Protocol | Workplace

Dracula: The dark mode color scheme with a cult following of coders

Light is the real productivity suck.

Screenshot of Dracula theme code editor

Dracula, founded by Zeno Rocha in 2013, aims to boost productivity by creating a unified color theme experience.

Halloween may be over, but a tight-knit community of coders is chatting in a Discord server with the name of a famous vampire: Dracula. Except they're not talking about Dracula, the vampire. They're talking about Dracula, the color scheme that has slowly taken the coding world by storm.

Dracula, a dark-mode color theme aimed initially at programmers, comes from the brain of Zeno Rocha. The VP of Developer Experience at WorkOS promotes and works on Dracula in his spare time, and has built a loyal following since Dracula's inception in 2013. Dracula's story began when Rocha landed in the hospital with pancreatitis after speaking at a conference in Germany. After his laptop was stolen from his room, Rocha's coworkers graciously brought him a new one, and the programmer began the annoying process of installing all his applications and choosing their color themes.

"I installed my code editor, I installed my terminal. I started installing everything. But I wanted a unified experience across all the apps that I use," Rocha said. "I was like, I'm gonna create a theme for me."

Rocha started with the basics: terminal, code editor and browser. He incorporated the same colors for all three, thinking about his personal preferences as a programmer. He liked dark mode, for sure, and preferred certain accent colors. Purple for numbers, orange for arguments and so on. He posted the open source code on Twitter, and let the internet do its thing. Over the years, the project took off, with coders sharing news of Dracula through word of mouth and contributing to its growth on GitHub.

Now the scheme is available on 218 apps. Its theme for Visual Studio Code has been downloaded by 2.9 million users. Though programmers and designers are the main audience, Dracula's on other kinds of apps too. You can use Dracula on chatting apps like Slack or Discord, or on a music editing app like Renoise.

Rocha noticed Dracula accumulating fans throughout the years, but he says its power didn't fully hit him until someone approached him in late 2019 about building a keyboard with Dracula colors. "I didn't charge anything; for me this was an open-source project. And then, it sold like crazy," Rocha said. The keyboard plus the popularity of dark mode on iOS led to the classic "hm, I guess I can make money with this" entrepreneurial moment.

Dracula PRO launched in February 2020, and is a one-off $79 purchase catered to developers. This time, Rocha dove deep into color theory research to ensure maximum aesthetic and productivity. He turned to the man, myth and legend Isaac Newton, an important figure in color theory. We have different ways of representing colors digitally, including RGB (Red, Green, Blue) and hexadecimal color codes. Rocha went with the HSL (hue, saturation and light) approach, building more color themes with names like "Buffy" and "Blade."

"It's just something I never imagined, you know? Why would people buy colors for their tools?" Rocha said. "I never thought someone could monetize colors, I'd never seen it before. But I realized it's much more thoughtful, it's about being more productive."

As for the spooky name and marketing — Rocha's a scary movie fan. The Dracula name also supplies him with a witty comeback whenever someone asks him to build a light mode version. "Dracula can't stand the light," he says. Imposing his own boundaries and limitations on Dracula is essential to Rocha; it's how he keeps the project special. And it's part of what draws people to Dracula in the first place, other than the color scheme looking cool and being easy on the eyes.

"I'm a big fan of Zeno; I like his aesthetic," said John William Davis, a software developer based in Seattle. "It's like any painter or filmmaker; sometimes you just connect with their aesthetic."

Raul Peña, an engineer based in Texas, said the Dracula community is very supportive. People are remarkably responsive in the Discord server, he said. Dracula's used across 121 countries, spanning quite a few time zones. Both Davis and Peña transitioned into coding careers relatively recently, so Dracula has been a godsend to them as they delve deeper into the programming world. "It makes productivity much nicer and easier when I'm seeing things the way I like them," Peña said.

With a following as devoted as Dracula's, there's bound to be conflict. Peña chuckled while recalling the heated debates about Dracula and light mode. "It can be messy because people want to create variations on top of it," Rocha said. "There's a lot of pressure. Imagine, you have your job and there's this huge community of developers and they're submitting things all the time."

Still, Dracula is a labor of love for Rocha. He's committed to keeping Dracula alive and building upon it for years to come. Along with developer Netto Farah, he's launched an early version of Dracula UI for building websites. It's still the beginning for Dracula, Rocha says. He won't stop until Dracula's taken over the whole internet.

Protocol | Workplace

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Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

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Michelle Ma

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Protocol | China

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Some Chinese online tutoring firms are pivoting away from education. Others continue offering classes, but a different kind.

Photo: Liu Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images

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Protocol | Workplace

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Add another tool to your arsenal for that 15-person, multi-time zone meeting you need to schedule.

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Image: Calendly

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Protocol | Workplace

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Michelle Ma

Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.

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