Changing Visual Studio’s Color Palette

Changing Visual Studio’s Color Palette

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[Update 2/9/2010] The RC version of the extension is now available (using the same link).  Users who installed this extension for Beta 2 and customized the theme for VS2010 Beta 2 : If you have installed VS2010 RC on the same computer, you may experience a "rainbow colored" VS.  To remedy this problem, please do one of the following:

1. Follow the “Uninstall” instructions at the end of this post and make sure you uninstall the extension and do the cleanup as detailed.  You will see Visual Studio starting up with random colors if you have kept the customization from Beta 2 OR customize again in Visual Studio 2010 RC using the Beta 2 version of this extension.

2. Install the RC/RTM version of the extension (now available at the link provided below).  After installing the RC/RTM version of the extension and starting Visual Studio, you themes should be automatically upgraded, and the random colors should go away.

Many users have requested different color themes for Visual Studio, or for the ability to change color themes to suit their preferences.  I have just released an extension for Visual Studio 2010 Beta 2 that allows users to customize colors used by our shell color service.

Preview of theme change

What colors are in the shell color service?

Colors used by the command and window management system can be customized using this extension.  These are colors that can be read programmatically by anyone via the IVsUIShell.GetVSSysColorEx method.  There are a number of specific tool windows (like the Toolbox and the Start Page) that use colors from this color service, so their colors can also be customized.  However, other tool windows (such as the Solution Explorer) use native Win32 controls, which are rendered based on the current Win32 theme and are not inherently color-aware inside of Visual Studio.  The text editor and tool windows based on it (such as the Output window) already use a different user-customizable color service (in Tools\Options\Environment\Fonts and Colors), and are not affected by this extension.

You’ll notice that the color service exposes hundreds of colors, accumulated over many releases of Visual Studio.  It can be difficult to determine where colors are used in Visual Studio (I’m working on making it easier to determine where colors are used for a future version of the extension), and it may seem daunting to consider editing the values of hundreds of colors.  However, there are a few ways to quickly create a new theme without spending hours—some helpful tips are included below.

You can learn more about the color service and other UI guidelines in the Visual Studio UX Guidelines document.

Walkthrough: Creating a new “Expression” gray theme

A frequent request for Visual Studio is an Expression-style theme, so let’s use that as a scenario for the walkthrough.

1.  Install the extension.  You can use the Extension Manager dialog inside Visual Studio (Tools\Extension Manager) and search for “visual studio color theme editor”, or you can download the VSIX file from here.

Extension Manager

2.  Create a new theme.  After you install the extension and launch Visual Studio, you should see a new top-level menu called Theme.  The two themes that ship with Visual Studio 2010 are available by default.  The Default theme is the Visual Studio 2010 blue theme, and the High Contrast theme is the theme used when a Windows high-contrast theme is selected.  The High Contrast theme is built entirely of Windows system theme colors, and as such has a limited palette.  There are also three custom themes created as examples—feel free to use them as starting points for your own themes.

Theme menu 

Choosing “Customize Colors…” brings up the dialog that will let you create a new theme.  The built-in themes are not editable, but you can create a new theme using the hyperlink in the information bar or the toolbar button on the far left.

New Theme screenshot

3.  Change colors to gray.  The ModifyHSL Modify Hue/Saturation/Lightness option lets you saturate/desaturate or lighten/darken each color, or rotate the hues of each color.  Hue, saturation, and lightness refer to aspects of the HSL color model; if you’re interested in more information about the HSL model and how it relates to RGB, Wikipedia has a great article.  Using this dialog, we can desaturate all of the colors to gray by moving the S slider to –100.

Modify Hue/Saturation/Lightness dialog


4.  Apply the theme.  After applying the Modify Hue/Saturation/Lightness dialog, choose OK on the Customize Colors dialog.  The new Gray theme will be applied and should now show up as checked in the Theme menu!


Editing individual colors

Bulk-editing operation will only get you so far, and you will soon want to change the value of a few individual colors.  You can easily do this using the color picker popup.  This popup lets you change the HSL or RGB values of the color directly, or modify the raw hexadecimal RGB value.  You can also specify that the color should come from one of the Windows system colors.  Pressing Enter or clicking Apply will save the value; pressing Escape or clicking away will cancel editing.

