How To Use Custom Windows Visual Styles


Customising the appearance of your Windows installation can be frustrating, because both Windows XP and Vista are limited to the Microsoft's default themes out of the box. However, with a bit of tweaking under the hood, your Windows setup can try on a wider range of looks than come pre-installed. Let's take a look at how to patch your Windows installation to allow customised styles, and a few places to find new and interesting styles online.

Vocabulary and Methods

When talking about the physical appearance of Windows there are two terms that are distinct but often used incorrectly in place of each other. Visual styles, which have the .msstyles file extension, are the files which supp;y all the information about how the interfaces within Windows should look. The toolbar skin, start button skin, borders, buttons, etc. are all stored in the visual style. Themes contain a visual style along with additional settings such as icons, wallpaper, etc. Later, when browsing for goodies, keep in mind that a theme pack will have further customisation than a visual style pack.

Throughout the tutorial you'll need to be able to access the menu within Windows where you can change your themes and visual styles. The following screenshots are from Windows XP but the essential menus are nearly identical in function in Vista, too. For reference, here is how to access both:

XP: Right-click Desktop -> Properties -> Themes Tab (or Appearance Tab for Styles)

Vista: Right-click Desktop - > Personalise -> Themes

First, back up your current theme for safe keeping


Although you'll most likely find a new style that you really enjoy, on the off chance that you don't, make a backup of your current theme for you to restore later if necessary. Backing up only takes a moment and will allow you put things back exactly as they were before you started customising, right down to the wallpaper. From within the Themes tab click Save As and name your theme whatever you'd like. Save it in a safe place.

Second, patch your Windows install

Patching your system for themes allows you to use non-Microsoft approved visual styles. At the very root you're simply replacing the Uxtheme.dll with a modified version that doesn't verify if the style has been signed by Microsoft. It used to be that patching your Windows installation was a hassle, a small one, but a hassle nonetheless. Now both Windows XP and Vista have patching programs available that make it no more hassle than clicking a button and rebooting. There are various programs that can do what the free patches do with some additional functionality thrown in, but they are hardly worth the $20 and up fees they command.

For Windows XP, download the Uxtheme Multi-Patcher. Run the file, click through the prompts and reboot.

For Windows Vista, download VistaGlazz. Run the file, click through the prompts and reboot.

Both patching programs will allow you to reverse the process should anything go wrong by simply running the program again. (However, I've been patching Windows installs for years without a hitch.)

Finally, download and install custom, third party styles

The best way to verify if your patch job has been successful is to browse some of the great repositories of visual styles and select a few to try out. Below are some samples of the most popular styles at DeviantArt.com. Before you begin downloading through, a quick overview of where the files go is in order.

If a style pack is zipped up properly then installing it is as simple as unzipping the files into the C:\Windows\Resources\Themes directory. Check when you open the zip file if the files have nested directories. If you install a visual style or theme and something is amiss, check the following list to ensure the files ended up in the right place:

  • .Theme files must be in the /Themes/ folder, not within any subfolders.
  • .MSStyles files must be in their own sub-folders. If the style name is NewStyle.msstyles, then sub folder in /Themes/ must be /Themes/NewStyle/
  • If your style pack came with a shellstyle.dll, that also goes within its own subfolder, i.e. /Themes/NewStyle/shell/
  • If you have any problem with loading a style or theme, go back and double check for spelling and capitalisation. The names are case sensitive. If a file has a combination of upper and lower case letters, the folder name you place it in must be spelled exactly the same.

Now let's take a look at some popular third-party visual styles in action.

Luna Element 5.0.5 by tornado5


Pristine OS 1.2 by MohsinNaqi

Sentinel Beta - 1 by chaninja

For more visual styles, check out the following resources:

If you have a little bit more time and would like to grab a theme hot off the press, check out the active forums where style designers throw up their newest work:

What's your favourite Windows theme? Tell us about it in the comments.


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