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

Bring attention to messages or return them to default

Bright multi-colored background with a grunge texture and grafitti paint drops.

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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 lets you call 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 Mac OS X Mountain Lion (10.8) and later.

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

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

  1. Open a folder or smart folder containing the desired message.

  2. Click the message whose background color you want to change.

  3. Select Show Colors under the Format menu.

    The keyboard shortcut is Shift+Command+C.

    Show Colors in Mail
  4. Pick the desired color. You have five options to select a highlight color.

    First, the Color Wheel 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.

    Color wheel option in Mail
  5. The Sliders let you choose a shade based on the component colors. You can use grayscale, RGB, CMYK, and HSB.

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

    Palettes 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 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 will apply it to the background.

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

How to Remove Color Highlighting From a Message in Mail

You may want to reset a message's highlight if you want to keep it but no longer need it to stand out. Here's how to do it.

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

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

  3. Go to the Crayons tab.

  4. Select Snow.

  5. If you're using Dark Mode in macOS Mojave (10.14) or later, select Licorice to return the background color to default.

How to Automatically Apply Color Highlighting to New Mail Messages

If you'd like Mail to apply background highlights to messages as they arrive, you can set up a rule to do so. Here's how.

  1. Select Preferences under the Mail menu.

    The keyboard shortcut is Command+, (comma).

    Apple Mail preferences
  2. Click Rules.

    Rules tab in Mail
  3. Select Add Rule.

  4. Type a name for the new rule in the text box.

    Rule name
  5. To isolate a particular sender, select From in the first pulldown menu.

    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 pulldown box, select the option that best suits your needs.

    • 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/phrase like a username.
    • Ends with is useful if you want to highlight messages from a particular domain (e.g., 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.

  8. In the second row, select Set Color of Message from the first pulldown. The next two fields will change.

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

  10. The third menu contains preset options. To set a different color, select Other.

    Color selection in a rule
  11. The color menu will appear. Find the color you want to use for your rule and click it to select.

    Color selection for a rule
  12. When you select a color, it will appear in the rule menu next to Other.

  13. Click OK.

  14. Mail will ask 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 highlight past emails, too.
    Apply to previous option
  15. 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.

  16. To highlight more emails in a different color, you must create a new rule.