Not A Fan of Low Contrast Text

July 18, 2017

There are more than 16 million colors in the standard RGB color space. So why do modern web and app designers keep returning to gray on gray text?

My eyesight is not wonderful, I have lots of things floating in my eyes, while I am not blind or anything, I do need to make text bigger to see decently. But there is little I can do when people decide to create styles that are low contrast, generally a medium gray on a light gray background. I do not know why this became such a trend over the past decade.

This lack of contrast as an artistic design seems pervasive in almost everything. I am currently writing this post in a markdown app with, you guessed it, gray on gray. Everywhere I look in MacOS I see gray on gray. Some are worse than others. The App Store app for example is horrendously light gray text everywhere.

For Apple this should surely be a sin: they make a lot of noise on how we programmers should be building apps to support people with visual and other disabilities, yet they often seem oblivious when they fail to do it themselves.

For some apps like a browser I can usually expand the text and that helps somewhat, but I can't boost the text contrast unless I play with a browser style sheet, which is sort of silly. Accessibility options in MacOS are great, except the only real contrast setting only changes borders and shadows, not text. If someone insists on gray on gray, I am out of luck trying to make it more readable.

That shouldn't be. It's OK to be artistic and try to make things pretty, but it should not get in the way of being able to read and see the content. Of course that's essentially a quote from Apple!

At the Travel company two jobs ago, we built a brand new app starting right after WWDC when iOS 7 was announced, which was a big shock and our designer had to quickly figure out what the new design meant for us. One thing he was fond of was, of course, light gray text. When he left to go work for Google, I quickly upped the contrast on all the text.

Even with a retina screen, bad contrast is still difficult to make out, especially at smaller font sizes. MacOS doesn't yet (at least in Sierra) have the ability to increase font size in UIs universally like you can (if you support it) do in iOS apps.

Of course it's not always gray, I've seen people commit the sin of putting pale blue text on red, for example, which requires a visit from the Spanish Inquisition.

In the early days 25-30 years ago designers were rare and programmers often designed the UI given that there were fewer choices, especially before bit-mapped color screens were common. I remember supporting Quickdraw's 6 colors with Trapeze in 1987. So we had to focus designs with a much more limited palette. I was the designer for Trapeze and Deltagraph back then (the latter you can still see today although it has changed some over the past 25 years).

So when you are designing the next awesome app or web product, give some though to those folks for whom light gray or low contrast text is a problem, and try to find a design that doesn't hurt to read or at least some way to improve things a bit.

Oh Apple, please look at your apps as well when you tell us to be inclusive and concerned about people who don't see as well as the average person. It makes the message much more clear!