SharePoint Branding and Application.Master

A number of folks have asked about editing the master page called application.master. They know that when a new SharePoint site is created, a master page called default.master is created and added to the Master Page Gallery. This page defines the chrome of the page and serves as the foundation for customization using SPD to achieve a branded site. Unfortunately, default.master is not the master page for all pages in the site. Some of the pages use another master page called application.master. This page lives in the LAYOUTS folder in the 12 hive.

Q: How can I edit application.master using Sharepoint Designer?

A: Short answer, don’t do it. Unlike default.master and other master pages in SharePoint sites, the application.master is not exposed to SharePoint Designer by default. This is for VERY good reason. Application.master lives in the _layouts directory and this location is not displayed when editing a site using SPD. If you navigate to the _layouts directory to edit and view the application.master you’ll find that you can’t view it in design mode. This should be a hint that maybe you shouldn’t be doing it. Editing pages in this folder will likely result in corruption so DON’T do it. I know, I know….if you’re like me you’re probably opening designer to do this right now because you were told not to…….don’t say you weren’t warned.

Well, if you are really stubborn, you could copy application.master to another folder in the site, edit it with SPD, and then copy it back (make sure you make a backup).

Q: So, how do I edit application.master?

A: Visual Studio 2005. Keep in mind that if you edit application.master, these changes will appear across ALL Web applications.

Q: In light of the different master pages used for a given site, how do I achieve a consistent look and feel across all pages?

A: One approach I’ve used (with the appropriate disclaimer below) is to create a new layouts directory for each different Web application. This will give you a separate application.master for each different Web application and allow you to achieve consistent branding within that Web application. Create a new directory beneath TEMPLATE in the 12 hive by copying the original LAYOUTS folder. Then you will need to configure the Local Path in IIS to point to the new layouts directory. There is a previous blog that discusses this so you might want to check it out. Make sure you log and backup your work because future hotfixes and service packs could overwrite your customization.


Disclaimer: Remember that it is not recommended to modify files on the file system because changes may be overwritten (or fail to overwrite) when service packs are applied, and because some parts of SharePoint assume certain functionality and behavior exists on pages from the filesystem.