Dark vs Light Backgrounds

The argument for and against a background color with respect to UI design principles is similar to tug of war. Experts in the field of data visualization such as Edward Tufte and Stephen Few have given their preferences in their books throwing their might around light backgrounds. Even today designers use both at different occasions equally, but approach adopted by companies and individuals alike has never been consistent.

Below is a quick representation of a small UI widget i.e. pie chart with the same color scheme in two different backgrounds. A quick glance might not reveal much and both will look alike. If required, open the image in a new window and switch the focus of eyes between the two charts rapidly.



One might notice that the colors in white background are slightly toned down when compared with the dark one. This is due to luminescence effect of the black color. (Among the five colors, maximum variation can be noticed in blue and green slices, which is due to the two being primary colors.) Second item that comes to prominence is the way text is rendered unreadable in a dark background, but is crisp and clear in the white one. Dark backgrounds essentially enhance the prominence of colors in a color scheme whereas a light background subdues them so that overall balance is maintained.

From a nature perspective, humans are used to seeing colors against light backgrounds. Brain has evolved to interpret based on simple objects such as clouds, sky, greenery, sand etc. The print media also has adopted this approach of light paper colors and dark print colors. Although the argument against dark backgrounds are high compared to light ones, this design approach with dark backgrounds has its own merits.

It now boils down to how data is perceived between two different design approach. Dark backgrounds are best suited for Infographics that requires a high degree of jazziness to be built in. This is because infographics are highly visual in nature and tell a story that is consumed within seconds for a wide variety of audience. Light backgrounds are good for reports and dashboards that the user  spends more time in analyzing and scrutinizing the data.