Themes and Visual Styles

There are two ways to change the way elements appear on the Windows desktop—themes and visual styles. This topic describes the differences.


Themes were introduced in Microsoft Plus! for Windows 95. Themes consist of a collection of settings that include wallpaper, cursors, fonts, sounds, and icons. The following are some characteristics of themes.

  • Theme settings are specified in .theme files.
  • The format of .theme files is similar to win.ini files.
  • An independent software vendor (ISV) can create and distribute a .theme file with a product.
  • In versions earlier than Windows Vista, Theme files are displayed on the Theme tab of the Display application in Control Panel. In Windows Vista, users click Theme in the Personalization application in Control Panel.
  • An end user can select a theme by choosing one of the installed .theme files.

For more information about .theme files, see Theme File Format.

Visual Styles

Visual styles were introduced with Windows XP. Visual styles are specifications for the appearance of controls. For example, a visual style can define the overall appearance of controls, and enable software developers to configure the visual interface to coordinate with an application's appearance. Additionally, visual styles provide a mechanism for all Windows-based applications to apply visual styles. The following are some characteristics of visual styles.

  • Visual styles change the appearance of controls in windows.
  • You cannot author a specification file that changes the appearance of controls.
  • To use a particular appearance in your application you must use the UxTheme API.
  • End users can override visual styles by making selections on the Appearance tab of the display option in Control Panel.

Note  The Windows XP visual style architecture is completely unrelated to themes as described in the first section on this page, even though the word "Theme" appears in the Visual Styles API name (UxTheme API).

Related Topics

Theme File Format


Visual Styles



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Build date: 1/26/2011