What is This Facination With White?

After getting pissed off at the latest idiocy from KDE 4.2 (more on that later) I decided t’hell with it, pop over to GNome and see if it is any better.  Unfortunately, I was immediately


There is this notion that a white background is somehow preferred to any other color.  I was struck with this, yet again, when I regained my sight and decided to look for a GNome theme which had darker tones.  After suffering through a few pages of GTK 2.x themes I came to the conclusion that even those who made dark themes were locked into this box of having black text on a white background be the only way we would read or enter text.  This comes from the misguided notion that black text on a white background somehow simulates paper.

Look, this idea has got to die.  Here’s a simple experiment anyone reading this can perform that will adequately and unequivocally destroy the idea that monitors and paper are somehow the same.  Wait until after dark.  Grab a good book or even a bad one, open up a text document on your monitor and maximize it.  Now, turn off all the lights in the room.  You will be able to read the book because it is reflecting the light your monitor is projecting! Now try to read the monitor and you’ll find that all that light it is projecting, while great for letting you read your book, is horrible to stare into when the ambient light is so low.  Dark backgrounds with light text do not suffer this problem.  They work both in a well-lit room as well as a darkened room.  The only thing it doesn’t let you do is use your monitor as a reading lamp!

These dark themes that leave the text fields alone are worse since they have their own innate contrast issues between the very dark controls and the blindingly bright text areas.

What really gets me, however, are companies and institutions which send out HTML email in which they set the background color to white but don’t specify the foreground color.  So in Thunderbird where I have set the background dark and the foreground light I end up getting white text on a white background.  EMails from NewEgg and the Libertarian Party have this problem.  I can’t recall if WAMU (now Chase) has the problem but I think they do.  It’s sloppy and pathetic.

The irony of all of this is that this problem was solved just over 15 years ago in IBM’s OS/2 v2.0!  The Presentation Manager allowed you to set the foreground and background colors and all the applications used it.  They included enough customization that making a sane dark-on-light color scheme was trivial and not wrought with frustrating examples of widgets showing a dark background and a dark foreground because the programmer polls for one but hard codes the other.  You’d think I would be complaining about 15 year old software that couldn’t get this right.  Instead this particular gripe belongs to Firefox v3.0.5 as of today.

If I had one wish to blow in 2009 it would be for copious amounts of money.  If I had several I’d probably reserve one and use it to get all the UI developers of the world to perform one simple test on their GUI apps.  Set everything dark-on-light and see if there’s anything which becomes unreadable because of presumptions of a light-on-dark UI paradigm.  If there is… FIX IT!


9 responses to “What is This Facination With White?

  1. I feel for you. I have the same problem, I prefer dark themes over light ones by far. For me, the biggest problems are websites. Even if you have the perfect dark theme, most websites are dark text on light background which tortures my eyes in the worst possible way because of the high contrast between the dark theme and the light website. So I’m stuck with a light theme so I can safely view light websites without popping my eyes out. BTW, how come your website is black on white? 🙂

    • Same reason I am grumpy with GNome; lack of decent light on dark themes on WordPress.com. I just don’t complain as loudly since they are providing a free service. I could pay the upgrade fee and get control of my own CSS or switch hosting to my own machine and have control over the whole kit-and-kaboodle. However neither of those prospects are are appealing because of my lack of presentation-side experience. SysAdmin I am. Web Designer I am not.

      FWIW this is the darkest theme I could find that had the layout I desired.

  2. “I just don’t complain as loudly since they are providing a free service.”
    Gnome is free, too :).

    If you have your own machine, why not move it there? It gives a lot more flexibility and you can install just about any WordPress theme out there, and there are great sites that provide free themes. Here’s one I came across: http://freewpthemes.net/ and here are some dark themes found on that website:
    I think they’re all pretty cool, and to think I only spent 5 minutes looking for them, you will probably find one to best fit your needs in less than an hour of browsing 🙂

  3. As for why I am not hosting on my own machine right now the reason is simple. Simplicity. I did have WP on my machine at one point but right now I don’t have the time or desire to maintain it as it aught to be maintained. I am finding that having different web-based applications that I cross-link makes better use of my time, right now, than trying to recreate that infrastructure on my own. That’s why I use Picasa for my pictures, Google’s RSS reader for RSS feeds, I have a dA account for my creative endeavors, a bitbucket account for my code and I tie it all together with my WP Blog. They let me focus on doing what I want to do rather than administration of the applications and security. If I ever outgrow any of those services I can always move it over to my machine at that time.

  4. Very nice, Znupi. This will probably make me sound like a Primadonna but that’s a tad too dark for my tastes. But at least it doesn’t have white so I’d probably give it a whirl if I go dabbling in GNome again any time soon.

  5. From what I can tell, the main complaint is due to the fact that in low-light conditions, the desktop themes appear too bright. Same goes for most pages on the net.

    I would strongly argue that you shouldn’t be using your computer in such low-light conditions. I know it’s (apparently) a geeky thing to be using their computer with the lights turned off, but seriously, turning on a desk lamp or something and you’ll find things much better.

    Something I’ve noticed from reading Linux forms in particular – The ONLY people I’ve ever heard this complaint from has been from geeks. Most people prefer to use computers where they can actually see the physical hardware and everything around them. I tend to agree. I dread being in an unlit room by myself on my computer; so antisocial and geeky with negative connotations.

    Then again, it’s your computer, so who am I to tell you how to use it? 🙂

    • I do have a desklamp on in my office and I can see the area around my desk. Even so the white is glaring because I have this 22″ monitor projecting an immense amount of light directly at my face.

      Also as to why this complaint generally comes from geeks is because, and this is a gross simplification, we’re the ones who can grasp the concept of projective vs. reflective light. When I’ve written or verbalized this rant in the past I was always met by some non-geek telling me black-on-white is better because paper is black-on-white. When I explained the difference of a projective light source vs. a reflective light source (sun and moon being the most easily recognizable) they still didn’t get the idea that having this intense light aimed directly at my eyes was a problem.

      Even now I have two screens up. One has this page in all hits glaring white glory. The larger monitor next to this one has a full-screen application open where the default color is 200/200/200 instead of 255/255/255. It makes a huge difference. I have to squint a bit to look at this monitor and can see glare from this window across my vision. The other monitor I can open my eyes and there’s no glare. This is not in a darkened room, this is in a room with overhead florescences turned on.

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