HowTo: theme your desktop

HowTo: theme your desktop
In this HowTo I just want to collect the different ways you can personalize your desktop. It is divided in different sections; you don’t need to follow everything I say, just pick up what you like. There’s nothing new amongst the things I say, but I thought it would be handy to have a reference. Another useful reference is this. All I know, I’ve learned it on this forum, but I’m not able to trace back the authors of the original posts. If you think I’ve just reported something you explained first, then you’re probably right, and I thank you for this. Throughout the guide I assume you are using Gnome.

1: What can be skinned

A lot of things, actually. In this HowTo I will cover:
– Widgets: this are the little elements like buttons, loading bars, menus…, which are used in your applications
– Window borders: the part of the window containing the buttons to close, maximize and minimize
– Icons
– Mouse cursors
– Panels
– Splash screen: this appears when you login before the desktop os ready
– Login manager: the application which greets you after the boot
– Desklets: little apps which show useful information over your desktop
– Fonts
– Grub: the application which lets you choose what operating system you want to boot
– Usplash: what appears when the system is loading at boot

2: Where to find nice themes

The most common sites where you can find themes for Gnome are GnomeArt and Gnome-Look
Some other fancy stuff (for example wallpapers) can be found at Deviant Art
You may also want to have a look at Gnome Themes and Gnome Themes Forum.

If you know where to find themes, but want some advice on putting all together in a consistent way, have a look here. That thread is meant to show other people some screenshots and list the themes used to make it. If you get some nice theme, then share it on that thread.

3: Icons, windows, widgets and wallpaper

The most basic things which characterize the look of your desktop are widgets, window borders and icons. These elements can be managed under
System->Preferences->Themes or equivalently launching
Code:

gnome-theme-manager

in a terminal. You can install here the icons etc. that you have downloaded. Then you choose the elements you will actually use under Theme Details. When you are happy with your settings, you can save your theme, to be able to recall it with a click if you change it.

It may be useful to know where things actually go: icons are stores under ~/.icons, while other elements can be found under ~/.themes.

If you want to install themes system-wide, then you can just invoke the application as root, with
Code:

sudo gnome-theme-manager

Be sure to do this only to install things, and make your choices as a regular user.

Sometimes you may want to change a single icon. You can do this by right-clicking your file and choosing properties. Then click over the icon image and choose a new one. This is useful for special folders, also. Under the Symbols tab you can choose some little emblems and add it to the icon.

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Finally, the last element which characterizes your desktop is of course the wallpaper. You can change it using System->Preferences->Wallpaper or equivalently right-clicking on the current wallpaper and choosing “Set wallpaper”.

Just an advice here. It is tempting to choose a very beautiful picture or a photo of your family or whatever else, and to change wallpaper frequently. I discourage this, because it will easily lead to an inconsistent theme. Choose your wallpaper as the last thing while themeing, and be sure to use a simple image with few colors, which match your widgets or your window borders. The result will be much more satisfying.

4: Some applications still look bad.

You’re right. There are three kind of applications which will use different widgets and icons.

Root. The simplest to settle are applications which you run as root. These simply use the root theme. If you want the root theme to match the current user theme, you can just create some symbolic links
Code:

sudo ln -s /home//.themes /root/.themes
sudo ln -s /home//.icons /root/.icons
sudo ln -s /home//.fonts /root/.fonts

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Qt Then there are KDE applications. These apps use a different set of widgets, based on the QT graphic libraries, rather than the GTK (GIMP ToolKit) based, which are common on Gnome. The first thing to do is to find a matching QT theme; for this you can have a look here. Some themes are also available in the repos, but they may require you to install KDE as well. If you just want to make the apps look nice, but don’t want much hassle with theme installation, and you don’t care about theme matching, you can find here a deb to install Polymer theme, which is quite nice.

After you have installed the theme (the way to do this depends on the theme, and is usually indicated on the site) you have to set it as default. If you have KDE installed you can do this under the K Control Center. Otherwise you can install qtconfig
Code:

sudo apt-get install qt3-qtconfig qt4-qtconfig

You will find two entries under System->Preferences->Qt3 Configuration (or Qt4 of course). You just have to select the right theme (both under Qt3 and Qt4) and the right font. If you use the standard font, then you can choose Bitstream Vera Sans, normal, 10 under the font tab.

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Gtk1 Finally there applications which use the old version of the Gtk libraries. You will hardly be able to make them look good, because there are no nice themes for Gtk1. Anyway have a look here.

5: Panels

You can play with panels to achieve a more comfortable setting, or just to make your box look like OSX. I will first explain how to customize the standard panels. If you want a OSX-like launcher, you find it in the next paragraph.

By default you should have two panels, one at the top, the other at the bottom. To create a new panel or delete one, you can just right-click on the panel. Under the properties you can also set the position of your panel and its height. If you plan to make a panel with a lot of launchers you may want to make it about 48 high.

Under Properties you can also choose some other things: you may set it to hide automatically your panel or to make it a bit transparent. If your panel doesn’t hide correctly, then you have to edit the panel configuration. To do this run
Code:

gconf-editor

or equivalently Applications->Administration->Configuration Editor. Navigate to /apps/panel/toplevels/top_panel_screen0 and there modify the value of auto_hide_size to 0. Replace top_panel_screen0 with another panel, according to which panel you want to minimize.

Now you can add things to your panels or take them off, again by right-clicking. You can move things on the panel by right-clicking on them; if you are not able to move something past an object, probably that object is locked to the panel (again you can lock or unlock things on the panel with the right-click menu).

At this point you should be able to move things on the panel. For some settings you may like to move the area where your open windows show to the upper panel. You can do this by right-clicking on the upper panel, selecting Add to panel, and then choosing Window List. Be sure to stretch its sides until you feel it is big enough for your needs. If you have some windows open, but still the whole space you reserved is not filled, just don’t care, it is a bug in the gnome panel. However the whole area should be filled if you have enough windows open. Now you can delete the Window List on the lower panel. The same can be done with the Notification Area, which is the area with the little icons like the network status.

Many people will want to put the window list and the notification area on the upper panel and launchers for the most common applications on the lower (maybe 48 high and with autohide). If you want a panel which does not extend to the borders then you just need to uncheck the expand button in the panel Properties. However it can be nice to have smooth corners in that case (see this mockup). For this you can use a trick: under Properties choose a Background image, and put a fake image of a centered panel (you can find one in the gentle theme on Gnome Themes).

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