There is somewhat general scientific agreement that in general case for reading, dark text on light background is more readable than light on dark.

However, most studies have shown that dark characters on a light background are superior to light characters on a dark background (when the refresh rate is fairly high). For example, Bauer and Cavonius (1980) found that participants were 26% more accurate in reading text when they read it with dark characters on a light background.

Reference: Bauer, D., & Cavonius, C., R. (1980). Improving the legibility of visual display units through contrast reversal. In E. Grandjean, E. Vigliani (Eds.), Ergonomic Aspects of Visual Display Terminals (pp. 137-142). London: Taylor & Francis

People with astigmatism (aproximately 50% of the population) find it harder to read white text on black than black text on white. Part of this has to do with light levels: with a bright display (white background) the iris closes a bit more, decreasing the effect of the "deformed" lens; with a dark display (black background) the iris opens to receive more light and the deformation of the lens creates a much fuzzier focus at the eye.

Jason Harrison – Post Doctoral Fellow, Imager Lab Manager – Sensory Perception and Interaction Research Group, University of British Columbia (source: Tatham Oddie "Why light text on dark background is a bad idea")

Above is however generic, not computer screens in particular.

Most modern study I've found regarding computer screens is the studies I've found ("The impact of web page text-background colour combinations on readability, retention, aesthetics and behavioural intention" by Hall & Hanna, 2004) did not measure prolonged exposure. Also these test were performed on random people, not professionals who spend long hours with text (code).

On the other hand I see, that all kinds of dark themes are quite popular, and even default in various IDEs. It seems as contradiction if so many programmers would willingly choose less ergonomic color schemes.

So are there any studies of the subject that take in account modern screen technology and type of work typical ITC professional is doing?

Loosely related to: Is it preferable to use a computer in a darkened room?

  • 3
    No. "Dark text on white screens is more readable on computer screens." is already answered/proven. Claim is that it also holds for programmers working with code 8h+ a day. On modern computer screen (there have been some studies about that relating to CRTs, which is now obsolete)
    – vartec
    Nov 11, 2011 at 11:16
  • 5
    Okay, so who is specifically making the claim about the 8h+ coders? (My concern here is this question is a research-level question about a topic that hasn't yet been explored by the science, rather than someone making a dubious claim.)
    – Oddthinking
    Nov 11, 2011 at 12:31
  • 16
    Anecdotally, the majority of programmers I know prefer a bright color on a dark background. Bright green text on a black background seems to be the most popular. Those users cite the fact that, with prolonged use, having a bright background would strain the eyes. vartec is pointing out that these claims contradict the well established fact that for instantaneous exposure dark text on a bright background is more readable. So I think what he's asking is: "Which color scheme is more beneficial for prolonged exposure?"
    – ESultanik
    Nov 11, 2011 at 13:35
  • 4
    @Oddthinking: according to meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/864/… "common knowledge" is acceptable as claim. And as I see it, there is more than enough evidence here to support, that it's "common knowledge" among programmers.
    – vartec
    Nov 14, 2011 at 9:20
  • 9
    I use bright colors on a dark background because I saw it on a movie about a hacker infiltrating someone's machine.
    – Saturn
    Mar 30, 2013 at 23:06

1 Answer 1

  1. "Typically greater brightness of positive compared to negative polarity displays leads to smaller pupil sizes and, hence, a sharper retinal image and better perception of detail."

Per Piepenbrock C et.al. in 2014, the results of the study are compatible with the hypothesis that the positive polarity advantage is an effect of display luminance.

  1. "Dark characters on light background lead to better legibility and are strongly recommended independent of observer's age."

Per Piepenbrock C et.al. in 2013, "participants conducted a visual acuity test with black optotypes on white background or white optotypes on black background and performed a proofreading task in the same polarity. A positive polarity advantage was found for both age groups. The presentation in positive polarity is recommended for all ages."

PRACTITIONER SUMMARY: In an ageing society, age-related vision changes need to be considered when designing digital displays. Visual acuity testing and a proofreading task revealed a positive polarity advantage for younger and older adults

  1. "Readability of text presented on computer screens (e.g. on websites) is better when the overall display luminance level is high, as in positive polarity displays (dark letters on light background)."

Per Buchner A et.al. in 2009, display polarity per se does not affect readability. Contrast polarity is one aspect of reading that has been studied in detail for visual acuity which relates to clarity of vision. It designates whether text is presented as black letters on a white background or vice versa.

