In website design, what are the pros and cons of dark text on light backgrounds vs light text on dark backgrounds, and is one better than the other?

Is it strictly a subjective design choice, or are there marketing and/or psychological UX benefits to choosing light on dark over dark on light?

Black on white is a safe choice.
Even then, we’ve got
  • Different opinions
  • Different research that uses different methods and leads to different conclusions

Gurus

Jacob Nielsen suggests:
“Use colors with high contrast between the text and the background. Optimal legibility requires black text on white background (so-called positive text). White text on a black background (negative text) is almost as good. Although the contrast ratio is the same as for positive text, the inverted color scheme throws people off a little and slows their reading slightly”.

In pre-web times, one study failed to find any significant difference in performance among 24 different color combinations in a text search task (Pace 1984). On the other hand, regardless of the specific color combination, higher levels of contrast appear to lead to better readability (Bruce and Foster 1982; Radl 1980).

Research

In a more recent study (Hill 1997?), researchers asked about the subjective perception of various color schemes. Subjects expressed that:

  1. Black and white were consistently rated as most readable
  2. Color combinations that included black were rated more readable than those that did not
  3. Darker text on lighter backgrounds were rated higher than lighter text on darker backgrounds

Further Reading

I’d like to refer you to an extremely well-written academic paper by Richard Hall. It includes:

  • Some further research on retention
  • Surprising performance of green on yellow
  • Formulas for ensuring enough contrast
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About the Author
Ivan Boyko is a founder of Icons8. He got his first job after drawing a banner with CTR of 43%. After years of creating icons, he specializes in rapid prototyping and backlog grooming.