Flash of inAccurate coloR Theme (FART)

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Chris Coyier on (Updated on )

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There is a lot to think about when implementing a dark mode theme on a website. We have a huge guide on it. There are some very clever quick wins out there, but there are also some quite tricky things to pull off. One of those tricky things is how it’s not a dark mode “toggle” between dark and light, but really three modes you need to support: dark, light, and use system preference. That’s similar to how audio preferences work in many apps, which allow you to very specifically choose which audio input or output you want, or default to the system preference.

CSS and JavaScript can handle the system preference angle, via the prefers-color-scheme API, but if the user preference has changed, and that preference is now different than the user preference, you’re in the territory of “Flash of inAccurate coloR Theme” or FART. Ok ok, it’s a tounge-in-cheek acronym, but it’s potentially quite a visually obnoxious problem so I’m keeping it. It’s in the same vein that FOUT (Flash of Unstyled Text) is for font loading.

Storing a user preference means something like a cookie, localStorage, or some kind of database. If access to that data means running JavaScript, e.g. localStorage.getItem('color-mode-preference');, then you’re in FART territory, because your JavaScript is very likely running after a page’s first render, lest you’re otherwise unnecessarily delaying page render.

User preference is “dark” mode, but the system preference is “light” mode (or unset), so when the page refreshes, you get FART.

You can access a cookie with a server-side language before page-render, meaning you could use it to output something like <html class="user-setting-dark-mode"> and style accordingly, which deftly avoids FART, but that means a site that even has access to a server-side language (Jamstack sites do not, for example).

Allllll that to say that I appreciated Rob Morieson’s article about dark mode because it didn’t punt on this important issue. It’s very specifically about doing this in Next.js, and uses localStorage, but because Next.js is JavaScript-rendered, you can force it to check the user-saved preference as the very first thing it does. That means it will render correctly the the first time (no flash). You do have to turn off server-side rendering for this to work, which is a gnarly trade-off though.

I’m not convinced there is a good way to avoid FART without a server-side language or force-delayed page renders.