Dark Mode on iOS 13

Today is Labor Day in the United States (and Labour Day in Canada), a day to celebrate the achievement of the workers who organized to bring about fair and safe conditions for employees — protections that serve as the foundation for the modern workplace.

Labor Day is also the unofficial end of summer; the long weekend acting as a buffer between the lemonades, sunburns, and trashy romance novels of August and the pumpkin spice lattes, flu shots, and textbooks of September.

However, for the stereotypical tech worker, who likes the heat of summer about as much as the concept of “work/life balance”, Labor Day frequently serves as something else entirely: a wake-up call. That, after a lazy summer of ideation and experimentation, it’s once again time to launch new products and ship new features. And if you’re an app developer specifically, you may know today as, “Oh-🤬-it’s-September-and-I-still-haven’t-implemented-Dark-Mode-in-my-app” day.

We’re dedicating this week’s article to anyone out there who’s celebrating this esteemed holiday, whether contemporaneously or in the intervening days until iOS 13 goes GM. We hope that a few quick tips can help shed light against the shade of your looming deadline.

Dark Mode is an appearance preference that tells the system and participating apps to adopt darker color palettes. Whereas an app may display dark text on a light background by default, it may instead show white text on a dark background.

Last year, Dark Mode was the killer feature of macOS 10.14 Mojave, and its contemporaneous launch with Safari 12 rippled throughout the World-Wide Web, gaining steady adoption among websites (like yours truly) and other browsers.

After waiting for what felt like an eternity (but was only, like, a year), Dark Mode is now finally coming to the iPhone and iPad iOS 13. No longer will we have to tinker with Display Accommodations to limit our light pollution when browsing Reddit late at night.

Adopting Dark Mode on iOS

Apple’s done a great job designing a flexible, convenient API and providing excellent documentation to go with it.

Of course, the challenge with Apple technologies is that short of telling you that “you’re holding it wrong”, they’ll rarely acknowledge the existence of prior art or alternatives, let alone provide a transition document that in any way resembles how everyone was doing things before we got an officially-sanctioned API. (Then again, can you really blame them?)

If you were following 100% of Apple’s guidance to the letter, you’d barely have to change a line or code to get your app ready for next week’s special event. But most apps are built on solutions we built for ourselves to bridge the gaps in the SDK, and it may not be clear how to get on the new happy path from there.

Apple’s guidance for adopting Dark Mode is fantastic for new projects but doesn’t quite hit all of the points you should be aware of when preparing your existing app for iOS 13. So without further ado, here’s 6 action items for how to get your app ready for Dark Mode.

#Cancel Color Literals

In Xcode, a color literal is code with the prefix #colorLiteral that is rendered as a color swatch in the editor. For example, the code #colorLiteral(red: 1, green: 0.67, blue: 0, alpha: 1) is rendered in Xcode as . Color literals can be drag-and-dropped from the Media Browser in Xcode 10, which has been consolidated with Snippets into the new Library panel in Xcode 11.

Both color literals and their cousin, image literals, were introduced in support of Xcode Playgrounds. But don’t let their appearance fool you: neither have a place in your app’s codebase.

Dark Mode or not, you can replace all usage of color literals throughout your codebase from the command line:

$ find . -name '*.swift'  \
    -exec sed -i '' -E 's/#colorLiteral\(red: (.*), green: (.*), blue: (.*), alpha: (.*)\)/UIColor(red: \1, green: \2, blue: \3, alpha: \4)/' {} \;

But before you do, you might as well do one better and replace it with something that will stand the test of time.

Nix UIColor Hexadecimal Initializers

Among the most common extensions you’ll find in a Swiss Army Knife-style CocoaPod is a category on UIColor that initializes from a hexadecimal string. Something along the lines of this:

import SwiftySwiftColorSwift
let orange = UIColor(hex: "#FB8C00") // 👎

Setting aside any qualms about how they’re typically employed and implemented, you’d be well-advised to have these go the way of color literals for the same reasons we described in the previous section.

But worry not! You’ll still have a way to define colors using those hex codes that your designer sent over, as we’ll see in our discussion of named colors.

Find & Replace Fixed Colors

UIColor defines several class properties that return colors by their common name. These properties are problematic in iOS 13, because they don’t automatically adjust for light or dark appearance. For example, setting a label’s color to .black looks fine against the default UITableViewCell background, but it’s illegible when that background becomes black when Dark Mode is enabled.