  1. "Typically higher luminance of positive polarity displays leads to an improved perception of detail" per Piepenbrock C et.al. in 2014,

Dark characters on light background (positive polarity) lead to better legibility than do light characters on dark background (negative polarity), presumably due to the typically higher display luminance of positive polarity presentations. The implications seem important for the design of text on such displays as those of computers, automotive control and entertainment systems, and smartphones that are increasingly used for the consumption of text-based media and communication. The sizes of these displays are limited, and it is tempting to use small font sizes to convey as much information as possible. Especially with small font sizes, negative polarity displays should be avoided.

  1. "Background color did not significantly affect visual acuity when studying the effects of color combination on the visual acuity and display quality using TFT-LCD. The results also indicated that chromatic background may be more appropriate than achromatic background (gray) for TFT-LCD work" per Chin-Chiuan Lin et.al in 2006. However, these results are contradictory to the findings that chromaticity contrast has a profound effect on visual performance, but matched with previous findings that chromaticity contrast cannot improve the legibility. Per the researchers, further investigation is required in the interaction effects between contrast ratio and screen luminance combinations on visual acuity and display quality with TFT-LCD.

Further, in visual performance test (psychology measure), the objective and subjective measures were often consistent in the prolonged test, such as reading and proof-reading tasks; and were often inconsistent in the short term test, such as identification and legibility tasks. It’s very difficult to explain why the inconsistency of subjective and objective results. One possible reason is the visual fatigue. In prolonged test, subjects might produce visual fatigue.

Background color also did not affect the visual acuity. The effects of background color on visual evaluation might depend on the type of measure. Contrarily, background color did have a significant effect on subjective rating. The subjective ratings on background with blue, cyan, green and purple color were significantly greater than that with red. Further, we conclude that subjects may favor cool colors than warm colors as for background color.

  1. "In general, the plain backgrounds led to faster search times than did the medium-textured backgrounds, and blue backgrounds led to slower and more variable search times than the grey or yellow backgrounds" per Alyson L. Hill et.al. in 1999

The interactions indicate that one can not make simple predictions regarding factors which lead to efficient processing. Further, search times did not correlate with participants' preference ratings of the different stimulus combinations. Designers should keep this in mind when designing software and web pages.

  1. "Search times indicate that these background variations only affect readability when the text contrast is low, and that spatial frequency content affects readability" per Lauren F. V. Scharff et.al in 2000 who has published several papers on readability of text displays.

  2. "Performance was significantly worse for the low text contrast, the additive combination rule, and the "culture" pattern and both patterns were worse than the uniform background" per Lauren F. V. Scharff et.al in 2001.

Per David L. Post's Color in Electronic Displays, "visual acuity was not substantially affected by chromaticity, when given adequate contrast, photopic viewing conditions and reasonable symbol sizes. Conversely, acuity is not affected much by luminance contrast, given adequate chromatic contrast."

For low vision observers

Many low-vision observers prefer white-on-black text per Sloan 1977. Legge et al. in 1985 demonstrated that low-vision subjects with cloudy ocular media read faster with white-on-black text. This effect is probably due to abnormal light scatter in the eye. Upper-case is more legible than the other case styles, especially for visually-impaired readers, because smaller letter sizes can be used than with the other case styles, with no diminution of legibility and two other studies by Martha Ziefle suggest that one of the main contributors to slower reading performance, at least after 30 minutes, could be the resolution of the characters being read.

For normal vision observers

"Unfortunately, word readability is not necessarily simply related to letter identifiability and simple contrast measures". There has been several reported small advantages in normal reading performance for black-on-white text, especially for small letters. However, Legge et al. in 1986 found no systematic effect of contrast polarity in their study of the reading performance of subjects with normal vision since reading rates showed no effect of chromaticity at any of the character sizes studied. This experiment measured reading rates for monochrome text on CRT using a black background and either red, blue, green or white raster scan characters. Normal subjects usually read static text more rapidly. The reverse was true for low-vision subjects; their reading rates for drifting text were slightly higher (average 15%) than for static text. Most people with low vision are handicapped in reading and for many people, reading difficulty is the most serious consequence of eye disease. Per Shen Y et.al. in 2014, varying background luminance to maintain screen background luminance ratio is beneficial to human visual comfort.

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