Editing a single color

Other useful features

  • Importing and exporting.  By default, your current set of custom themes is saved in the registry, and restored each time you start Visual Studio.  However, you can export colors into a VSTHEME file for backup purposes, or to share across multiple machines or with friends.  Be careful: importing a theme that you already have will overwrite the in-memory copy; look for improvements in this area in future versions.
  • Copy and paste.  By selecting one or more colors in the Customize Colors dialog, you can copy the color’s values.  In the clipboard, these values are stored as as hex RGB values in a comma-delimited string.  You can then paste the values into multiple other color “cells”.  I call them “cells” because copying and pasting behaves the same way that Excel behaves when copying and pasting cell values.  You can even copy a single color, select multiple cells, and paste that single value into all selected cells with one operation.
  • Undo and redo.  Any of the operations you take while the Customize Colors dialog is open can be undone and redone while the dialog is open.
  • Search filtering.  The Search box above the color list can currently be used to filter the color list by name, which can help you quickly identify all colors containing some keyword (for example, finding all of the “StartPage”-related colors).
  • Colorization. The Colorize Colorize option lets you apply a single hue to all of the selected colors.  Note that colorizing hues is not the same as the “rotate” feature of Modify Hue/Saturation/Lightness.  When rotating, colors with different hues will still have different hues after rotating their values, whereas colorizing changes every color’s hue to the same value.

    Colorize dialog


Hopefully everyone will happily use this extension forever, but some may decide to uninstall the extension.  If you had any non-Default theme applied before uninstalling, you will find that the colors are still used after restarting Visual Studio (even though the extension is no longer installed).

The reason this happens is that the extension writes registry data to a value that Visual Studio always reads upon startup—even if the extension is not installed.  This is a user-specific value (written to the HKCU Visual Studio registry hive), so every user can have their own theme.  However, extensions in general are machine-wide.  When uninstalling the extension, there isn’t a way to remove the custom theme data from each user’s registry hive, and so each user will have the last-applied theme still applied even after the extension is uninstalled.  To avoid this problem, apply the Default theme before uninstalling the extension—applying the Default theme deletes this registry value instead of writing a custom color theme to it, so it will leave Visual Studio in a theme-free state (at least for your user account).

If you need to clean up these registry keys after uninstalling, you can run the following from a command prompt (replace 10.0 with 10.0Exp if you were using the experimental hive):

reg delete HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\VisualStudio\10.0\UseDebugColorScheme /f
reg delete HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\VisualStudio\10.0\ThemeColorCache /f

Matt Matthew Johnson – Developer, Visual Studio Platform
Short Bio:  Matthew has been at Microsoft for three years and on the Visual Studio Platform for two years.  He works on WPF-related features of the Visual Studio window layout system.
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  • Please add 1 and 2 and type the answer here:
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  • Ememor, are you hoping to redistribute the extension with the isolated shell, or are you wanting an isolated shell instance to have a fixed custom color theme?  Both are technically possible, but I need to check with my team about the legal ramifications of allowing the former (just to be safe).  If you're just wanting an Isolated Shell app to have a fixed color theme, one easy way to do this would be to use the extension in Visual Studio to apply a theme, then copy the HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\VisualStudio\10.0\UseDebugColorScheme registry key from Visual Studio's registry root to the Isolated Shell instance's registry root.  Keep in mind that this color table is tied to a version of the shell, so new themes would need to be associated with future versions.

  • Many Thanks !!

    I have replaced the ugly default theme.

  • I just wanted an isolated shell to have a fixed custom theme and my problem is already solved, but thank you for the confirmation regarding the registry key. Since the keys, when deleted, removed the theme, I thought importing them in another shell would transfer the theme and it worked, but I was still wondering if it was really meant to work that way. Thanks!

  • my dream thanks you!!!

  • Nice work Matthew!

    Thanks very much for a valuable plug-in.


