Adjust text color to be readable on light and dark backgrounds of user interfaces

Most modern user interfaces are supporting different color schemes for day and night: the so called light and dark modes. Selecting a text color for each of those modes is not a big deal and it’s the way to go when designing the user interface.

In some cases, the text color is driven by the displayed contents. In the example below, the tint color is matched to the color of the drink. The global tint color of this app is totally different, but this color adjustment gives a very nice effect. But as you might already see, there is a small problem when it comes to very light or very dark colors: each color either has a good readability on light or dark backgrounds. Some colors might fit to both, but that’s not always the case. In the example below, the light yellow is still visible, but when it comes to small icons or small text, the details are lost.

To overcome this issue, a simple solution is to select two colors for each recipe so that each mode has a different one. That’s fine, but it might totally change the effect of this colored pages.

Can we calculate a suitable color?

Some time ago, there was an article about Black or white text on a colour background? In this one, I described different algorithms to calculate the best text color (black or white) for a colored background. But now, we need the opposite: a colored text that has a good readability on white (light) or black (dark) backgrounds.

When we look at HSL and HSV/HSB color models, we already have a value for ‘lightness’ or ‘brightness’. The idea is to find a color that matches a given hue and saturation and that has a brightness which is readable on light and dark background. For this, we can use different algorithms. Very good results could be achieved with a ‘Weighted W3C Formula‘. This formula take into consideration that the human eye perceives some of the primary colors darker than others.

f'(x) = r ? 0.299 + g ? 0.587 + b ? 0.11

Each color that is located at the border between the black and white overlay is suitable for light and dark backgrounds.

Step 1: convert the given color to HSV/HSB

Step 2: keep hue and saturation constant and adjust the brightness (make the color lighter or darker)

Step 3: convert the HSV/HSB value back to the required color format

Implementation in PHP

A simple calculation for a given RGB color is shown below. The classes used in this snippet are available on GitHub. The code checks the initial brightness of the color and lightens or darkens the values until the ‘border’ calculated by the ‘Weighted W3C Formula’ is reached. This is the case for the value 127, the total range of the brightness is 0 to 255.

$hsv = Convert::rgb2hsv($rgb);

$step = 0.01;
$brightness = Calculate::weightedW3C($rgb);
if ($brightness < 127) {
    while ($brightness < 127 && $hsv[2] >= 0 && $hsv[2] <= 1) {
        $hsv[2] += $step;
        $brightness = Calculate::weightedW3C(Convert::hsv2rgb($hsv));
    }
} else {
    while ($brightness > 127 && $hsv[2] >= 0 && $hsv[2] <= 1) {
        $hsv[2] -= $step;
        $brightness = Calculate::weightedW3C(Convert::hsv2rgb($hsv));
    }
}

return Convert::hsv2rgb($hsv);

Some examples

But how does this result look for different colors? Let’s start with some dark colors. Those are fine for a light background, but they become unreadable on a dark one. The top colors show the input color (before) and the color below shows the output of the calculation above (after).

Color #632300 adjusted to be readable on light and dark background
Color #454545 adjusted to be readable on light and dark background

And now let’s look at some light colors which are fine for dark backgrounds, but they are totally unreadable on light backgrounds.

Color #73FEFF adjusted to be readable on light and dark background
Color #F0C&96 adjusted to be readable on light and dark background

The last color is similar to the example at the beginning and as you can see, the optimized color has a much better readability. This could be achieved for both light and dark colors. The code example shown above is written in PHP. An adoption should be easily possible for any other coding or scripting language

The algorithm mentioned in this post is also available on GitHub https://github.com/mixable/color-utils. This package is usable with composer:

composer require mixable/color-utils

The optimized color can be calculated with:

use Mixable\Color\Calculate;
// ...

$hex = '#ffcc00';
$optimizedColor = Calculate::readableColorForLightAndDarkBackground($hex);

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