To make your app ready for Dark Mode on iOS 13, you’ll most likely want to replace any instance of the following UIColor class properties:

  • red
  • orange
  • yellow
  • brown
  • green
  • cyan
  • blue
  • purple
  • magenta

  • white
  • lightGray
  • gray
  • darkGray
  • black

Hopefully you aren’t using the built-in ROYGBIV UIColor constants for much other than occasional layout debugging, but chances you’ll probably find a few instances of .black or .white peppered throughout your codebase somewhere.

In any case, the easiest change to support Dark Mode would be to replace any of the aforementioned fixed color properties with the corresponding system-prefixed adaptable color below:

Name API Light Dark
Default Accessible Default Accessible
Red systemRed
Orange systemOrange
Yellow systemYellow
Green systemGreen
Teal systemTeal
Blue systemBlue
Indigo systemIndigo
Purple systemPurple
Pink systemPink
Gray systemGray
Gray (2) systemGray2
Gray (3) systemGray3
Gray (4) systemGray4
Gray (5) systemGray5
Gray (6) systemGray6

You may notice that this table doesn’t provide direct correspondences for black or white (or brown, but disregard that for now).

Black and white don’t have adaptive colors because their names would cease to be descriptive in Dark Mode; if .systemBlack existed, it’d pretty much have to be .white to be visible in a dark color pallet.

Which gets to a deeper point about color management in an era of Dark Mode…

Use Semantic Colors

The best way to ensure consistent rendering of your UI on any device in any appearance mode is to use semantic colors, named according to their function rather than appearance.

Similar to how Dynamic Type uses semantic tags like “Headline” and “Body” to automatically set the most suitable font for the user’s display preferences, semantic colors — or what Apple’s calling UI Element Colors — provide future-proof behavior for your views and controls.

When styling your component, set the color to the closest UIColor class property below:

Label Colors
Text Colors
Link Colors
Separator Colors
Fill Colors
Background Colors
Grouped Background Colors

Upgrade Homegrown Semantic Color Palettes

If you’ve given any thought to color management in your app you’ll have likely landed on some form of the following strategy, whereby you define semantic colors according to fixed colors within a namespace or in an extension to UIColor.

For example, the following example shows how an app might define UIColor constants from the Material UI color system and reference them from semantic UIColor class properties:

import UIKit

extension UIColor {
    static var customAccent: UIColor { return MaterialUI.red500 }

fileprivate enum MaterialUI {
    static let orange600 = UIColor(red:   0xFB / 0xFF,
                                   green: 0x8C / 0xFF,
                                   blue:  0x00 / 0xFF,
                                   alpha: 1) // #FB8C00

If your app uses a pattern like this, you can make it Dark Mode compatible using the new init(dynamicProvider:) UIColor initializer in iOS 13 like so:

import UIKit

extension UIColor
    static var customAccent: UIColor {
        if #available(iOS 13, *) {
            return UIColor { (traitCollection: UITraitCollection) -> UIColor in
                if traitCollection.userInterfaceStyle == .dark {
                    return MaterialUI.orange300
                } else {
                    return MaterialUI.orange600
        } else {
            return MaterialUI.orange600

Nothing about the fixed Material UI color constants has to change with this approach. Instead, the semantic color property customAccent provides a dynamic color that uses the color most appropriate for the current rendering context. When Dark Mode is enabled, a lighter orange is used to contrast against the darker color palette; otherwise, the behavior is unchanged from the original implementation.

The extra #available check creates some bloat in the implementation, but it’s a small price to pay for the flexibility this approach provides.

Unfortunately, there’s one crucial shortcoming to using color properties in this way: they can’t be referenced from Interface Builder.

If your app uses either Storyboards or XIBs, the best approach is to use color assets.

Manage Colors with an Asset Catalog

Color assets let you manage colors in an Xcode Asset Catalog in the same way that you do for images, data, or other resources.

Asset Catalog Color Asset

To create a color set, open an Asset Catalog in your Xcode project, click the + button on the bottom left-hand corner, and select “New Color Set”. In the Attributes inspector, select “Any, Dark” appearance. Colors are frequently expressed in the form (“#RRGGBB”); you can enter colors in this form by selecting “8-bit Hexadecimal” from the “Input Method” drop-down.

