Legibility of Big Sur UI

Do other people find it hard to read the new UI? I find I can’t tell which window has focus at times because the difference in tint is so small. I’m seriously hoping someone will bring out a skin or something to help. I’d use Accessibility, but it also looks awful to me.

I like the new design a lot and some small functional updates and it has been faster on my 2015 iMac as well, BUT I use it in Dark Mode. I checked Light Mode once, and I agree, there was definitely a problem in contract between active windows and background windows.

People on the forum here recommended the app HazeOver. I checked the demo and it looked beautiful, but with me working in Dark Mode and being happy with it, I’m not sure I need it. But maybe it can help for you. You keep the design (not the ‘Accessiblity’ design) and you get a much better focus.

I did try dark mode for a few minutes, and thought that maybe for the first time in my life I could see a use for it. I usually hate light on dark, and there are studies that show it is less legible for text. Maybe I should give it a longer trial, but it goes against about thirty years of habituation. I actually have a licence for HazeOver, which I’d forgotten about, so that may be the answer.

This has been a short checklist of things that I do whenever installing an new OS, that to me, greatly increases the usability of it (there are piles more, mostly system hacks and undocumented fixes to scale back the silly security theatre and make the OS more open source friendly, but I won’t go into all of that here):

  • Accessibility: Reduce transparency. Some people may like all that glass stuff, but frankly I don’t get it. It just makes menus way more difficult to read, and I don’t need my sidebars to look like a candy factory advertisement. To me the whole OS skin just looks a lot more professional and what a window manager skin should be: out of mind. Apple loves to dance around and get in your face with their UI, and have completely lost sight of their role in life: to be invisible and forgotten.
  • Speaking of dancing around: Reduce motion also always gets enabled—although honestly I don’t know what it changes any more. Everything still wobbles and gyrates and swoops around anyway.
  • Calibrate the monitor! In Display: Colors, click the Calibrate… button with the Option key held down to access the “expert” mode (don’t worry, by that Apple just means anyone with functional eyeballs).

You’ll go through around half a dozen different settings with the goal of making the Apple logo invisible. Now, I would suggest here that Apple’s tool is in fact broken. If you follow the instructions to the letter, you’ll end up with something that is clearly not intentional. You will usually want to move the left slider away from its default position and toward the point where the logo disappears—but not all the way. So this is subjective, and fortunately the sliders work in real-time, so leave a few windows open around the panel, with some text as well, so you can see the impact and make a judgement call based on what looks good to you.

Once you’re done, you will see just how incredibly washed out and bright the uncalibrated factory settings are. You may not even need reduced transparency (which also has the effect of increasing contrast all around). It’s an amazing difference though—all of that flat looking, low contrast stuff in the OS is actually meant to look 3D. To me, this also makes active/inactive windows in light mode a lot more obvious.

After the logo excerises, just leave the rest, regarding colour temperature and gamma, to default settings (unless you really always want the monitor to look warm).

There are some things in the new design that nothing will fix though. For me, all of the extra ornamentation clutter and rounding really messes with my eyes, at a physical level. I’m probably unusual in that regard, but I can’t even look at a Finder window without getting dizzy and seeing spots after a while—like in those optical illusion grids. Overall the effect of macOS 11, with all of its visual intensity, with the many label grey shifts (really, do we need shortcuts to be faded out to near invisibility, and thus increasing visual cortex overload by introducing needless variation?), the rounding, the rounding everywhere—it is such a relief to boot back into my main work partition, whenever I’m done taking screenshots or testing out some 11-only bug. :slight_smile:

I was very harsh on macOS 10.10 when it came out, but the above checklist and a few other things in the end solved all my problems with it. Hopefully in time I can find a way to tame this new mess, but I have a bad feeling I’m just going to have to end up avoiding certain programs and view modes, purely to avoid the headaches and eye-strain they give me. And hopefully I can put off upgrading to it for real, for as long as possible. Maybe they’ll dial things back eventually.

