Visual Studio Dark Theme

Visual Studio Dark Theme

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As we’re closing in on the final designs for Visual Studio 11 I want to thank you again for your feedback. I want to pass along that we are still internalizing your feedback and actively working on the next Visual Studio 11 milestones.

The purpose of this post is to follow up on a common request relating to the earlier RC preview post. The request was for more information on the Visual Studio 11 dark theme.

Leading up to our being engineering complete for RC we focused most of our design attention on optimizing the light theme experience, because that’s what our telemetry indicates the majority of you are currently using. Once that was complete, we turned our attention to the dark theme, focusing on the top dark theme feedback we heard from Visual Studio 11 beta. Many of you will see significant improvements to the dark theme in the RC release, but several of the key changes I’m sharing with you now didn’t make the timeline for RC. In this post, I’d like to share what you will see in RTM and call out some of the dark theme improvements we’ve made from beta to RC and subsequently to RTM.

Beta Dark Theme

RC Dark Theme

RTM Dark Theme

Themed Icons

As a part of giving you a preview of the dark theme I want to call your attention to several important characteristics of the Visual Studio 11 iconography. The first is that the icons are generally much simpler or more symbolic in their form. Secondly the color palette we employ within the icons has been simplified and made much more consistent.

In Visual Studio 11, we generate our icons from a common library of glyphs. This approach improves consistency as we produce the approximately 6000 icons of various sizes and formats that are used in approximately 28,000 different locations throughout the product. This presents an interesting challenge in terms of how to most effectively host these icons in different themes, and on different shaded backgrounds (tool windows, editors, drop-downs).

We considered the pros and cons of outputting separate complete sets of swappable icons for each theme. As we looked into this approach we found it still didn’t allow us to optimize across the various backgrounds on which the icons would be hosted in each theme.

In Beta and RC we used a ghost outline around the icons to make them visible on both lighter and darker backgrounds. The disadvantage of this approach is that it makes the icons appear fuzzy on both themes and too bright in the dark theme.

In the RTM version, we dynamically adjust the icons according to the theme, resulting in icons that are cleaner and better matched to the theme and background color. At runtime, we modify the luminosity of the raster images to match the outline of the icon with the background on which it is drawn and to make the fill and accent colors stand out effectively.  For the dark theme, this essentially inverts the brightness of the icon, making dark areas of the original icon light and light areas of the original icon dark.  The same happens on the light theme, as icons are displayed on differently shaded backgrounds. The luminosity match makes the background and outline of icons disappear as it matches the surface color they are displayed on.

The difference between the traditional outline based approach we used for beta and RC, and the approach we employee for RTM, is readily apparent in the following screenshots.

Dark Theme

In addition to being simpler in form, and being better suited to dynamic theming, glyph style icons also lend themselves to much cleaner resizing or scaling. All of our Visual Studio 11 icons are maintained in an icon repository as vector graphic files which we output in various file formats and sizes as needed within our products. For example the same glyph can easily be rendered in a size and format appropriate for use in different Visual Studio 11 contexts such as the Solution Explorer or the New Project Dialog.

Dark Theme

As a part of the Visual Studio 11 overall release plan we will be making all of the icons for this release available to you in multiple file formats including vector. You are free to take full advantage of the easy theme-ability and resize-ability of these assets within your own applications.

Themed Scrollbars

One of the most common requests for dark theme enhancements has been for us to theme scrollbars. As I hinted at previously we were close to sharing with you in our last post that scrollbars will be custom themed within both the light and dark themes. We’ve since completed sufficient testing to feel confident in sharing our RTM designs with you.

Dark Theme

Visual Studio's UI is a mix of WPF, Windows Forms, Win32, HTML, and other UI technologies which made scrollbar theming a challenging project. Because there is no single technology solution to theming all scrollbars in VS, we applied scrollbar theming on a technology-by-technology basis. We created a style targeting ScrollBar and ScrollViewer in the root of VS document and tool windows. In some cases, where it’s not appropriate to show a themed scroll bar, the UI can opt-out. An example is a pop-up dialog that will continue to show light even in the dark theme should not show dark scroll bars.

Individual pieces of UI can opt-out of themed scrollbars by setting a special property on the HWND. UI may decide to opt-out if it is not optimized for the dark theme or if it presents a very specific user content.

The themed scrollbars are designed to work together with the RC changes we shared with you previously, such as drawing our own custom window chrome, to improve the overall sense of coherent styling within Visual Studio 11. As I mentioned above we would like to hear more regarding your impressions of the cumulative updates we’ve shared with you.

Dark Editor Theme

Many of you have expressed a preference for coding within a dark editor. For example, dark editor themes dominate the list of all-time favorites at web sites such as which serve as a repository for different Visual Studio styles.

Chief among the reasons many of you have expressed for preferring dark backgrounds is the reduced strain placed on the eyes when staring at the screen for many hours. Many developers state that light text on a dark background is easier to read over longer periods of time than dark text on a light background.

Downloading styles from web sites such as Studio Styles provides a great starting point to begin customizations. With that in mind, we themed every single customizable item and category in the Fonts and Colors list to be consistent with the overall dark theme design. This way, further customizations can be made and new features introduced in Visual Studio 11 will benefit from the defined default dark fonts and colors. We made several dark editor theme updates in RC in keeping with beta and early RC user feedback, including:

  • Improving the contrast of the whites and grays in the editor fonts and colors to “pop” over the similar text colors used in the IDE/Shell
  • Increasing saturation for several default dark colors to improve their visibility
  • Enhancing “Use Defaults” to work as expected for all categories in the Fonts and Colors dialog when in the dark theme

Dark Theme

Common Dialogs

In RTM you’ll also find that we have themed a core set of the commonly used dialogs. The New Project, New Web Site, Add New Item, Extension Manager, and Reference Manager dialogs now have dark theme versions of their UI.

