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Can the control panel have a skin or theme applied without it affecting automatic updates?

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You can certainly override the admin css by using from Double Secret Agency. It's rather nice.

Lindsey also has a Admin JS plugin too:

Regarding actual admin template changes and their ability to survive an update, I'll have to defer that to somebody who know's more about it than myself.

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No files within craft/app/ are safe to modify if you intend to keep Craft updated, including the templates.

Plus, the license forbids it, so there’s that.

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I couldn't see anything in the license that would forbid it. – Bill Marchan Jul 18 '14 at 22:53

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