light on dark (with some versions of emacs/vim color coding certain strings), but like the guy who wrote that blog post, I rarely/never see anyone using an IDE with their code on a dark background. That poll was for CSS, and I don't deal with that much. Even when I was doing front-end web development there was a girl who handled prettying up the appearance with CSS. Maybe there are differences between CSS and backend Java developers? Although I remember hearing a while back that a white background screen is worse than white paper because the latter is just light reflected into your eyes while the former is a light-source forcing itself into your eyes.

  7. Although I remember hearing a while back that a white background screen is worse than white paper because the latter is just light reflected into your eyes while the former is a light-source forcing itself into your eyes.

    Yeah, my dad has some pretty major visual problems and uses the reversed colour scheme on his computer.

    Apparently its actually much easier on the eyes, according to his eye doc and personal experience. Also obviously more energy efficient.

    I think the transition reversing these difference is the kind of skeuomorphic concept of simulating natural environments, to try and get more non-technical people to use computers.

    That goes hand in hand with average computer use becoming less productive, even as total gains from computer productivity have tended to increase. I think if color scheme changes actually made individuals more or less productive, it would be easily noticed and remarked upon by coders who wanted to increase their productivity (and evidence of this would be good).

  8. That might explain why Adobe CS3 and onward switched to the light-on-dark style. I use video and photo editing software daily and there's nothing more draining than dark-on-light while working late at night.

  9. Mainframe terminal emulators (used them for years) often permit one to change background and letter colour. I consistently found the black grounds much harder to read (yet I perforce used dark backgrounds on real CRTs for years in the earlier days, it was all we knew).

  10. F.lux with "Dark Room" mode activated transforms everything on your computer this way (reverses color scheme globally) with no fiddling around need on individual programs. Also great for avoiding insomnia when using the computer shortly before bed (as super bright white lights can disturb circadian rhythms).

  11. I can tell two things for sure:

    1) as someone already said, a monitor is a lightsource, so reducing the amount of emitted photons that hits your eye, you reduce your eyes fatigue. And it is a well-known fact that the retina is very closely connected to the brain, so it influences the overall brain mood rather significantly. So reducing eyes weariness also decreases brain fatigue.

    For example, using the white background I can be productive for about 30-50 inutes, after that I get eyesore and tears, my brain also asks to transgress. And using the inverted scheme, with approx 5 minutes breaks each hour, allow me to be productive through the whole day, like 6-12 hours. I have also noticed that the wellness and quality of sleep is quite important here too.

    Also, I am alergic and I wear glasses, so my eyes might be more prone to fatigue and sore than the eyes of the people who do not wear glasses.

    2) Those who say that the light text on black background hurts their eyes, apparently set the contrast too high, so ofcourse that WILL hurt. Try choosing the colors and contrast with care and see for yourself. I find combinations like dark green background (almost completely black) and some soft green text to be very comforting. Also, pick fonts with care. Just experiment, your eyes will tell you what they like.

    That being said, pay attention to the lighting in the room that you're in. Halogen low-quality lights are hightly not recommended while working with computer displays. You can find these lights be installed in rather many places though since they're cheap. Or if you're reading in the direct sunlight, it also makes white backgrounds be more satisfying afaik.

    Anyway, this is a seious topic and the implications of it go deep into biology and psychology. That is not only the matter of cool-looking things and such, there is a real science behind it. As to why do some software manufacturers like the white backs so much is rather another question.


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