Yeah, at first I wasn’t sure what you meant, because in dark mode the active/inactive shading is very obvious. I’ve been primarily using dark mode ever since it came out. While I do think those studies are generally correct, I think overall the effect of not having an ultra-bright rectangle in front of your face all day offsets the text issue a bit. I think for reflective surfaces, there is no competition, but there is something to be said about not shining a flashlight in your face all the time in order to simulate that reflective surface effect.

Plus, in programs like Scrivener that let you change text/background balance to taste, you can find some nice contrast levels that feel less harsh. You may not like the blue, but give Scrivener’s Solarized Dark theme a try. The text isn’t screaming bright, nor is the background so dark.

Anyway, I am extremely sensitive to light, and also have bad reactions to certain shapes and colour combinations. Apple frequently triggers me with their default settings and overall needy design of late. I know most people don’t feel or sense the same, and lots of people gush about how absolutely lovely they think macOS 11 looks. Me though, I’ve just got to do what I can to make things simple, clean and low-key. Sometimes I really miss how basic and clean Mac OS looked in the ’90s, and how every program basically looked the same. None of this elbowing around for who makes the “best”" looking UI at the expense of consistency, none of Apple’s showboating filters and animation effects… just getting work done. And developers spending time on features, not what shade of grey their toolbars are every other year. :laughing:

Unfortunately mine are not: I’m colour blind (and myopic). I’m not sure messing around with calibration would be a good idea. But generally I agree with what you say. I used to admire the Mac UI. That time has long gone. Now I just want something that is usable, and it is becoming more difficult to achieve. I guess I will have to give dark mode a longer trial. It is against all my instincts, but I feel I don’t have a lot of choice with this update. It is pretty bad for my cognitive system.

Edit: I already use solarised themes where I can – but light instead of dark.

Well the sliders on the left only work on greyscale, so colour-blindness shouldn’t be an issue in getting the overall contrast boosted a bit in a way that doesn’t introduce additional elements (like the contrast setting in Accessibility does). And like I say you don’t really need to mess with the colour-balance slider on the right, I don’t. I just tweak the left, which ends up making shadows a litttle richer, highlights a bit lighter, and midtones “spread out” a bit more so less of the overall UI is smack in the middle of the same grey area.

Thanks Ioa, I’ll give it a try.

Just went though the Ioa recommended calibration (but did BOTH sliders because they are there!) and it helps. A lot. But it still looks like they are trying to make all the systems feel like iOS.

  1. focus contrast is easier to see
  2. icons and widgets are a bit more dimensional relative to the “text plane”
  3. WAY TOO MUCH WHITESPACE in headers and menus
  4. menu short cuts not as bad as they appear more engraved or embossed (textured)

all in all still a bad experience for old eyes, but not as bad as it was 5min ago. :slight_smile:

Yeah, calibration made a HUGE difference (in light mode, at least). I had to do it twice because I didn’t understand what I was trying to do at first. Squinting undoubtedly helps. I might try dark mode as well. It seems to make shortcuts stand out better in menus, from my brief glance at it.

Thanks Ioa!

Aaand … having tried dark mode I cannot stand it! About thirty seconds was enough. I can’t see a thing nor understand what I’m looking at.

I don’t want to claim you should do what I do, but just wanted to share my experience that when I tried Dark Mode on Mojave the first time, I kind of didn’t like it. I tried for an hour or so. Then I turned it back to light mode. Then I tried again, and kept it. Of course everyone should just do whatever he/she prefers, but there is a chance it’s also a bit a matter of getting used to, after years of light interfaces?
On my iPhone I still use automatic mode, light during the day and dark during the night.

