On the design of the Modus themes (Emacs)

The “Modus themes” are a pair of themes for Emacs that conform with the WCAG AAA accessibility standard for colour contrast between background and foreground values. This is the highest standard of its kind for making text readable, representing a minimum contrast ratio of 7:1.

There is a light and a dark theme. The former is called “Modus Operandi”, while the latter is “Modus Vivendi”.

In this article I document the principles that inform my decision-making in the design of these themes, though the insights apply more generally.

If you want to see how the themes look in practice, you can watch some of my videos on Emacs or refer to this collection of screenshots.

What is colour

For our purposes, “colour” is the amalgamation of three distinct channels of light: red, green, blue. By combining them in different amounts we get what we understand as orange, turquoise, violet, etc.

Red, in the sense of “pure red”, is a combination of the three channels of light where only the red component is at its fullest, while the others are contributing nothing. Same for the other colours that correspond to the remaining light channels.

White, in its purest, is the combination of the three channels with each contributing as much as possible. Whereas black is derived by having the channels contribute zero.

Couched in those terms, white and black are “colours” (in other domains they are described as “tones” that produce “tints” or “shades” when combined with hues).

I distinguish between “base” and “accent” values. The grey scale is part of the base group, while any other colour that derives from the accentuation of one or two light channels belongs to the accent’s group.

At its core, a palette consists of eight colours. Six accents plus white and black. The six are: red, green, blue, yellow, cyan, magenta.

To be clear about the accents that result from the three channels of light, consider these possibilities:

red   + green = yellow
green + blue  = cyan
blue  + red   = magenta

Colour notation

The total number of colours is a function of the amount that each channel of light can accept. With current technology this is 256, which means:

256 × 256 × 256 = 16,777,216

We can represent a colour using zero-based decimal notation, so values from 0 to 255 for each channel of light (e.g. 255,0,0 is pure red), or we can use hexadecimal notation, where possible values are 0-9 and a-f with each of the RGB channels having either one or two entries.

A hexadecimal representation of #f00 is interpreted as equivalent to #ff0000. To avoid confusion and allow for more possible combinations, I always use the six-digit-long format.

Choosing colours

The design of the palette’s main colours is governed by the inherent luminance of the six primary accent values. The following table shows the contrast ratio of each of them relative to pure white and pure black respectively. The colour values are written in hexadecimal RGB notation with #ffffff representing the maximum (white) and #000000 the minimum (black).

Hexadecimal (name) ffffff (white) 000000 (black)
ff0000 (red) 3.99 5.25
00ff00 (green) 1.37 15.3
0000ff (blue) 8.59 2.44
ffff00 (yellow) 1.07 19.5
00ffff (cyan) 1.25 16.7
ff00ff (magenta) 3.13 6.69

For reference, the maximum contrast ratio is 21:1 between black and white, while the minimum is always 1:1. These ratios are derived from a scientific formula that underpins the WCAG standard (you can use an online tool to perform the calculations or try my clr shell script that is distributed as part of my dotfiles).

The table shows us indirectly that each channel of light is assigned a unique weight in the calculation of the final luminance, which is reflected in the different contrast ratios of red, green, blue. This means that for the purposes of colour contrast we cannot equate the amount of each channel with its total contribution. Our intuition that #ff0000 is the same as #0000ff in terms of distance relative to zero cannot guide us by itself in selecting between the two.

We need a more qualified understanding of the mechanics of these three channels of light, predicated on the relative weights that the formula defines for red, green, blue respectively. These are the precise numbers:

L = 0.2126 * R + 0.7152 * G + 0.0722 * B

The general rules for luminance that we can deduce from the aforementioned are outlined thus:

  • “More green” means “lighter”.
  • “More green” and “more red” means “even lighter”.
  • “More blue” and to a lesser extent “more red” is the right way to tweak colours without completely changing their luminance.

In practice, adding a bit of blue makes virtually no difference to a colour’s luminance, while a good amount of it can help distinguish two accent values. For example #aa0000 is a red that has 7.75 contrast with white, while #aa0077 is a magenta that has 7.05 contrast (recall that 7:1 is our minimum target). We see how “a lot” of blue added to our particular red made little difference in the total luminance of the new colour, while it did have a greater effect on the perception of these two colours (you can use rainbow-mode for Emacs to preview valid values).

