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Does dark mode win on sustainability and accessibility?

Dark sand dune

White background. Black text. We’ve become so used to the glare of white screens—something that’s been the norm for decades—that it can feel strange to consider other ways of interacting with digital products. But since 2019, when Apple, Google, and Microsoft released an abundanceof dark mode apps and products, the popularity of darker experiences has exploded.

What’s more, a switch to dark mode comes with impressive benefits; it’s often more sustainable as well as promoting better accessibility and inclusivity.

Sustainable software development goes beyond reducing carbon to ensuring access to critical resources and creating user-friendly digital experiences, optimized performance, and increased accessibility. Dark mode is just one tool in the sustainable development kit, but designing in dark mode and actively considering dark mode friendly UX and UI could have a positive impact on people and the planet.

What is dark mode?

Dark mode—sometimes referred to as night mode— is a display setting that replaces a traditional, bright white background with a darker shade like grey or black. Text and other elements are then overlaid in a lighter color. Dark mode is designed to be gentler on the eyes, reducing light output from a device while keeping contrast ratios sharp enough to allow good readability.

Is dark mode more energy efficient?

Most of the time, yes. Dark mode uses less energy than a traditional white background and the impact can be significant. A Purdue study found that when using auto-brightness the energy saving for dark mode is between 3 and 9%. If screen brightness is set to 100% the savings can be as high as 47%. A single company adding a dark mode function to an application may not have any noticeable impact. But imagine the reduction in global energy usage if every company considered dark mode during development—if millions of users made the switch the carbon savings would quickly add up.

However, dark mode is not a green choice for every sort of display. It’s important to note that these savings only apply to OLED screens. LCD screens work differently; they are always backlit, even if the screen is black. This means dark mode has limited impacts when building apps or experiences for devices like Apple TV, Chromecast, or Roku. Opportunities for dark mode energy savings will grow as older TVs and screens are phased out.
When using auto-brightness the energy saving for dark mode is between 3 and 9%. If screen brightness is set to 100% the savings can be as high as 47%.
Purdue University

Is dark mode more accessible?

Dark mode isn’t a silver bullet that can instantly make a digital experience accessible. Instead, it’s part of a larger toolkit that can contribute to accessibility, something that should be front of mind for all designers and developers. According to a recent study by AbilityNet, 90% of websites are inaccessible to people with disabilities who rely on assistive technology. That’s just not good enough. The Principles of Accessible Design by WebAim is a useful resource that outlines the foundations of accessible design.

However, dark mode can be a valuable accessibility feature for many users. Some visual impairments can make it difficult to look at or process bright colors. While others with dyslexia or visual processing disorders find it tough to interpret black text on a white background. By providing greater choice, a digital product can be used successfully by a larger pool of users.

But unlocking true accessibility through dark mode is more complex than placing white text on a black background. Often dark grey is easier for people to read against than black, and it’s important to check color contrasts to ensure they provide the best possible levels. All colors should meet a contrast level of 4.5:1 or higher; the Contrast Checker plugin is a great tool for this.
90% of websites are inaccessible to people with disabilities who rely on assistive technology.

Is dark mode more inclusive?

Dark mode opens up digital products to a wider audience who bring with them a diverse set of viewpoints and experiences. By creating accessible online spaces where more voices are heard and more people are welcomed, dark mode contributes to greater inclusivity.

Dark mode must be a choice

There are huge benefits to switching to dark mode, but it must be a choice. For some people, this display setting is simply not accessible—for example, individuals with astigmatism may struggle to read white text against a dark background. The aim of increasing the availability of dark mode is to remove barriers to engagement. More dark mode options = more user choices. This increases the likelihood of great user experiences while encouraging energy-saving and sustainable software development.

Our reliance on technology is only increasing. This means that creating inclusive, accessible, and sustainable digital experiences isn’t a nice to have, it’s essential in creating a digital world that works for everyone. Accessibility is also good for business. It increases the reach of digital products and experiences, expanding an organization's potential customer base and demonstrating its commitment to inclusion and sustainability.

The future of technology could be darker than we thought—and that’s a very good thing.

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