Habituation is certainly very powerful, and adaptation to new things often seems to be very difficult. (I dealt with one aspect of adaptation in my psychology PhD thesis.) It is possible that I could adapt to dark mode, but I’m not totally convinced. I use varifocal lenses in my glasses, and as I observed above, I am colour blind. In addition I have a touch of cataract (getting older) and I know that night vision deteriorates with age (though I don’t know how that might relate to light on dark screens). In short, I don’t seem to be able to detect things on a dark screen as well as I can on a light one. I might try it again, but at the moment it seems to me that light on dark works better for me, notwithstanding the poor legibility of the Big Sur UI. But thanks for the encouragement – it is appreciated.

Thank you for this, Ioa! I’d forgotten just how much difference this could make, Even though I haven’t upgraded to Big Sur yet, it helped my LG Ultrawide immensely, and did a bit for my poor old MacBook Air 11 display as well.

One thing that “Reduce Motion” affects is how the screen looks when I swipe four fingers on my trackpad to move to the next full screen app. With “Reduce Motion” off, the new app slides in. With “Reduce Motion” on, the current app “dissolves” to the new app. I find the “slide in” much less disconcerting, personally, as it echoes the gesture I use. If we’re going to do reduced motion, I’d prefer a “smash cut”.

An alternative to HazeOver is Finer Focus, which possibly gives you greater control over what you see and how you see it. (Not sure whether it runs in Big Sur.)


I’m going to suggest you look at dark mode again, and tweak your colour settings a bit in Preferences:Appearance, using the greyscale sliders in the Colour Picker. The reason? Scrivener’s Default theme has full contrast (100% bright for background, 0% bright for text) in Light Mode, but in Dark Mode the contrast is lowered significantly (about 20% bright for background, 100% bright for text.) In general, Scrivener’s default Dark Mode settings have lowered contrast and desaturated colours (you may not be able to see the latter, but it also has the effect of lowering contrast a bit more.) If you have Night Shift enabled for your monitor as well, that too will lower overall contrast as white shifts more to yellow, thus becoming darker.

I have all your vision challenges save colour blindness, and I cordially dislike Scrivener’s default Dark Mode. TBH, I don’t much care for Dark Mode even if I “roll my own” theme, but Scrivener’s is particularly difficult for me to read. The other Dark Mode themes provided have even less contrast.

This is not to suggest you should use Dark Mode like all the other cool kids! I surely don’t. But part of the problem, at least for me, is the lower contrast and colour definition that results from Dark Mode, which Scrivener’s default theme makes worse. Night Shift is the final nail in the coffin. it’s worth taking a look to see if tweaking the theme contrast clears your difficulty (it didn’t mine, or not enough, but YMMV).

And yes, I’ve given Dark Mode, with and without Night Shift, a good long try. It’s not like I didn’t put in my time reading monitors with black backgrounds and bright (white, green, amber… take your pick) text. I like Light Mode better.

I haven’t installed Big Sur yet, so I can’t comment on it.

For Scrivener’s Dark Mode generally, though, my own personal preference is the Solarized Dark Theme, but using approximately the color scheme of the Solarized Light Theme for the main editors. The “beige” paper is much less blindingly white than the standard “Light Editors” option.


Thanks for that – that one is new to me. UnDistracted is another possibility.

Thanks for the tips. I’ll have a look at some point. At the moment I’m in a research phase, so I’m spending most of my time in DEVONthink and Safari. And I do tend to make use of Solarised light where I can. I just find adapting to light on dark is very, very hard for me. And I’m not sure what the benefits are (if there are any).

This is a good overview of the pros and cons of dark mode vs. traditional light mode:

The benefits of dark mode

I haven’t installed Big Sur on my iMac yet … I’m going to wait yet awhile, though I’m wondering about trying to instal it on an external SSD to test it out.

On the other hand, I find apps in dark mode almost unusable … my 75 year-old eyes just don’t get on with it. The only things that I am comfortable with are: (a) light text on a dark background when reading on my iPad at night, though its automatic switching at sunset—which seems regularly to turn itself on even though I turn it off in Settings—is a complete PITA; and (b) a black “lightbox” in photo editing, though I prefer the controls and menus to remain light.