  • Is there any chance to change the color of scrollbars?

  • @Alexander: Depends on the scrollbar type.

    If you're talking about WPF-implemented shell-owned scrollbars, then yes, you can use Matt's extension and search for "Scrollbar". There are 12 scrollbar-related colors you can tweak. The settings will apply to all scrollbars that use ScrollBarBackgroundKey or __VSSYSCOLOREX3.VSCOLOR_SCROLLBAR_BACKGROUND colors (e.g. the scrollbars in StartPage).

    Note that there are toolwindows in Visual Studio that are implemented using Win32 or WinForms controls - they use Win32 or WinForms scrollbars. To change their colors you'll have to adjust the classic Windows Colors in Display Properties for "3D Objects" (e.g. the scrollbars in Solution Explorer).

    And there are also windows use WPF scrollbars that don't use shell colors (e.g. the scrollbars in the code editor window). Assuming these windows owners don't go out of their way to set private colors and will use whatever WPF gives them by default, WPF will use a style matching your Windows theme (e.g. Aero, Luna, Royale, Classic), so again you should be able to change their colors by changing Windows themes.

    Alin Constantin

    VS Shell development

  • I see. I didn't even know about the scrollbars in StartPage :) Those ones look nice. Wish all the rest were the same style and could be customized with this extension. In case of some dark color scheme for your code editor window the standard silver scrollbars look kind of odd. Sad they depend on your Windows theme.

  • Thank you!  The default blue was driving me nuts.  Love it!  Best version Visual Studio ever - and now it looks nice, too!!!

  • Nice start -- please continue with the work here!

    Personally, I'm a little dismayed at the move to using WPF for VS2010. I'm quite fine with the native widgets on my system, thanks. The biggest problem is that the IDE now completely disobeys my system theme colors. With that gripe in mind, please can you implement a feature to mimic the current system colors? I, and many other picky programmers like me would appreciate it!

    Also, there are still a few colors which are not being applied properly (though it's probably not the fault of the extension, but at least you would know where to start looking):

    1) menu text: I've set it to a silver color but it's still black -- not great on my dark theme ):

    2) highlights: set to a maroon color, but the theme editor still uses BRIGHT YELLOW for the search highlight -- not great when it is honoring the silver text that I've selected.

    3) I don't know if you can do anything about it, but I haven't been able to change this from the color settings within VS2010: the intellisense drop-down selects my dark background and light text for the list, but then uses a peach-like color to highlight the selected item in the list (meaning I can't read it: silver on a peach-like color).

    Thanks for the time you've already put into this!

  • Tooltip colors also aren't honored: the text is coming up light with a white background. Again, unreadable ):

  • Daf, are you using the RTM version of Visual Studio? Just making sure, as I know that there was a problem with menu text in the RC.

    1. You should be able to change the menu text on RTM using the CommandBarTextActive, CommandBarTextHover, CommandBarTextInactive, and CommandBarTextSelected.  There's a MenuText color, but (non-intuitively) it is not used for menu text in Visual Studio.

    2. Good catch with the yellow highlight... it's unfortunate that I used a hardcoded color in a tool meant for skinning colors.  I'll try to get that fixed in an update.

    3. Can you share a screenshot of this, by chance?  Languages can provide their own Intellisense UI, so it would help to make sure we're talking about the same thing.

    For tooltip colors, it also depends on which tooltip you're seeing.  For example, the editor has their own tooltip implementation, while the Solution Explorer would be using standard tooltips.

  • Will this work on VS 2005?

  • Sorry, but the extension doesn't work for VS 2008 or earlier (it uses some features which are new to VS 2010).

  • Matthew,

    Thanks for replying (: At least my menus look "normal" now (:

    A screenshot of the intellisense color oddness should be visible at:

    Note also the white rectangle next to the intellisense pop-up: that's the tooltip I was talking about. It's the tooltip within the VS editor. What sucks is that I've trawled through the colors and settings part of the options dialog and haven't found a single place where I have a background color set to white as it's being displayed in the image. This is not the same tooltip that is displayed with debug info when debugging -- I think that's called "DataTip"?

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