Dark Modes… and how the trend of focusing on content makes AI the most important tool in product design

Dark mode is another one of those seemingly irrational things in digital products which evoke strong feelings. MacOS recently released support for dark mode in Mojave, and the visual guidelines to go with it.

When running in Dark Mode, apps display a dark appearance.
Dark mode on the Mac. Source: Apple

Soon, other popular software tools (like Todoist, Sketch, and Evernote) followed suit.

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And then Android went full dark mode in the latest Pie version. Of course the dark mode looks cool. If you hang out on visual design sites, you find plenty of product concepts in presented in the dark mode. For example, dribbble has a whole dedicated page on dark dashboards.

But there is more than coolness and better battery life to dark mode. It indicates a fast growing trend in product design – focus on content. Apple’s guidelines point this out as the very first thing:

Focus on your content. Dark Mode puts the focus on the content areas of your interface, allowing that content to stand out while the surrounding chrome recedes into the background.

Google does the same across its products – direct the focus to content. Fast Company rated it as Design company of the year and the CEO Sundar Pichai mentions:

When we built Chrome, we wanted it to be simple. We always had this mantra on the team: “It’s the content, not the Chrome, that matters.”

The same idea echoes when some people talk about how all the websites are starting to look the same – because they all focus on content.

As an example, here is the homepage of Google News:

Screenshot of Google News

It has a hospital-grade cleanliness, very few colors, and a lot of text. It’s all white, with no background color, using thin borders (or shadow, in case of top bar) to separate one area from the other. As a contrasting example, have a look at BBC’s homepage.

Current screenshot of BBC.com

This is color heavy, picture heavy, menu-heavy and offers much less content at one glance.

I feel confident that the approach of a clean UI offering maximal content will dominate in product design.

This is not a new phenomenon. A similar thing happened to the design of books. Early books were highly decorative, not just with pictures, but with other ornamental elements. Here is an example taken from early days book design – in 1400s, made by Erhard Ratdolt:

Look at that ‘P’. Source: Designhistory.org

Typography, spacing, images, patterns – these were components of books in the early days and they provided an immersive and beautiful reading experience.

But they did not focus on content.

Contemporary books (outside of books in creative fields) however, are all about content. We don’t even think about typography. This might have happened with the increasing democratization of books and publishing over the years. With time, as more people got access to books, the ornament receded and the content remained. The same phenomenon might be happening to digital products.

But what does this imply for people who make digital products? If all is content, what does the designer.. design? As far as the visuals go, not much. Because now machine learning algorithms empower the design. As design strips away design, and digital consumption is all about content, we need strong filters to ensure the content is relevant and meaningful and loved by the users, and that’s where machine learning algorithms (or AI, if you prefer that term) step in. It is no coincidence that Google, the design company award winner, also brands itself as an AI-first company.


“Computing is evolving again. We spoke last year about this important shift in computing from a mobile-first to an AI-first approach. … In an AI-first world, we are rethinking all our products and applying machine learning and AI to solve user problems.” —Sundar Pichai

While products like search, e-commerce, and social media – products with  variable content (typically products for consumption) are obvious candidates for machine learning focused design, I don’t find enough applications of machine-learning being applied in productivity tools – tools we use to earn a living – at least not enough in mainstream tools.

Applications like MS Office Suite (and that favorite of many, Excel), Adobe Creative Suite, Accounting Software – should be utilizing machine learning to make people’s workflows easier and faster.

Some steps can be seen. The Task App Todoist, uses AI in helping people schedule tasks. Similarly, Adobe has created Adobe Sensei, which presents an exciting picture of what can be achieved as we have AI enmeshed into our products.

I think the designers of today and tomorrow not only would be better off if they learn to code, we would also do well to understand deeply the potential applications of Machine learning, and develop natural ways of thinking about how to include those capabilities in the products we make.

(I really wish I could investigate these ideas further in this post. I just wanted to happily share how I loved the dark modes, and well, we went down a rabbit hole. But I will try to keep thinking about this and share interesting ideas as I find them.)

2 thoughts on “Dark Modes… and how the trend of focusing on content makes AI the most important tool in product design

  1. Pingback: Everything becomes the same – Curated Intelligence

  2. Pingback: Designers should coders should design – Curated Intelligence

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