O'Reilly logo

Learning Java, 4th Edition by Patrick Niemeyer, Daniel Leuck

Stay ahead with the world's most comprehensive technology and business learning platform.

With Safari, you learn the way you learn best. Get unlimited access to videos, live online training, learning paths, books, tutorials, and more.

Start Free Trial

No credit card required

Pluggable Look-and-Feel

We mentioned before that Swing components can easily change their appearance, like master spies or thespians. Generally, different kinds of components within an application have coordinated appearances that are similar in some way. For example, they probably use the same font and the same basic color scheme. The collection of appearances and common behavior of GUI components is called a look-and-feel (L&F).

Part of the job of designing a GUI for an operating system is designing the L&F. Mac OS, therefore, has its own distinctive L&F, as does Windows. Java offers several different L&F schemes for Swing components. If you’re adept at graphic design, you can write your own L&F schemes and easily convince Swing to use them. This chameleon-like ability to change appearance is called pluggable look-and-feel, sometimes abbreviated PLAF (don’t pronounce that out loud if others are eating).

Seeing is believing. Here’s an example that creates a handful of Swing components. Menu items allow you to change the L&F dynamically while the application is running:

    //file: QuickChange.java
    import java.awt.*;
    import java.awt.event.*;
    import javax.swing.*;

    public class QuickChange extends JFrame {

      public QuickChange() {
        super("QuickChange v1.0");

      protected void createGUI() {
        setSize(300, 200);

        // create a simple File menu
        JMenu file = new JMenu("File", true);
        JMenuItem quit = new JMenuItem("Quit");
        quit.addActionListener(new ActionListener() {
          public void actionPerformed(ActionEvent e) { System.exit(0); }

        // create the Look & Feel menu
        JMenu lnf = new JMenu("Look & Feel", true);
        ButtonGroup buttonGroup = new ButtonGroup();
        final UIManager.LookAndFeelInfo[] info =
        for (int i = 0; i < info.length; i++) {
          JRadioButtonMenuItem item = new
              JRadioButtonMenuItem(info[i].getName(), i == 0);
          final String className = info[i].getClassName();
          item.addActionListener(new ActionListener() {
            public void actionPerformed(ActionEvent ae) {
              try { UIManager.setLookAndFeel(className); }
              catch (Exception e) { System.out.println(e); }

        // add the menu bar
        JMenuBar mb = new JMenuBar();

        // add some components
        JPanel jp = new JPanel();
        jp.add(new JCheckBox("JCheckBox"));
        String[] names =
          new String[] { "Tosca", "Cavaradossi", "Scarpia",
                         "Angelotti", "Spoletta", "Sciarrone",
                         "Carceriere", "Il sagrestano", "Un pastore" };
        jp.add(new JComboBox(names));
        jp.add(new JButton("JButton"));
        jp.add(new JLabel("JLabel"));
        jp.add(new JTextField("JTextField"));
        JPanel main = new JPanel(new GridLayout(1, 2));
        main.add(new JScrollPane(new JList(names)));
        setDefaultCloseOperation( JFrame.EXIT_ON_CLOSE );

      public static void main(String[] args) {
        new QuickChange().setVisible(true);

The interesting part of this application is creating a menu of the available L&Fs. First, we ask a class called UIManager to tell us all about the available L&Fs on our computer:

    final UIManager.LookAndFeelInfo[] info =

Information about L&Fs is returned as instances of UIManager.LookAndFeelInfo. Despite the long name, there’s not much to this class; it just associates a name, such as Metal, and the name of the class that implements the L&F, such as javax.swing.plaf.metal.MetalLookAndFeel. In the QuickChange example, we create a menu item from each L&F name. If the menu item is selected, we tell the UIManager to use the selected L&F class. To make sure all the components are redrawn with the new L&F, we call updateComponentTreeUI(), a static method in the SwingUtilities class.

The JDK includes several L&Fs: Windows, OS X, Motif, the original Metal L&F, the highly customizable Synth, and the newest edition, Nimbus. Windows, OS X, and Motif are recreations of their corresponding native desktop environments. If you’re running Swing on Mac OS X, the default L&F is an implementation of Aqua, the UI design for all new Mac applications. Unfortunately, you cannot use this L&F on any other platforms because of licensing issues (the Windows L&F has similar restrictions).

The Metal L&F and its Ocean theme are the default on some platforms, but at this point they appear dated compared to modern windowing systems. The newest edition, Nimbus, is a far superior alternative. Its aethetics are on par with modern windowing systems and its use of scaleable vector graphics allows it to shine on high-density displays at various sizes. Nimbus is actually a highly evolved subclass of the Synth L&F.

Synth accommodates the new trend in skinnable user interfaces. Many applications now allow users to customize the L&F very easily, using only images and simple preferences files to create new appearances. Skinnability is not the same as a full-blown pluggable L&F, but it lets you do a lot without any programming required. Synth acts like an ordinary L&F, but can be customized through the use of images and XML description files to create new looks. For example, the borders of components (such as the shiny metal look of the Metal L&F) can be described by providing an example image and then specifying the offsets of the interior “corners” as well as the method to use (stretch or tile) to cover larger areas. Synth then uses the image to paint the borders of whatever components you specify. Synth can do quite a lot and even allows you to specify Java objects to be involved in painting, so you can resort to programming again if your L&F gets too complex.

With Safari, you learn the way you learn best. Get unlimited access to videos, live online training, learning paths, books, interactive tutorials, and more.

Start Free Trial

No credit card required