How to Change an Email's Background Color in Apple Mail's Inbox

Bring attention to messages or return them to default

Apple Mail contains customization options that let you filter, sort, and mark emails automatically based on a number of criteria. Of course, whatever tasks its rules can do, you can also perform manually.

One setting lets you change the background colors of messages in your inbox. Doing so calls extra attention to important emails as soon as you receive them. Here's how to set and change the email color backgrounds in Mail's inbox.

Instructions in this article apply to macOS Catalina (10.15) through Mac OS X Mountain Lion (10.8).

How to Manually Highlight Any Email With a Background Color in Mail Message List

To change a message's background color in Mail's message list:

  1. In Mail, open the Inbox, folder or smart folder containing the message.

  2. Click the message for which you want to change the background color.

  3. Select Show Colors under the Format menu.

    The keyboard shortcut for Show Color is Shift+Command+C.

    Colors in Mail selection in Format drop-down menu
  4. Pick the desired color using one of the five tabs at the top of the Show Color window.

    The Color Wheel tab shows an array of colors along with a slider that lets you adjust the contrast. This option is the fastest way to pick a color.

    Show colors window with the five tabs for five methods to choose colors
  5. The Sliders tab let you choose a shade based on the component colors. You can use grayscale, RGB, CMYK, and HSV.

    Sliders tab in Mail Show Colors
  6. The Palettes screen contains preset color groups. The options are web-safe colors, crayons, developer, and Apple's own palette.

    Palettes Colors screen in Mail
  7. The Image Palettes tab creates a color profile based on a picture you upload.

    Image Palette tab in Mail
  8. Finally, the Pencils tab contain a variety of colored-pencil colors you can choose from.

    Pencils option in Mail
  9. Click the color you want to use, and Mail applies it to the background of the email in Mail's message list. It doesn't cause a color change on the opened email.

  10. To save a color for later use, drag it from the preview window to the palette at the bottom of the window.

    Color sample and palette

How to Remove Color Highlighting From a Message in the Mail Message List

You may want to reset a message's highlight color to the default when you no longer need it to stand out. Here's how to do it.

  1. Click the message with the background color you want to change.

  2. Select Show Colors under the Format menu,or press Shift+Command+C on your keyboard.

    Colors in Mail selection in Format drop-down menu

  3. Go to the Pencils tab.

    Pencils option in Mail
  4. Select Snow if you use Light Mode. If you use Dark Mode in macOS Catalina (10.15) or Mojave (10.14), select Licorice to return the background color to the default.

How to Automatically Apply Color Highlighting to New Mail Messages

If you want Mail to apply background highlights to messages in the Message list as they arrive, you can set up a rule to do this. Here's how.

  1. Select Preferences under the Mail menu or using the keyboard shortcut Command+, (comma).

    Location of Mail Preferences on Mac
  2. Click the Rules tab.

    Mail preferences on a Mac
  3. Select Add Rule.

    Add Rule button in Rules preferences
  4. Type a name for the new rule in the text box.

    Adding a name to a new rule in preferences
  5. To isolate a particular sender, select From in the first pull-down menu.

    Rule pull-down menu showing From

    This menu contains several other options to highlight different messages. The main ones you'll probably use are the To, From, and Subject fields.

  6. In the second pull-down box, select the option that best suits your needs.

    Second pull-down rules menu showing Is equal to
    • Use contains to look for a particular keyword or phrase. This option is most useful if you're filtering based on the subject line.
    • Use does not contain to exclude a keyword or phrase. For the purposes of this rule, this condition won't be useful.
    • Begins with lets you enter a word or phrase such as a username.
    • Ends with is useful if you want to highlight messages from a particular domain, such as the one your employer uses.
    • Is equal to is best for picking out a specific email address.
  7. Type the email address or domain you want to highlight in the text box on the right side of the row.

    Third pull-down menu in Rules showing a domain name
  8. In the second row, select Set Color from the first pull-down menu. The next two fields change.

    Rule option showing Set Color
  9. In the second menu, choose of background.

    Rules screen showing Of background in the action row
  10. The third menu contains preset options. To set a different color, select Other.

    Color options in an email rule
  11. The color menu appears. Find the color you want to use for your rule and click it to select. When you select a color, it appears in the rule menu next to Other.

    Color selection for a rule
  12. Click OK.

  13. Mail asks if you want to apply the new rule to the messages you've already received that meet its conditions:

    • Choose Don't Apply to only highlight new messages.
    • Select Apply to also highlight past emails.
    Apply or Don't apply: last step of rule creation
  14. To highlight additional emails in the same color, click the plus sign at the end of the first row and repeat Steps 5 through 7.

    Plus sign in Rules for expanding the selection
  15. To highlight emails in a different color, you must create a new rule.