Dark vs. Light Design: Does it really matter?

I can see many readers thinking, “Why would it matter? Light or dark design is just a designer’s personal preference, right?” It’s easy to think this, but dark and light design are world’s apart. Also, with the rising trend of dark website design, a closer look into the differences is needed.

Why Use Light Design?

Let’s analyze light design first. This is dark text on a light background, a very common type of web design. Using light design is also an easy way for a designer to come out with something boring.

Light Web Design

What happened to the importance of readability everyone? A website that needs to accommodate a large audience should always use a lighter design. This is because light design is, by far, the most legible type of design.

When the screen emits more light, it’s easier to see the text — just as you can see more during the day rather than the night. Seems like a silly thing for our brain to do, but it’s undeniably true. I could go into the science behind this phenomenon, but I’ll just Jonathon Snook from Snook.ca explain:

“But the outcry against black could be heard amongst the crowd. “Hard to read”, they say. I’ve been looking at this design most evenings for a couple months now and actually found it comfortable on the eyes. Why is that? And then it dawned on me…I was always looking at the design in the evening, often working in the dark. Looking at it during the daytime with the bright sun beaming in, I actually found myself preferring the contrast mode on.” – Reboot: Light vs. Dark

When our eyes are adjusted to the dark, it’s easier to see a dark web design. However, most readers probably aren’t sitting in the dark every time they view a web page!

Dark Design

Ok, so I think the point’s been made about readability. So what’s the big deal about dark web design? It’s purely aesthetics. Most experienced web designers will scream usability over design any day, but lets consider dark design a bit closer.

Joystik

To really determine if you should try out dark design, we need to answer the question, “How important are aesthetics?”

Well, they say content is king, but design is the queen. —and who says the queen can’t be of equal status? When it comes down to it, design sets a mood for he visitor. If there is bad design, the visitor won’t trust the website. If there is unprofessional design (even if it’s pretty to look at), the visitor surely won’t invest anything into it, whether it be time, a registration, or buying a product.

What is the mood-setting difference between dark and light design though? This is how dark design can be a powerful thing. The following moods can be portrayed from dark website design:

  • Creativity, “Out of the Box”
  • “New”, contemporary
  • Sleek/Web 2.0
  • Mysterious

An excellent example to use dark web design would be a web design portfolio. Creativity is obviously something that needs to be displayed, and at the same time most designers want to display themselves as contemporary and new — a person that would think outside of the box.

The Big Debate

Darren from Problogger did a poll on this topic, and just to see how many people actually preferred light backgrounds, below are the results he came up with.

Problogger's Study

Note that this image is credited to Darren of Problogger.net

As you can see, most viewers prefer light backgrounds with dark text. However, a large chunk of this population also says it depends on the blog. Below are some of the comments made by the voters.

“I have had 4 different templates running on my website. Light, medium and two dark versions.

In my experience on this particular site the dark versions out perform the lighter ones about 3 to 1 in Adword clickthroughs.

I think it greatly depends on your blogs topic though. With mine being on the “The Secret” dark is more mysterious, so dark fits the topic better. IMHO

Overall, for reading I prefer lighter versions.” – Ron

“I prefer lighter backgrounds for research but It depends on the subject matter. Really dark backgrounds put me off especially if the text is gray. Overall lighter backgrounds give out a clearer call to action and the graphics stand our better for me. I do like to see contrasting colours too and a bit of individuality.” – Bill Masson

“White is good for all professional web pages and dark equally good for all recreational web pages, i.e. entertainment, the arts, leisure, travel, the holidays, hobbies.” – GameDaddy

“What people say they like and what they actually like can still differ greatly.

It’s not about what your visitors like, it’s about what converts best for your goals (more visitors, more mail/rss subscribers, more sales, twitter followers, etc.)”

Wrapping Up

In one of my next posts I’ll be speaking about how to achieve a more legible dark background website. So for those that think they would benefit, or just prefer dark backgrounds, keep checking back. You may also be interested in the two articles I found below.

Do you prefer light or dark websites? What are you basing your reasoning on?

Written By Kayla

Kayla Knight is a 20 year old college student, part-time web developer, freelancer, and blogger. Webitect is where she spends too much of her freetime, sharing interesting finds and valuable resources. Be sure to check out her portfolio.

6 Comments

  1. Angel

    June 24th, 2009 at 04:27 am

    I prefer light design layouts, but the dark designs are more suitable for art projects.

  2. Mimi

    July 10th, 2009 at 03:40 am

    I detest dark layouts personally, but this is not to say they are bad. I just think light ones are so much visually pleasing.

  3. Paul Seys

    September 23rd, 2009 at 02:42 am

    Thanks for using my portfolio as an example, Kayla, great article by the way. I think this debate will continue for years to come and there really is no right or wrong answer in my opinion as it comes down to personal preference.

    My thoughts behind the design of Joystik was that it was purely aimed at designers as I’m neither a freelancer or selling anything so it purely came down to what I felt would showcase my work in the best possible way.

    Although I’m chuffed that you picked my design I don’t think the Problogger survey is all that relevant in this context. The survey asks “do you prefer light or dark backgrounds on a BLOG?” If we’re talking about the legibility of text on a site that’s sole function is to be read then I think this is a valid point. However, a design portfolio shouldn’t be considered in the same way as it has a vastly differing function.