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How to Use Operating System Styles in CSS

By Craig Buckler

CSS system stylesOne of the lesser-known features of CSS2.1 is the ability to define fonts and colors that are in use by the underlying Operating System theme. This can be useful in situations when you require tighter OS integration, e.g. HTML help files, Adobe AIR or perhaps offline web applications.

Before we begin, there are a few caveats:

  • Do not rely on these properties working in all OS/browser combinations. If your application must work in Opera on BeOS, then I’d recommend you test it first!
  • The properties have been deprecated in CSS3 in favor of the appearance value type (although browser support is extremely limited at this time).
  • There is nothing to prevent the user defining unusual, clashing, or ugly color schemes in their OS. Pages will reflect their choices — not your designer’s.

System Fonts

System fonts are assigned using the ‘font’ property. Note that the family, size, and style are all assigned as appropriate, e.g.

	font: caption;

The following font values are available. The ‘Example’ column shows the current font set by your OS.

Property Description Example
caption Controls font (buttons, drop-downs, etc.) ABC abc 123
icon Icon label font ABC abc 123
menu Menu font ABC abc 123
message-box Dialog box font ABC abc 123
small-caption Small control labels ABC abc 123
status-bar Status bar font ABC abc 123

System Colors

System colors can be assigned to to any property that expects a color value, e.g.

	color: WindowText;
	background-color: Window;
	border: 2px solid ActiveBorder;

The following color values are available. They are shown in CamelCase for legibility, but any casing is valid. The ‘Example’ column shows the color set by your OS.

Property Description Example
ActiveBorder Active window border  
ActiveCaption Active window caption  
AppWorkspace Background color of multiple document interface  
Background Desktop background  
ButtonFace Face color for 3D display elements  
ButtonHighlight Dark shadow for 3D display elements (facing away from light)  
ButtonShadow Shadow color for 3D display elements  
ButtonText Text on push buttons  
CaptionText Text in caption, size box, and scrollbar arrow box  
GrayText Grayed (disabled) text (#000 if not supported by OS)  
Highlight Item(s) selected in a control  
HighlightText Text of item(s) selected in a control  
InactiveBorder Inactive window border  
InactiveCaption Inactive window caption  
InactiveCaptionText Color of text in an inactive caption  
InfoBackground Background color for tooltip controls  
InfoText Text color for tooltip controls  
Menu Menu background  
MenuText Text in menus  
Scrollbar Scroll bar gray area  
ThreeDDarkShadow Dark shadow for 3D display elements  
ThreeDFace Face color for 3D display elements  
ThreeDHighlight Highlight color for 3D display elements  
ThreeDLightShadow Light color for 3D display elements (facing the light)  
ThreeDShadow Dark shadow for 3D display elements  
Window Window background  
WindowFrame Window frame  
WindowText Text in windows  

Would these properties be useful in your next project?

Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.

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