Asset Catalog Color Asset Attributes Inspector

Here, we’ve done the same as before, except instead of defining fixed UIColor constants like orange300 in code, we set those in the color set itself. Now when it comes time to reference the color asset by the existing semantic class property, we can use the UIColor named initializer:

extension UIColor {
    @available(iOS 11, *)
    var customAccent: UIColor! {
        return UIColor(named: "Accent")

Your opinion about color assets will largely be informed by your preference or dispreference towards specialized Xcode document editors. Some folks like to have everything spelled out in code, while others appreciate the affordances provided by a bespoke UI like the one provided by Xcode for color sets.

In fact, your opinion of color assets is probably concomitant with your feelings about Storyboards — which is convenient, because the killer feature of color assets is that they can be referenced from within Interface Builder. (If you’re not on team IB, then you can safely skip this whole discussion.)

Replace Instances of “Custom Color” in XIBs and Storyboards

The “Custom Color” option in Interface Builder that brings up the macOS system-native color picker suffers the same problem as the color literals and fixed colors we talked about earlier. If you want your XIB-powered views to look good on iOS 13, you’ll need to migrate to named colors.

This can be done easily: select any component in your scene, and you can set its color attribute using the same, named color defined in your Asset Catalog.

Interface Builder Named Color

For a small project, this can be done by hand for all your screens in under an hour. However, for a larger app, this is a process you’ll want to automate.

XIB Anatomy

Under the hood, XIB and Storyboard files are merely XML files like any other:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<document type="com.apple.InterfaceBuilder3.CocoaTouch.Storyboard.XIB" >
    <device id="retina6_1" orientation="portrait">
        <adaptation id="fullscreen"/>
        <deployment identifier="iOS"/>
        <plugIn identifier="com.apple.InterfaceBuilder.IBCocoaTouchPlugin" version="14490.49"/>
        <capability name="Safe area layout guides" minToolsVersion="9.0"/>
        <capability name="documents saved in the Xcode 8 format" minToolsVersion="8.0"/>
        <!--View Controller-->
        <scene sceneID="nsh-ips-ter">
                <viewController id="dar-kmo-de1" customClass="ViewController" customModule="NSHipster" customModuleProvider="target" sceneMemberID="viewController">
                    <view key="view" contentMode="scaleToFill" id="mai-nv-iew">
                        <rect key="frame" x="0.0" y="0.0" width="414" height="896"/>
                        <color key="backgroundColor" red="1" green="0.69019607843137254" blue="0.0" alpha="1" colorSpace="custom" customColorSpace="sRGB"/>
                <placeholder placeholderIdentifier="IBFirstResponder" id="dkx-z0-nzr" sceneMemberID="firstResponder"/>

We wouldn’t want to write this from scratch by hand, but there’s nothing too mysterious going on here.

So consider what happens when you use Xcode to switch the custom background color of the main view to a named color:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<document type="com.apple.InterfaceBuilder3.CocoaTouch.Storyboard.XIB" >
    <device />
        <capability name="Named colors" minToolsVersion="9.0"/> <!-- ❶ -->
        <!-- scenes.scene.objects.viewController.view -->
        <view key="view" contentMode="scaleToFill" id="mai-nv-iew">
            <color key="backgroundColor" name="Accent"/> <!-- ❷ -->
        <namedColor name="Accent"> <!-- ❸ -->
            <color red="1" green="0.69019607843137254" blue="0.0" alpha="1" colorSpace="custom" customColorSpace="sRGB"/>
A new "Named colors" capability is added as a dependency for opening the document (Xcode uses this to determine whether it can edit files created by newer versions).
The red, green, blue, and alpha components on the color element were replaced by a single name attribute.
A corresponding namedColor element was added to the top-level resources element.

Based on this understanding, we should know enough to make this change en masse with our own tooling!

Finding All Custom Colors

The first order of business when migrating your Storyboards and XIBs for Dark Mode is to find all of the instances of custom colors. You could go through each by hand and click each of the visual elements… or you could run the following command:

$ find . \( -name '*.xib' -or -name '*.storyboard' \) \
    -exec echo {} \;        \
    -exec xmlstarlet sel -t \
            -m "//color[@colorSpace='custom']" -c . -n  {} \;

<color red="1" green="0.69019607843137254" blue="0.0" alpha="1" colorSpace="custom" customColorSpace="sRGB"/>

This command prints the name of each file followed by each custom, unnamed color element it found (denoted by the colorSpace="custom" attribute).

