Reading Settings!

A few notes on pairing prefers-color-scheme and user configurability, as well as adding a little reading mode switch.

Assumed Audience: Web designers and developers interested in site setting tweaks which respect user preferences.

Updates:

  • 2021/12/31 21:05: Corrected the overhead from Svelte’s runtime.
  • 2022/01/01 08:26: Fixed an error in the table (thanks to Ben Makuh for pointing it out!).

When redesigning this site, I knew I wanted to take advantage of macOS’ and Windows’ then-recently-added ability to support dark mode in the website (with the new CSS media query prefers-color-scheme). However, I also knew that I wanted to make it user-configurable. It took me a couple of years to actually get around to it, but at last — at the same time as same time I publish this post — I have also added a tiny bit of JavaScript to the site that lets users override their operating system default to view the site in its light or dark theme as they please. Since I was already at it, I also added a reading mode” view to hide the navigation.

As is my habit when I deal with a question of how to implement something like this, I built out a table to capture how this should work:

prefers-color-scheme explicit preference result
none none light
none light light
none dark dark
light none light
light light light
light dark dark
dark none dark
dark light light
dark dark dark

This isn’t complicated, per se… but it it does require some thought to make sure it works just right and that the CSS and JS interact correctly.

CSS

On the CSS side of things, it was important that there be one definition of what the light and dark color schemes are, and then that the prefers-color-scheme and a CSS class both use that same definition. That way, I don’t have to try to keep multiple definitions in sync.

To make this work, I combined the power of CSS Custom Properties and an SCSS mixin. The custom properties define the set of colors in play throughout the site: foreground, background, borders, link colors, etc. The mixin then applies those custom properties to the style selectors. As a simplified example:

@mixin light {
   --bg: #FEFEFE;
   --fg: #333333;
}

@mixin dark {
   --bg: #333333;
   --fg: #FEFEFE;
}

Then for the slightly tricky bit — applying these to the appropriate selectors. First, we handle the case where the user hasn’t defined a preference. This corresponds to the none for prefers-color-scheme in our table.

:root,
.light:root {
   @include light;
}

.dark:root {
   @include dark;
}

Then I used the same mixin to integrate with OS-level preferences, using the @media (prefers-color-scheme: light) check:

@media (prefers-color-scheme: light) {
   :root {
      @include light();
   }

   .dark:root {
      @include dark();
   }
}

@media (prefers-color-scheme: dark) {
   :root {
      @include dark();
   }

   .light:root {
      @include light();
   }
}

The way to think about this is:

  • The first :root condition handles the case when a reader has not specified a preference and their operating system is not indicating anything to the browser, in which case they get the light theme.

  • The .light:root and .dark:root declarations override that for

  • The :root declarations within the prefers-color-scheme checks make sure the default behavior for a reader whose OS is explicitly telling the browser to use a light or dark theme.

  • Finally, the .dark:root within prefers-color-scheme: light and the .light:root within prefers-color-scheme: dark account for the case where the reader has overridden the system-level prefernce for this site.

These couple dozen simple lines of code are genuinely all there is to it; you can check out the current implementation here to confirm that! If you do, you may notice that I also use this as a way of integrating the style sheets for the syntax highlighting themes used in light and dark mode — which, combined with the choice do my syntax-highlighting as part of the build, means there’s minimal overhead to that for end users as well.

JavaScript

Because I did the hard work of pushing all the complexity into the CSS, the JS ends up being fairly simple. It only really has three responsibilities:

  • setting or clearing the .light or .dark classes when the user interacts with the UI element
  • if the user has specified an override, storing that decision somewhere to look it up when the site loads
  • checking for that decision when the site loads

Responding to the user setting

There are three states the user can specify:

  • light
  • dark
  • system

There was no need to do anything fancy in terms of making this actually work; I just set it up on the HTML directly this with a radio toggle:

<form>
  <label for='system'>system</label>
  <input
    type='radio'
    name='theme'
    id='system'
    value='system'
  >
  <label for='light'>light</label>
  <input
    type='radio'
    name='theme'
    id='light'
    value='light'
  >
  <label for='dark'>dark</label>
  <input
    type='radio'
    name='theme'
    id='dark'
    value='dark'
  >
</form>

This in turn, I wired up with bog standard event handlers with Element.addEventListener. That event listener in turn updates a few classes on the DOM and stores the reader’s decision.

Storing the reader’s decision

Modern browsers — anything newer than IE8! — all give us easy access to the localStorage API, which is perfect for this kind of thing.1 I simply defined a key, 'sympolymathesy:theme', and then set the value corresponding to the user’s choice. If the reader chooses to follow the system, after having set a different preference at some point, I just remove the value entirely. This makes for super easy setup: if there is no value in local storage, I can always assume the reader should be defaulted into the system setting — either because they are just visiting the site for the first time, in which case I should respect their OS-level preferences, or because they have chose to opt back into that mode explicitly. There is no need to distinguish between the two!

Hiding the sidebar navigation

I also added a setting to allow users to hide the nav sidebar on larger screens (it is already pushed below the content on smaller screens) — a sort of dedicated reading mode”. This was implemented in basically the exact same way as the color scheme handling, except for using a checkbox instead of a set of radio toggles. The only interesting bit is that I simply hide that control in the case when the reader is on a smaller screen, since it does nothing — all with a simple media query.

As for why — well, I personally really like having the ability to just focus on the text and hide everything else away, and one of the things I have occasionally missed from v4 of this site is that the average view of any given page was just the text. While I like the new design much better overall, larger screen views don’t have quite as nice a reading experience as smaller screens or the old version of the site do — so I have now fixed that for anyone who, like me, wants a just-the-content view!

On vanilla JavaScript

As noted above, I implemented all of this using only vanilla” JavaScript. While I used TypeScript (because I always use TypeScript) and I do have a tiny build tool (Rollup is great for this kind of thing), the result is not very different from what I would have written by hand. It just had a slightly nicer authoring experience along the way, including being able to get much faster feedback both in my editor and in the browser without impacting end users at all.

(You can check out the entire implementation here. I chose to make it slightly more robust than it absolutely needed” to be, but the whole thing is well under a kilobyte even so.)

This is the part of the story where, per many of the folks out there, I’m supposed to tell you how vanilla JavaScript is awesome. And in terms of the size of the JavaScript I ship down to support this, doing it with vanilla JS rather than pulling in a framework was indeed the right move. But… it’s a bit more complicated than vanilla JS is better.”

I ran an experiment around this time last year in doing this with Svelte, which is aimed at pretty much exactly this kind of use case. I liked it, and enjoyed learning Svelte — and authoring it that way was a much better experience than doing it in vanilla JavaScript the way I did today. It involved a lot less code and was a lot less error-prone. I shipped the non-Svelte version because I measured the result, and Svelte’s runtime cost 4× as much as the version written by hand. For this specific use case, that didn’t make sense.

However, as I currently hope to elaborate on in a future piece, that’s really only because I was only authoring a single component here. The frameworks provide a lot of value in terms of authoring — and, just as importantly, when you scale past about three components built by hand like this, you end up starting to build your own little framework. (Spoilers: I was already ending up doing a lot of that here, and it’s one UI component!) The frameworks don’t come for free, but I strongly suspect based on this experience that the cost in size is more than amortized across any web page which uses more than a few components — and more than amortized in bug count as well.

But more on that in the future!


  1. If the reader happens to be in an environment where it doesn’t exist or work for some reason, it’s fine: it just falls back to matching the operating system, with a default of the light mode. ↩︎