For those of you who choose to work within the dark theme you will undoubtedly want us to continue to push our theming efforts deeper and more broadly across Visual Studio. We too are eager to continue our work in this area through the remainder of this release cycle and beyond.

Dark Theme

Bringing it All Together

I’ve included a screenshot that helps bring into focus how the various dark theme updates such as the shell, editor, design surfaces, etc. all fit together. The screenshot below shows a dark themed Visual Studio 11 with the Windows 8 simulator running in the foreground.

Dark Theme

As was the case with the changes we announced as part of the previous RC preview post the RTM changes reflected in this post are designed to both address core feedback areas and to maintain alignment with our primary design objectives for the release. I’m hoping you will take the time to share your feedback on these newly announced RTM changes.

Monty HammontreeMonty Hammontree – Director of User Experience, Microsoft Developer Tools Division
Short Bio: Monty has been at Microsoft for ten years focusing primarily on developer tool experiences. He and his team provide product design and user research direction for the Visual Studio product family. He has 25 years of industry experience in product design and user research management.

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  • Hi. I can see you're hell-bent on ignoring ALL THE PEOPLE SHOUTING AT YOU about how much we HATE BEING SHOUTED AT, but I thought I'd add my voice just in case you for once PAY ATTENTION to your customers' feedback.

    Please STOP SHOUTING at us.

  • I'm going to say what everyone's thinking but nobody has said: REMOVE THE CAPS.

    Oh, wait, everyone *has* said that. But they're still there. How very odd.

  • @Andrew

    Yes and as a result we have a few expressions and a couple of related gestures to direct at those responsible.

  • I like the ALL CAPS menu

  • Awesome! Finally some contrast and a decent dark background. Thank you. A little more color in icons would have been great.

    PS: Yes the ALL-CAPS in the menu really should be removed.

  • I think this theme now looks gorgeous. I don't mind the caps for the menu names, in fact i think it fits.


  • I like the ALL-CAPS in the menu...

  • To me, "we are internalizing your feedback" means you've eaten it, you're currently digesting it, and as with all digestion, what comes out the other end won't be a pretty sight! :o)

    I'm not keen on the ALL CAPS menus, but I've only seen screen-shots so far, so I'll avoid passing judgement until I've used VS11 in anger.

    For me, the more pressing issue is the lack of XP/2003 support for 4.5, and the fact that we won't even get a 4.0 service pack for these systems.

    That means I can't debug a 4.0 application on a system with 4.5 installed; the framework bugs which affect the live system will be fixed on the dev system, but the fix won't be available for the live system.

    I won't even be able to work around that by leaving VS2010 on my dev system; since 4.5 is an "in-place" upgrade, all 4.0 applications will be forced to use 4.5 on that box.

  • That looks freaking amazing but I still don't understand the OBSESSION WITH ALL CAPS IN METRO.  IT LOOKS LIKE YOU ARE YELLING AT ME WHICH IS ANNOYING.  SEE?

  • Are you sure the ALL CAPS are a metro requirement?

    I mean, the headers on the Xbox interface is all lowercase...

    So much for the Metro guidelines.

    And please, for the love of everything holy, please allow desktop apps in Express!

  • @Pax - It's not a requirement at all.  It's just an annoying trend that has popped up.  I think I first saw ALL CAPS on a WP7 app like a year ago and it's bled into Windows 8.  The beta was worse! It had caps on all the titles for every pane.  Oddly, it had normal cased menus.  It was like they heard the feedback about how bad it looked, fixed it, then some moron on the design team had a sad that his caps disappeared and sneaked in before the build went out and changed the menus to caps.

    Also, yes, agreed.  Express needs classic desktop support.  The lame excuse of "no language specific versions, blah blah" doesn't pass the smell test.  I'm sure the VB community would be upset at my saying this (and, for the record, I actually do like and code in VB quite often), but if they just released C# on the desktop, it would be enough!  Telling free/OSS desktop app developers they are second class citizens and don't deserve modern free tools does not help Metro, but it does hurt the perception of MS on the whole.

  • I really like the dark theme. The added color to the vector icons really makes a tremendous difference in locating items. I would venture to guess that the time it takes to find common functionality is actually less with the added color contrast than it is in VS2010 for a new user, since the added color differentiates icons from others that are monochrome. That'll be really nice.

    I am still not sure about the all caps menus. In the end, I don't think it matters much since we can all read and we'll hopefully be focused on the code, in which case the menu will be ignored until we need to worry about it. I would much rather see the team reduce the need to go into the menus in the first place or entirely remove menus :)

    In my own installation, I might choose to move the Start/Continue button next to the pause and stop, with the configuration drop-down right before it. I am not sure why there's some sort of search-related icon in between the Continue and Pause buttons. I am glad that by default the configuration drop-down is now in the toolbar, since I manually did that in VS2010.

  • Hey, you have themed scrollbars but what about buttons (eg. Browse, OK, Cancel in New Project) - Standard light button in dark theme is ugly

  • Looks better but you need to add more colors to icons. They all look same...

    Also don't be afraid to add more colors (don't be stupid with sticking blindly to Metro design please make product usable)

  • I think the RTM looks a lot better than Beta.  Thanks for bringing SOME color back to the icons.  It's critical for usability and understandability.

    I echo the others about the ALL-CAPS menus across the top.  Stop that. :-)

    Tool bar windows too... the ALL-CAPS plus strings of colons (:::::::::::::::) just look awful.  It looks fixed in some places (the "Solution Explorer" before/after screen-cap above), but not in others.  Hopefully it'll be fixed in all.  I vastly prefer the normal-case-with-accent-color-background over the all-caps-in-a-field-of-colons display.

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