The resulting list serves as a battle plan for the next phase of attack:

Finding Each Distinct Custom Color

Apps tend to reuse a small set of colors across their views — as they should! By running the following command, you can generate a sorted, unique’d list of every custom color in every XIB or Storyboard:

$ find . \( -name '*.xib' -or -name '*.storyboard' \) \
    -exec xmlstarlet sel -t \
            -m "//color[@colorSpace='custom']"  \
            -v "concat( @red,'  ',@green,'  ',@blue,'  ',@alpha)" -n  {} \; \
    | sort -u

1  0.69019607839999997  0.0  1

Some entries may be equivalent, within a small delta of each other (because, you know… floating-point numbers). To account for account for this, and to transform our output into something easier to work with, you can write the output to a file and process it with a Ruby script like this one:

colors = File.readlines('distinct_colors.txt').map do |line|
    components = line.strip.split(/\s+/).flat_map(&:to_f)
    red, green, blue = components[0..2].map{ |c| (c * 255).floor }
    alpha = (components.last * 100).floor
    [red, green, blue, alpha]

colors.uniq.each do |color|
    puts "#%02X%02X%02X (%d%%)" % color

From here, the final step is to map each set of RGBA values to the corresponding named color that you want to replace it with.

Replacing Custom Colors

At this point, we’re well beyond the point where shell one-liners seem like a good idea. So here’s a Ruby script we wrote up that makes all of the changes we understand to take place when replacing a custom color with a named color in Interface Builder:

require 'nokogiri'

def name_for_rgba_components(red, green, blue, alpha)
    case format('#%02X%02X%02X%02X', red, green, blue, alpha)
    # Return named color matching RGBA components
    # e.g. "#F8CB00FF" => "Accent"

def name_for_white_and_alpha_components(white, alpha)
    # Return named color matching white and alpha components
    # e.g. 0.9 => "Off-White"

# Process each Storyboard and XIB file
Dir['**/*.{storyboard,xib}'].each do |xib|
  doc = Nokogiri::XML(File.read(xib))

  names = []
  # Collect each custom color and assign it a name
  doc.xpath('//objects//color').each do |color|
    next if color['name']

    name = nil

    color_space = color['colorSpace']
    color_space = color['customColorSpace'] if color_space == 'custom'

    case color_space
    when 'sRGB', 'calibratedRGB'
      components = color.attributes
                        .values_at('red', 'green', 'blue', 'alpha')
                        .map { |c| c * 255 }
      name = name_for_rgba_components(*components)
    when 'genericGamma22GrayColorSpace', 'calibratedWhite'
      components = color.attributes
                        .values_at('white', 'alpha')
      name = name_for_white_and_alpha_components(*components)

    next unless name

    named_color = doc.create_element('color',
                                     key: color['key'],
                                     name: name)
    names << name

  # Proceed to the next file if no named colors were found
  next if names.empty?

  # Add the named color capability as a document dependency
  dependencies = doc.at('/document/dependencies') ||
  unless dependencies.at("capability[@name='Named colors']")
    dependencies << doc.create_element('capability',
                                       name: 'Named colors',
                                       minToolsVersion: '9.0')

  # Add each named color to the document resources
  resources = doc.at('/document/resources') ||
  names.uniq.sort.each do |name|
    next if resources.at("namedColor[@name='#{name}']")
    resources << doc.create_element('namedColor', name: name)

  # Save the changes
  File.write(xib, doc.to_xml(indent: 4, encoding: 'UTF-8'))


If you’ve been facing down a deadline for Dark Mode at the expense of enjoying one last hurrah of summer, we hope that this article was able to get you out of the office today.

Its ironic that so many of us are eschewing our holiday weekend in a scramble to get our apps ready for the annual NMOS GM. But if it’s any consolation, know that Apple engineers rarely get to observe Memorial Day — the unofficial start of summer in America — in the run-up to WWDC.


Questions? Corrections? Issues and pull requests are always welcome.

This article uses Swift version 5.1. Find status information for all articles on the status page.

Written by Mattt

Mattt (@mattt) is a writer and developer in Portland, Oregon.

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