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4 Special Usability Concerns of Dark Websites

Written by Hirsch Fishman on August 6th, 2009

Dark websites seem to be growing in popularity lately. If done properly, they can convey a sense of elegance, sophistication, sleekness, and/or professionalism. But in order to create a great dark website, web designers need to pay attention to some special usability concerns that come with the unique territory.

Dark websites can seem refreshing sometimes, especially because most websites are somewhat similar in the sense that they feature dark text on a white background. That’s no coincidence, either – that color contrast is easiest on the eyes.

Light text on dark backgrounds, on the other hand, is more difficult to read because it makes your eyes strain more in order to read the text on the page. Add that natural effect to the fact that a lot of dark websites out there don’t necessarily pay attention to some of these usability concerns, and it’s no wonder that some people have a love ‘em or hate ‘em mentality when it comes to them.

I’ll admit it: I was one of those designers who didn’t necessarily pay attention to all of these unique concerns. I created a dark website for a friend back in 2008 – actually the only one that I’ve done so far. I paid attention to most of these special concerns, but as I write this and look at the website again, I notice some things I would have done differently that don’t follow the advice I give below.

Concern #1: Font selection

On a lot of dark websites, designers use a serif font (such as Georgia, Times New Roman, etc.) because those types of fonts help convey all the senses that dark websites have (elegance, professionalism, etc.).

So what’s the concern? Using a serif font for your main text, at a normal size of 12-14 pixels, means that the flourishes on the serifs start making the text less readable. The letters will start to blend into each other, so your eyes have to strain more to tell words and letters apart.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind for proper font selection:

  • Use serif fonts for headers only – Headers, page titles, and elements of that nature are always larger than the text around them. When you increase the font size, the flourishes in the serifs are more distinguishable, and that text is easier to read.
  • Always use sans-serif fonts for text – Sans-serif fonts, such as Arial, Helvetica, etc., don’t have flourishes. On a dark background, this will make them easier to read, especially at the smaller sizes usually associated with regular body text.

Concern #2: Text contrast

Text contrast may be one of the most important determining factors in whether a dark website is successful or not. Too little contrast will make your text extremely difficult to read and your website difficult to navigate through – especially in conjunction with what fonts you used. Too much contrast will make everything stand out too much, and the design won’t look as nice.

The key to a great dark design is finding the right balance between the text and the background. Here are a few tips for how to do that:

  • Experiment with shades of gray – On dark websites, most body text is generally in some shade of gray. Use a shade that’s not too dark though, because if you choose one that is, the text will be very difficult to read – especially when in conjunction with poor font selection, as I mentioned above. (This is one of the most common usability mistakes you’ll see on dark websites.)
  • Use pure white sparingly – Pure white text on a black (or similarly dark) background will be very noticeable to the eye. How you use white – and how often – depends on a number of things, such as how dark your background is, what your text color is (for example, you might use white for links if your text color is a shade of gray), how big your text is, etc., so use your best judgment.

Concern #3: Font size

The size of your text needs to help compensate a bit for the additional eye strain that people will have trying to read your text. That’s why on a lot of dark websites, the  text is a little larger than it would normally be on a light website.

Keep in mind too that the font size is what will bring together the past three usability concerns. If your body text is a serif font, colored in a shade of gray that doesn’t give enough contrast, and is sized too small, that’s the perfect trifecta for what make your text almost completely illegible.

Concern #4: Color schemes

Generally speaking, when you’re designing a light website, you have a lot more flexibility when choosing a color scheme than when you’re working with a dark website. Most color schemes work well with a light color to contrast against, but they don’t all work well with black.

Most websites start with white as the foundation, and use color to achieve depth and some sort of visual effect. Dark websites are different in the sense that you’re already starting with a color and already have some depth to the website. You don’t want to add a color scheme with a lot of colors on top of the dark color you’re already using – that’s a lot of colors, and can be visually confusing. Your color scheme should generally be simpler, and should use less colors than the color schemes for light websites.

Here are some other things to keep in mind:

  • Use color to draw just enough attention – When your eyes first see a dark background, they are drawn to color much quicker than they would on a light background. So use your colors to help lead people where you want them to go, but don’t overuse them so that they overpower your website and it’s difficult for people to focus on your content.
  • Choose your color scheme appropriately – Depending on what your website is for, there might be certain colors that make sense to use in contrast to the darkness of your background. Yellow and black work well for action, red and black for romance, blue and black for technology, etc. So know what your website is really for when deciding what colors to use as contrast colors.

Want to see samples?

There are plenty of galleries out there with samples of great dark websites. Here are a few worth looking at for inspiration:

Thoughts?

If you work with or come across a lot of dark websites, what do you think about some of these usability concerns? Are there others that I haven’t listed that you think are also important? Share your thoughts with everyone by leaving a comment below!

About Hirsch Fishman

Hirsch Fishman is the owner of Addicott Web and is a professional web designer who specializes in building Wordpress websites for small businesses and organizations. Originally from upstate New York, he has lived in New York City and Chicago, and currently resides in Raleigh, NC.

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