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View Poll Results: Is white text on a (very) dark background okay?
Yep, In fact I like it better than black on white 0 0%
It's about the same ease of reading 2 20.00%
Meh. Black on white is a bit easier but not much 2 20.00%
Black on white is easier, but white on dark is tolerable 2 20.00%
Please change that hideous site now so I can stop copy/pasting to word 4 40.00%
Voters: 10. You may not vote on this poll

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Old 10-19-2005   #1
stuntdubl
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Question Is Light Text on Dark Background Okay?

I've read contradictory information on this one, so I thought I'd put it to a vote. I've actually found it easier at times, but I guess I would like to do whatever suits the most people.

I've had a few people recently tell me it hurts their eyes, and if this is the case with many folks, I'd like to fix the site in question.

I'm not sure if it's a problem because white/black is what we're generally used to from print, or if there are actually physical as well as psychological reasons to go with white/black.

Please place your vote.

Last edited by stuntdubl : 10-19-2005 at 08:57 AM.
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Old 10-19-2005   #2
rogerd
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In the print world, "reversed type" is considered harder to read and inappropriate for large amounts of text, but can be used for emphasis or in other special situations.

That's usually the same rule I follow on the web. Light-on-dark is good for navigation, some headings, and non-essential content (e.g., copyright notices), but dark text on a light background is best for long copy blocks.

If one does use light text on dark, I'd recommend choosing a reasonably bold font that isn't too small. In the print world, one of the problems of reversed text is that the letters can "fill in" if the ink is too heavy or if the paper absorbs (and slightly spreads) the ink. A similar phenomenon can occur on monitors - if the monitor isn't as bright as it used to be, or is merely badly adjusted, the light lettering can lose contrast and become hard to read.

Light-on-dark is still preferable to color-on-color where the tonal values are similar. A significant portion of web surfers suffer from some degree of color blindness, and reading red-on-green (for example) text can be nearly impossible.

P.S. I don't cut and paste into Word, I just drag the mouse to highlight the text.
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Old 10-19-2005   #3
claus
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- what rogerd said.

Plus, if the site in question has a very small font, like, say, around a tenpixel size (which is a very popular size with designers, for whatever reason) then it will be even harder on the eyes, and hence even harder to read long texts (long = more than a single paragraph)

Expansion and contraction
The issue rogerd mentions with ink blending is something that colours actually do to your eyes automatically, even without ink: In the greyscale the light "expand" while the dark "contract" - in the colour scales the "warm colours" (eg. red) expand, while the "cool colours" (eg. blue) contract.

Watch the buttons to the left: [XML][RSS] - do you notice how the orange button almost pops ut of the screen while the blue one would rather dig itself into the screen? That's the effect at play.

So, if you have white on black, your eyes will "think" that the white letters grow and expand beyond their border. For small fonts this implies that the letters tend to "blend" with each other and hence you'll have to concentrate to separate each letter from the next before you can read.

If you have white on a cool colour, like in the left menu here, the white will pop out, and make a contrast, but the darker the tone, the worse readability will be. Contrast the white-on-blue in the left menu with the white-on-blue at the top ("Exclusive Content for ..."). The top blue is much darker than the left blue, and what happens to readability? (better left than top)

Now, put white on a red-ish warm background... what do you think will happen? White tries to expand and so does warm. You can actually see the effect on this page, as there's an ad with "Why search everywhere" to the left. It's the same case as white on black, only worse. The dark red means that the white will expand, and the letters will seem to blend into each other, while the warm red means that the red itself will try to expand and hence the background will compete with the text for your attention. (Added: In this case it's an ad, and all this contrast and fighting colours obviously draws attention, which is good)

And then of course, if you don't have solid colors, but patterns, all kinds of stuff can happen. It can make matters better, but it can also make matters worse.

Reading should be reading, not work
A main rule of thumb is that the more effects[1] you use, the more your eyes will have to work; and when your eyes are working then you aren't reading, and when you aren't reading you aren't understanding, so keep it simple

In stead of "just reading" (which is basically pattern recognition, not reading letter-by-letter) you will now have to work to separate each letter before you can even read. It's all done in split-seconds, but it's very hard on the eyes nevertheless, and it slows reading speed dramatically - normally you will read perhaps three-four full words at once, now you have to focus on each letter for a split second.

---

Added: When mentioning colours I should add that cultural differences exist as well. Some colours have a deeper meaning to some people, either culturally, religiously, or personally. But that's an entirely different story.

---
[1] Added: On the word "effects": I forgot to mention that contrast is actually an effect, and so is doing anything "unusual, eg. reversing colours. That's not a bad thing by itself. Not at all. In many cases it's a good thing as it can make the site stand out from the crowd - it all depends on so many things.

Last edited by claus : 10-19-2005 at 02:47 PM. Reason: Edited some, fixed some typos, added some ...And then it seemed like i had used "right" in stead of "left" everywhere *lol* And then i find even more typos... sorry about that ...
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Old 10-19-2005   #4
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I should add that light text on dark background will "look good" to many people, quite instinctively. That's because it's how the world around us looks - we see only the reflection of light, which means that we focus on the highlight, not the shades. So, when we see something that looks like light on dark we will tend to find it visually appealing.

I'm not sure why it works the other way round with reading, but I've observed numerous times that what a graphical designer will see as a great design is actually not very readable. My personal conclusion is something like "well, reading isn't a natural process in the first place, so why should stuff that should be read look natural"


Last edited by claus : 10-19-2005 at 02:09 PM. Reason: Edited typos - oh, and I've used white on dark myself several times. I don't always follow my own recommendations *lol*
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Old 10-19-2005   #5
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In short, and I agree with my collegues above, it's an excellent way to get attention, but not so good as copy.

Now, if that webpage didn't have a lot of copy, I could go either way, but the more copy, the stronger the need for dark on light.

If the purpose of the site is more to create an emotional response than to present information, then properly used reverse text can do that very, very well. That's why it's popular with generally emotional people and themes (gaming sites dedicated to shoot-em-ups comes immediately to mind). If that's your target, then it's a good choice. It can also work well with strong "call to action" pages (if done well).

Because it's unusual and emotional, you have to be careful - people will be generally more sensitive to screw-ups in the text or design.

One final note: in general, people with vision problems (ie older people) will not be able to see reversed text as well (the blind, including search engines, don't care). So if your target market is older people rather than teenage boys, avoid reverse text.

In short, it depends.

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Old 10-19-2005   #6
claus
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mcanerin
the more copy, the stronger the need for dark on light.
Agreed.

It can work quite well with light on dark if the purpose is only to pull attention toward a limited part of the page, like a menu item, a stats score, some table, an ad, or whatever.

That's because on a dark background our eyes will automatically seek the light, and the eyes are extremely sensitive in that respect. I've seen surveys that are quite remarkable: If you take a totally dark surface and drill a hole in it, that hole can be quite microscopic and yet, as long as light shines through it will be visible (I do not recall exact dimensions, or source).

It is only when you have to read more than those, say, four to ten consecutive words or so, that it becomes a problem.
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