A True Dark Mode for Microsoft Word

Some users consider dark mode a fad. Because of my deteriorating eyesight, I don’t have such a luxury: I can’t read dark text on bright/light colored background, be it on screen or on paper.

Before dark mode was a thing, I was using a high contrast accessibility theme—which is great but also way too radical for my specific needs. Dark mode has given me the best of both worlds: a more or less ‘normal’ looking setup, only with bigger fonts, less eye candy and, well, darker colors.

So, how does Microsoft Word deal with dark mode? Very well, as long as you do not limit yourself to what the majority of guides will suggest you do, that is to use Office 365 dark mode. There is more to it, as you will see.

Illustration: the left of the screen shows Word using its dark mode plus the Immersive Reader: the text is white on a black backround, with an image that is unchanged. There is no page break or margins, the document almost feels like a basic text editor save that it shows an image too. The other half of the screen shows the wallpaper: a night view of a desert scene with many stars.
Microsoft Word in all its dark glory, once fully configured.

But let’s start with the obvious: activating Office’s dark mode.

Activate dark mode in Office 365

  1. Open Word, go to File->Options.
  2. In the sidebar, click the General tab.
  3. Locate the Personalize your copy of Microsoft Office and set Office Theme to Black. You guessed it, this will apply to all Office 365 applications, not just Word.

Illustration of the setting window.

Let’s have a look at a test document in Word.

Same as the first screenshot but this time Word is using the tradional page view: white background and black text. Making the contrast with the dark menus very hard on the eyes.

As expected, the user interface is dark but the document itself, our page, remains blindingly white. Not really what we were hoping for.

Word offers two ways to go beyond that. Which one to use depends on what you want to do: keep using the traditional page display mode, or not.

Change colors using the Page Color

In the Ribbon, go to the Design tab and then click the Page Color button.

Illustration of the button.

Tip: use Word’s search field to quickly access any command or button: type what you’re looking for:

Illustration on how the search display its results in a list of icons + menu and command names.

Once you have opened the Page Color settings, pick a theme in the Theme Colors. You’ve just picked a background color for your entire document, and Word will automatically change its text, using a contrasting color.

Illustration of Word using its dark mode, still in page view but this time the page background is dark grey and the text is white.

“But, I don’t want my page to print in dark and my text in white!”

It won’t. This theme applies only to the screen rendering of your document. Word is clever enough to remember that in general paper is white and text should be printed in black.

Help! My text stays black!

Word with a dark background page but its text stuck in black, making it almost unreadable.

If your document was not created directly in Word or if you have defined a custom Normal style, it’s possible your text won’t update after changing the background color. Don’t panic.

Right-click anywhere on the black text, a little pop-up should appear. Click the “Styles” button to list most used styles in your document. Then, right-click the Normal Style button and choose “Modify…”

Illustration of teh pop window and its contextual menu.

A window opens—yeah I know, it’s not using dark mode… maybe in a next update?

This is where you modify your Styles. If you’re not familiar with Styles: every Word document uses a bunch of styles to define the look of everything on the page and on the screen. There are a lot of predefined styles that you can tweak, and you can create your own too. There are styles for headings, for foot-notes, for your paragraphs, for individual characters, and so on. Each style has many options—too much to list here. The one that we’re interesting in is the text color.

Illustration of the non-dark themed window to customize a style.

Next to the U button, the color drop-down list should be set to “Automatic”, yours is probably set to black, click the list and change it. That’s all.

Immersive Reader: turning Word into a text editor on steroids

Like all the other word processors I can think of, Word relies on the “page” metaphor—what you see on screen looks very much like what you will get once it’s printed on a sheet of paper. That is certainly useful when writing reports or stuff that will end up printed on paper, but it has nothing to do with what I write, or how I write.

I write and I read on a screen. I don’t need to turn pages or to see page borders. I scroll my text like I would in a web browser or any basic text editor. No margins, no page breaks, no headings or footers, nothing but my raw text. Except that I like to have some basic formatting too—I like being able to select the font I’m using, and a first-line indent is a must have for me, and so on. You know, personal preferences.

Word can give you both: the styling you need and the simplicity of raw text.

How? By using its Immersive Reader. Unlike what the name suggests it is not only a great reading mode, but it’s also a great editing mode. If you’re a long time Word user, think of the old Draft mode. Only much better and more polished.

This is the mode I use Word most of the time.

Go to the View tab and click the Immersive Reader button. If you don’t run the most recent Office 365 subscriber version, it may still be named Learning Tools but they share the same icon: an open book with a little loudspeaker on the right page—a loudspeaker because among other features to help students with disabilities, this mode includes a read aloud function.

Illustration of the Ribbon, with the button selected.

Once activated, the page view is hidden:  no borders or margin. you’re left with your content. One exdeption: drawing/inking won’t show up in Immerse reader, but images will be displayed, and all your styles too—a text editor on steroids.

Sample document using dark mode and Immersive Reader: white text on a black background without aby of the tradional page layout stuff. It feels almost like a text editor.

Tip: The first time you activate the Immersive Reader/Learning Tools, your text will probably look oddly formatted. That’s because this mode was developed to help users with disabilities, and some tools are activated by default. But you can turn them off and Word will remember it the next time.

In the Immersive Reader tab, click the Text Spacing and the Syllables buttons to turn them off:

Illustrations of these two buttons.

  1. Use the Page Color to select the black background. Very recently they added many other colors, but that doesn’t work as well as expected. I reported the bug and do not use it for the moment.
  2. Use the Column Width to set the width of your text on screen. It won’t change the way it is printed.
  3. You can zoom freely, from 10 to 500%. Zooming only changes the font on screen, not its actual size on page or printed.
  4. Another cool feature—even if I don’t use it—is the Line Focus that helps focus even more on the section of text you’re working on by diming all your document save 1, 3 or 5 lines around the active line:

Illustration of Line Focus: on line of text is in white, the rest of tjhe content, text and image, is dimmed down to a darkish grey.

Conclusion

The Immersive Reader is the mode I use all the time, no matter what I’m writing: a book, a blog post, a short story, research notes, and so on. It turns Word into a comfortable app that suits so well my—admittedly very specific—needs while letting me access most of Word more advanced features I also need (styles, macros, and so on).

Is Word the perfect solution? No, of course not. It’s still a huge beast that takes time and efforts to tame. Some windows and controls haven’t yet been updated to use dark mode, and a few insist on using fixed font size and therefor can’t be resized. And you’ll need to subscribe to Office 365 to access all the latest features. And so on.

But if you haven’t used Word in recent years it’s impressive to see how it has changed, and it’s so encouraging to see Microsoft constantly improving it accessibilty-wise and, I’m kidding you not, in user-friendliness.

For example, one thing I did not mention at all that I use as much as the Immersive Reader is the ability to entirely customize the Ribbon—what tabs to show, and what buttons, and in what order—and the ability to quickly show or hide it, turning it into the most useful type of menu ever created, imo. Maybe that could be something for another post? 😉

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