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Beautiful Custom List Styles Using Modern CSS

Learn to style list markers using the new ::marker pseudo-element

Lists don’t have to be boring.

And with the new ::marker pseudo-element, making them interesting doesn't have to be painful either. The browser support for this pseudo-element used to be spotty, but with its addition in Chrome 86, it'll soon be universal.

I’m going to show you how to make your lists stand out.

We’re going to cover:

  • Built-in list styles
  • Changing the color of list markers
  • Emoji list bullets
  • CSS counters
  • Custom image bullets
  • Fully custom list markers using ::before

Built-In Styles

Let’s begin by changing the look of list markers using the built-in styles. We do so, by using the list-style-type property. There are a few style options for both ordered and unordered lists to choose from:

Ordered: decimal, lower-roman, upper-alpha, lower-latin. Unordered: disc, square, circle.

These are just the most common options. The full list can be found on MDN.

Custom Styles

The ::marker pseudo-element lets us change the style of the list marker (bullet/number). using a subset of CSS properties. The allowed properties are:

  • All font properties (font-size, font-family etc.)
  • color
  • animation and transition properties
  • direction, text-combine-upright, unicode-bidi
  • and content

Let’s see what it can do.

🌈 Changing the Color

The most basic way to make your lists look better, is to change the color of the list markers. We can do that just like we would change the color of normal text.

Code snippet with preview of ordered and unordered lists with colored markers.
Code at: https://gist.github.com/hadrysmateusz/4372de53d9de1c78363eeeaa54cb8a89

What if you need to support older browsers? You can apply the color to the li and wrap the text inside it in another element. Like this:

HTML
CSS

Or create a fully custom marker with ::before. More on that later.

Custom Text

You might be thinking: Okay, but is changing color all that ::marker can do?

No. Far from it. It lets us to change the content of the list marker, by using the aptly named content property.

Code snippet with preview with colored arrows instead of default bullets.
Code at: https://gist.github.com/hadrysmateusz/03bcb4555e3eb0cce51c66e60894d1dc

You can use any text as content, including Unicode symbols like the ones above or even emoji...

🔫 Emoji Bullets

As I said above, you can use emoji as list markers.

But you probably don’t want to use the same emoji for every list item. To fix that, we can set our emojis in a data-* attribute in HTML.

And retrieve them in CSS using the attr() function.

We can even change the marker’s content on hover using the :hover pseudo-class.

And here’s the result.

Okay, but what about ordered lists? Can we change their markers’ content like this?

Custom Ordered Lists

To change the content of an ordered list marker, we need to know which item it belongs to. We need to know its position in the list. That’s where CSS counters come in.

We need to create a counter on the list, and increment it on every list item. Then retrieve the current value of the counter using the counter() CSS function. We use the result of this function as the value of the content property.

List showing steps. Step 1: Use CSS Counters. Step 2: ??? Step 3: Profit

Let’s go through the code, to understand what’s happening.

We use counter-reset to create a new counter named list. The name is arbitrary and completely up to you. But why is the property called counter-reset? Because the counter is actually global and we need to reset its value on every list. That's why we have to set it on the ol and not the list items.

We’ve created our counter, but it’s useless if its value never changes. We need to increment it on every list item. To do that we set counter-increment: list; on our <li>'s.

Now that we have an auto-incrementing value, we use it in the content property of our marker. And here's where the magic happens. We can combine the value of our counter with other strings, optionally separated by whitespace.

A few notes:

  • In the example, I imported some fonts from Google Fonts. It’s not necessary but I’m using it to distinguish between the list item’s content and the marker.
  • Because the marker’s content in the example got pretty long, it was possible for it to go off the screen in some circumstances. That’s why I used list-style-position: inside; to move the marker inside the list item's box.
  • You can put a number after the counter name to start from a different value. It would look something like this: counter-reset: list 5; and the first three items of that list would have numbers 6, 7, and 8.
  • Counters can be used on any html element, not just lists.

Custom Image Bullets

Okay, we can change the color, style, and text content of list markers, but what if we want something completely custom? We’ll have to use images.

To do that, we set an image as the marker’s content using the url() CSS function.

Code snippet with preview of a list with stars and asterisks instead of default bullets.
Code at: https://gist.github.com/hadrysmateusz/525d46c3eacc618c951bba781e19374b

Fully Custom List Markers

If all of the above options still aren’t enough for you, there’s still one more option. One that allows us to do anything we want with our list markers. It’s more work and a bit of a hack, but it’s useful if all else fails.

We can use the ::before pseudo element to create our own markers. This method allows us to create custom backgrounds for our markers, easily scale image bullets and more.

Clear the defaults

Before we can create our own markers, we have to get rid of the default ones.

This gives us a blank canvas to work with.

Note: This can create accessibility issues, so you should add role=”list” to the list in your HTML

Create the marker

When using ::before you have access to all CSS properties and not just a subset like with ::marker.

You are however responsible for setting the marker’s content, spacing between the marker and the list item’s text, and proper alignment.

As an example, here’s how to create the objectively best-looking list of all time. Explanations are included in the comments.

The code above results in this:

List with spinning stars with numbers as markers. Red Comic Sans text: “Graphic design is my passion” on a rainbow background

A few notes:

  • Using the background property for the marker’s image allows us to scale and adjust it more easily.
  • If you want to create custom image bullets for an unordered list using ::before & background, you have to set content: "" in order for the marker to be rendered.

That’s all, you’re now a master of list styling.

Thanks for reading. I hope you learned something useful. If you have any questions, ask in the comments. Follow me for more web development tips.

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Mateusz Hadryś

Mateusz Hadryś

I write about web development tips & news. Follow me on twitter for more: twitter.com/HadrysMateusz

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