Now some insights about the choice of colour for use in the themes:

  • When designing a light theme, all colours need to rely on the blue channel of light and, to a lesser extent, on the red one. You cannot develop a fully fledged accessible light theme that makes extensive use of green, yellow, cyan, while also trying to keep colours fairly distinct from each other.
  • When designing a dark theme, you cannot rely on green, yellow, cyan as your main colours because they will look much more luminant than other accents, unless you lower their values to a point where they no longer approximate their pure representation.

These mean that the most common colours for both the light and dark variants have to be derived by combining blue and red, with green being the channel that adjusts the relative luminance. Hence the various shades of pink, purple, azure, teal that are most used in the Modus themes to highlight text.

Combined with insights from colour psychology, we must rule out red as a valid colour for syntax highlighting. Red calls too much attention to itself. It is reserved for cases where such a property is desired, such as when presenting an error message. Similar principles apply to the use of yellow and green: they are used to signify something that has a special meaning in its context.

The importance of knowing the background

It is impossible to pick a colour without knowing the context it will be used in. We thus start by identifying our main background value.

When selecting multiple colours for the purposes of developing a theme, we know that their common point of reference is the background on which they will be used. The background is a constant. For my light theme the main one is white; for the dark it is black.

There are many cases where a different background needs to be used in order to render a certain function explicit and unambiguous. For example, to represent a matching search term, draw the selected region, and so on. For each of these scenaria we use the potentially purpose-specific background as our guide for choosing the possible colours that are allowed to be used with it as foreground values. As always, our overarching objective is conformance with the WCAG AAA standard.

It is for this reason that the Modus themes have several palette subsets with inline commentary on the colours they may be combined with (see source code). For instance, the red intended for text on the mode line differs from the one used in the main buffer because the mode line has a background that is a particular shade of grey.

Emacs allows for different combinations of text and colour properties: what is called a “face”. Such faces empower us to implement these palette subsets with precision.

Part art, part science

Theme development stands at the intersection of art and science:

  • Science allows us to measure the luminance of colours and decide on the acceptable values for any given combination of foreground and background.
  • While the choice of one among possible combinations to denote the function of a given construct (interface or code element) is a matter of art.

It is not pertinent to this essay to investigate the exact proportion of each of these magnitudes to the delivery of the final outcome. Perhaps art is just an imprecise science waiting to be refined further by a yet-to-be-discovered method. At any rate, art is also governed by principles such as consistency, frugality, and temperance.

The Modus themes are designed with an intention to avoid exaggerations or what may be described as a “rainbow effect”. There are cases where science would allow us to combine variants of red, green, blue, yellow, magenta, cyan all in one place. Nothing would be technically wrong once the colour contrast criterion is satisfied. It would however look ugly by being excessive, flamboyant.

This is the tacit minimalism of the Modus themes: the visual aspect of a state of affairs is expressed by using as few colours as deemed necessary. There should be no imbalance in the visual “rhythm” of the highlighted text: a highly-luminant colour next to a considerably darker one all trying to present parts that are semantically similar or connatural is a bad choice; and “bad choice” implies the lack of a thematic thread running through all applicable colour combinations.

I understand minimalism as minimum viable completeness, basically meaning that “it works” without requiring any further additions to continue to work well and with such additions delivering diminishing returns to scale or even being detrimental to the task of avoiding exaggerations (i.e. the notion of enforcing a theme).

Differences of degree or nuances should also be discernible in the use of colour, in line with rhythmic consistency. For example, in the Modus themes documentation strings are a more subtle blue than literal strings. They could have been green, for instance, but that would introduce too much variation for semantically similar functions: scientifically correct, artistically sub-optimal.

Try the themes

The Modus themes are available in MELPA and MELPA Stable already for a few months now, while they were recently admitted to the official ELPA repository. They are distributed as standalone packages, in case you want to use one but not the other.

I am continuously refining the themes and expanding support for packages (face groups) in the Emacs milieu. This is necessary to ensure a consistent experience for all users.

I am happy for the feedback I have received, including but not limited to email messages. Meanwhile, Manuel Uberti has published a blog entry detailing how Modus Operandi has addressed a persistent issue with light themes. Given this opportunity, I must also thank Manuel for the valuable issues (and concomitant feedback) reported in the project’s git repo.

My commitment to accessibility of the WCAG AAA sort comes from the realisation that legibility is the single most important characteristic of any text-heavy interface. Emacs is all about text; and text should not pose a barrier to entry.

Use a reliable and unassuming typeface that does not draw too thin letter forms or demand constant attention to its peculiarities (such as my patched “Hack”) and apply a theme that prioritises good colour contrast.