While working on my latest website, I started actually wondering if what I learned in grade school was true. I've been taught that programs like Word default to use a white background with black text because it's easier on the eyes than the old phosphorous displays which were always light-on-dark. However, I find more and more that it hurts much less for me to read light text on a dark background; my lenses feel like they're straining less, and irises can relax more due to the lower overall light level.

So is it true that dark-on-light is easier to read? Have we just been told this to make us believe that these programs are advanced or something like that? Was the change to dark-on-light made more to simulate ink-on-paper moreso than for visual comfort?

  • Possible duplicate of: graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/q/14/5489
    – Brendan
    Jan 17, 2013 at 17:19
  • Slightly, though mine brings up other issues as well
    – Ky -
    Jan 17, 2013 at 17:52
  • It depends on a lot of factors such as the level of ambient light.
    – DA01
    Mar 2, 2015 at 19:55

3 Answers 3


from http://blog.tatham.oddie.com.au/2008/10/13/why-light-text-on-dark-background-is-a-bad-idea/:

The science of readability is by no means new, and some of the best research comes from advertising works in the early 80s. This information is still relevant today.

First up is this quote from a paper titled “Improving the legibility of visual display units through contrast reversal”. In present time we think of contrast reversal meaning black-on-white, but remember this paper is from 1980 when VDUs (monitors) where green-on-black. This paper formed part of the research that drove the push for this to change to the screen formats we use today.

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

Ok, 26% improvement – but why?

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

The "fuzzing” effect that Jason refers to is known as halation.

It might feel strange pushing your primary design goals based on the vision impaired, but when 50% of the population of have this “impairment” it’s actually closer to being the norm than an impairment.

The web is rife with research on the topic, but I think these two quotes provide a succinct justification for why light text on a dark background is a bad idea.

  • 2
    +1 Great answer! It also explains why in my personal experience I find pure white on black harder to read than mid-light greys but no equivalent problem with black on white. I'd wondered about that for a long time. Jan 17, 2013 at 23:40
  • 6
    This answer is a verbatim copy of this blog post, so unless you're Tatham a link to the source would be welcome :) blog.tatham.oddie.com.au/2008/10/13/…
    – Smig
    Feb 24, 2015 at 19:03
  • This quote seems odd; 50% of the population having an impairment does not make it the norm. It makes it half. Also how is the 50% number approximated; is it rounded up or down? How many people have astigmatisms today vs then? How many of those people (and people in general) spend a significant time each day staring at a screen now compared to then? (I think to that last one at least we can say "significantly more").
    – TylerH
    Nov 21, 2018 at 19:57
  • In europe and asia the numbers vary from 30% to 60% of the population. The older the popoulation the higher the number. Astigmatism is also on rise, possibly because of urbanisation. So yes this is definitively a issue you should heed. Imagine selling 30% less product because of your choice of background?
    – joojaa
    Feb 13, 2022 at 9:15

I do hours and hours of editing and translating in front of a computer all day, and my experience is that for such text-heavy work, light text on a dark background (for me, either white or a very light green on a black background) leaves me less fatigued, noticing far less strain on the eyes. Doing such intensive, long editing and translating with dark text on a white background is like staring into a fluorescent light bulb all day. Of course, if you're just browsing around the Internet for briefer periods, it's enjoyable to see all the various design choices web besigners have made, and some of them are worthy of being called works of art, but for plain old drudgery, simple, retro light-on-dark seems superior to me.

  • Hi Gary, welcome to GDSE and thanks for your answer. If you have any questions, please see the help center or ping one of us in Graphic Design Chat once your reputation is sufficient (20). Keep contributing and enjoy the site!
    – Vincent
    May 22, 2015 at 11:08
  • Yes, my experience is similar. It could be that dark-on-light is slightly more readable especially for those with astigmatism (see other answer), however light-on-dark is less fatiguing. As a coder, I always prefer light-on-dark colour schemes, especially when I might be staring at it for hours. Would be interesting to see some research on this, though.
    – Simon East
    Jul 13, 2016 at 22:51

Short answer: If you need to read long texts, use a dark font on a light gray (better than plain white) background.

For all other purposes, use a dark background instead

  • 4
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    Nov 21, 2018 at 11:33

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