Over the corse of 3 ship-a-thons the document experience team at Coda worked to build dark mode to add more delight to the product user experience and also offer more flexibility to users surroundings. This project was challenging considering the one week time constraint and css system.
I worked with another talented design in both Figma and code with 3 other engineers to plan out dark mode. I focused on the primary background colors and elevation shades of grey as well as the 90 table cell color pallet.
Because this was a heavily requested feature, the engineering team spent time away from primary work to start inverting colors from white to black. The result helped kick off the project on a code level, but the design was a painfully high-contrast interface that strained the eye and, in many cases, was illegible.
The design team set out to reconstruct and introduce a new color palette (not just an invert). Let's just say things got dark.
The background color sets the tone for the entire interface. Going too dark strains the eye and also limits the ability to use overlays or drop shadows that focus UI, like in a pop-up. In exploration, we set a spectrum of system-level dark themes, like Apple and Google, and looked at grey tones that offer more flexibility.
Our decisions were based on a few guiding principles:
Considering Coda works on the web, it was important to reference a browser’s dark mode behavior and make sure Coda played nicely with the surrounding chrome.
No surprise here, but considering Coda is an all-in-one doc, having an interface that is easy to read for long periods of time is crucial. We considered contrast ratios and evaluated other document tools.
- UI elevation
We understood the importance of finding a background light enough to offer the ability to use drop-shadows, overlays, and other use-cases without looking inverted.
The end value is closely connected to browser preferences, but a little lighter to offer more depth perception and set a neutral tone for maker content.
Achieving noticeable elevation proved to be the most important aspect of designing dark mode and, unfortunately, was also the hardest code-wise. This is primarily because elevation is achieved very differently in dark mode and light mode. For example, using a drop-shadow and adjusting its opacity and blur effect gives sufficient elevation in light mode and is a conveniently simple CSS value.
When you apply the same treatment on a dark background, some of the effects are lost because the drop shadow color value is closer to the background. There is some effect considering the lighter grey background.
But when you combine this with different variations of grey we start to see a stacking effect of elevation more clearly.
The challenge was that the main CSS class converted everything with a white background in light mode to the new primary dark mode background. Grey would only show up in dark mode if it was already grey in light mode. In other words, it was a grey:grey translation instead of white:grey. I had to create a new CSS class that mapped to a different token in the dark mode file to start dynamic coloring.
The last big challenge was translating table colors and formatting to dark color values.
Colors can be used in a variety of ways to help communicate and organize different data and tasks. Some makers use colors for decoration in their workflows. We felt it was important to maintain the integrity of the colors while still finding a balance for contrast, saturation, and accessibility.
When you click options in a row or table, you can choose conditional formatting and pick from a great preset of options to choose from. If you click custom, a 90-palette color set can be used for a cell's background color or text color. Many makers use the darkest values as text colors and the lightest value for background colors. This insight was taken into consideration—whatever was legible in light mode should also be when you switch to dark mode. Looking at the common scenarios of how table formatting was used helped flag all of these cases and develop the full set.
💡 A look into the light and dark version of blue at its lightest option. The dark mode option is closer to black and not as saturated to reduce eye strain against a dark background.
We hope that when users work into the night or flip the switch to dark mode they find their table's integrity is maintained while experiencing a new emotional connection Coda docs. The background colors of cells are closer to black, highlighting and elevating instead of consuming data or distracting. The darkest value will still stand out and demand attention for those highly sensitive pieces of information.
On a process standpoint- I would approach dark mode with all of the colors specified and color theory first and workout the best front-end solution second.