Now that “screen” is a metonym for all digital technology—“screen time” a shorthand for staring at anything that glows—it’s easy to forget that the earliest computers didn’t have screens at all. Instead, machines like IBM’s ENIAC proclaimed their functionality through punch-card printouts and flashing lights. The display for the first programmable computer, the Manchester Baby (first run in 1948), was powered by cathode ray tubes (CRT), a technology perfected in WWII for use in radars, in which electron guns target and illuminate phosphors behind a glass screen. Nascent CRT technology wasn’t efficient enough to illuminate an entire surface without burning out, which is why computers in the ’70s and ’80s had those Matrix-style black backgrounds with green text (or white, or amber). For the very first computer screens, dark mode was default.
Of course, “dark mode” wasn’t a term that early computer designers would have recognized. Sometimes also referred to as “night mode,” the phrase describes an interface option available on operating systems, browsers, websites, and apps that allows a user to switch a background from light to dark. It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly dark mode was introduced, but in the past year or so, it’s become an increasingly popular feature in mainstream products like Facebook and Google’s mobile apps. Modern digital screens, most of which are light emitting diode (LED) or organic light emitting diode (OLED) are far advanced from CRT ones. And yet, decades later, there’s a stark, if superficial, similarity between the old and the new.
For decades, dark backgrounds have been associated with boxy, buzzy computers that ran on CRTs and had limited mobility. And yet dark mode today, although similar aesthetically to screens of the past, is actually more of an indication of where display technology will go in the future. But before we get into that, let’s take a look back at early computing history and how screens changed from black to white.
The first home computers, like the Apple II (1977), actually sidestepped the issue of monochrome CRT displays — they were designed to be plugged into televisions. “Once people at home were using color,” says design historian Paul Atkinson, “it was fairly obvious that businesses needed to follow suit.” As a result, almost as soon as backlit CRT displays made it possible to make a background white instead of black, computer screens started to shift. They went from their own aesthetic to mimicking that of another: the desktop. The graphical user interface (GUI) developed by Alan Kay at Xerox PARC and perfected by Apple in the early 1980s changed the dynamic of computer displays, orienting them around the tactile world. In line with the skeuomorphic representations of trash cans, file folders, and the envelopes on email apps that populate our digital desktops, the bright, light background was meant to emulate everyday notebook paper.
Today, as Keely puts it, “we’re beyond paper.”
“Our expectations for viewing information, basically, were established by paper,” says Bert Keely, a semi-retired Silicon Valley designer who spent his career designing handheld technology, including Microsoft’s first tablet PCs. The idea that displays should look like what we write on in the physical world, and be as handy and legible as it, he says, shaped his work. For a long time, that concept went largely unquestioned, but today, as Keely puts it, “we’re beyond paper.” Instead, designers are asking a different question: what could digital displays be? When you can do anything, the idea of imitating a sheet of paper seems quaint. Dark mode, without it’s analog doppelgänger in the physical office supply universe, is a step in this direction.
CRTs dominated the personal computer market for decades. The first iMac, released in 1998, had a CRT display, as did the majority of Gateway computers produced between 1987 and 2002. It wasn’t until the mid ’90s that flat-panel color LCDs started to appear, and even then, the graphics weren’t on par with CRTs. Mike Nuttall, an IDEO co-founder and veteran product designer, assisted Bill Moggridge with his design of the GRiD Compass (1981), the first portable computer that didn’t use a CRT display. With its clamshell shape (also a first) and half-briefcase size, it filled a need that “luggables,” (mobile CRT computers like the Osbourne 1) didn’t.
The GRiD had an electroluminescent (ELD) screen — the kind of display that’s often used in car dashboards—which like early CRTs had a dark background by necessity. Yet around the same time, Nuttall designed a product called WorkSlate (1983), which he describes as “not really a laptop, more like a spreadsheet,” and the first product of its kind to use an LCD display. The WorkSlate, with a screen only slightly larger than a postcard, was one of the earliest examples of a black on white monochrome display.
“When we all changed to color [LCDs], like with the first real laptops, I don’t remember anyone ever having a dark screen,” says Nuttall. He compares color LCDs to monochrome LCDs (like the one used on WorkSlate), in which the resting state of the components of the screen (the crystals) is light. He says color LCDs are light by default for the same reason: “You have a backlight, so you have a light screen.” Turning that screen black or grey would actually use more power, because you have to switch the crystals over. “They’re in a sort of open mode when they’re white.”
Early LCDs looked good on profile, but lacked the (comparatively) crisp graphics of CRTs. Despite their sophisticated appearance, color LCDs were low resolution, which is why foot-deep CRT monitors persisted in desktop computers for so long. It may also be another reason why color LCDs had white backgrounds instead of black ones: In the ’90s, a light character on a dark screen would have been harder to read on an LCD than a CRT screen. And besides, LCD screens needed to be distanced from monochrome CRTs, a reliable but stodgier technology.
By the mid 2000s, LCDs had finally surpassed CRTs in image quality and became the norm in both laptop and desktop displays. This eventually led the way to LEDs, which combine crystals with a more precise backlight in the form of diodes. The monochrome monitors of early computers still seem charmingly inert as compared to the addictive, full color screens that we’re now used to. But given the graphics capabilities of today, along with innovations like OLED screens—which essentially create a true black backdrop for any image—starting from dark simply makes more sense. (OLED screens don’t require a backlight. They’re the only kind of displays that conserve power in dark mode.)
Today, dark mode stans, of which there are many, claim that it improves legibility and reduces eye strain. Those claims are up for debate, but it’s clear that many also prefer dark mode for purely aesthetic reasons: it comes off as sleeker, makes colors pop against the contrast, and frankly just offers something different from the usual white. Dark mode does, however, throw the focus on individual parts of a screen over the whole of it, providing somewhat of a visual respite from overstimulation. It turns a screen into a kind of black box theater that highlights what’s important and eliminates everything else. Perhaps that desire for focus is why, years later, with many options available, dark backgrounds have become popular.
Dark mode, Keely says, might be just the beginning of what’s next for displays across industries.
The proliferation of digital technology in the home over the past decade has led to a number of muted interfaces in products as varied as the Nest thermostat (motion-activated, multi-color text on black LCD), the Roku app (animated, dark purple backdrop) and the Instant Pot (white text on deep blue monochrome LCD). This trend towards dark displays, and their tendency to fade into the background with accents at the fore, may be a sign of an entirely different interface. Dark mode, Keely says, might be just the beginning of what’s next for displays across industries. The craving for distraction that even an un-illuminated screen can inspire is enough to make you consider what it would be like to eliminate them altogether.
Head-up displays (HUD), which use OLEDs to project images, are becoming more common in car designs. (That may sound imposing, but HUDs only appear when activated and offer an alternative to oversized screens like those seen in Teslas.) Augmented reality products like HUDs seem like a natural extension of eliminating a background, allowing objects to exist in borderless space rather than a glowing white rectangle. The discreet edges of screens, and the compartmentalization they represent, offer a semblance of control over technology. Augmented reality, which appears when it’s needed and is out of sight when it’s not, gives users another layer of detachment. Black, white, purple, blue…in a few years, we could be beyond screens altogether.