Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Beautify your GNOME desktop

I recently wrote articles on KDE, a great desktop manager for Linux. One of the KDE strengths is Look&Feel, an element that KDE developers have focused on from the start. Coming from a different perspective there is GNOME, another desktop manager for Linux whose aim has always been ease of use and stability. In fact, GNOME has always been deemed "the ugly" one.

GNOME doesn't look that impressive out of the box.

I personally think GNOME can look stunning as well, but I have to admit it may be hard to believe based on its looks out of the box. On this article I want to discuss several ways of making GNOME look great.

- GDM themes
- Icons and Icon themes
- Window borders and controls
- Colors
- Compiz FX
- Cairo dock
- Transparencies
- Wallpapers
- Fonts

The end goal is something along these lines:

Now, ain't that better...

NOTE: I am very much aware that anything having to do with Look&Feel is subjective, so all my comments here are simple recommendations based on what helped me customize the GNOME desktop to my liking. There are many relevant topics and certainly many parameters I am not talking about here, but hopefully you will find something here that you consider interesting and fun.

On a different note, Ubuntu is by far the Linux distro with a GNOME desktop manager I use the most. I have installed others, but I feel most comfortable with Ubuntu's implementation. Some of the items I cover on this article may be specific to it, not necessarily pure GNOME.

WARNING: Some of the concepts discussed in this article involve downloading media from the Internet. For the most part, they are simply compressed files that contain images inside, completely safe. Having said so, please avoid downloading scripts or any piece of code unless you can understand it completely.


GDM (GNOME Display Manager) themes can easily be changed from the System > Administration menu. This is a neat thing to customize, so you can get your login screen to look the way you want it to. There are plenty of GDM themes put together by the community that look outstanding, most of which you can find at GNOME-LOOK.ORG. Simply download those you like the most and go for it!

Ubuntu changed the way they managed GDM themes after release 9.10, which effectively resulted in an interesting piece of customization no longer being available. Because Ubuntu is such a popular distro, I will discuss here how Ubuntu users can recover that element of customization.

GDM2 is an interesting tool writen in Python and designed to facilitate the customization of certain GDM parameters. Changing the wallpaper, icons and controls is just a couple clicks away. Unfortunately, themes are still not supported, though.

Customize GDM in Ubuntu using GDM2.

To download this neat little tool, follow these simple steps from the command line:

1.- Add the GDM2 repository:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:gdm2setup/gdm2setup

2.- Update your sources:

sudo apt-get update

3.- Install GDM2

sudo apt-get install python-gdm2setup


GNOME does a very good job at providing consistency for icon themes. In other words, applying a new icon theme has a system wide effect, something I still find lacking in KDE. There are lots of great looking icon themes available at GNOME-LOOK.ORG and applying them is extremely simple.

1.- Download the icon theme of your choice.
2.- Open System Menu > Preferences > Appearance and click on the "Themes" tab.
3.- Click on the "Install" button on the lower right, which will ask for a file. Simply browse to the location you used on step 1 and select the file you downloaded.

Note that if the file is big (often the case when themes are good), the import may eventually fail. Retrying the process until it works usually does the trick.

Using a good icon theme can make a huge difference!

I usually like crisp, high definition icons. In my experience, there are few themes that stand out because of their quality on that department: Magog White, Oxygen and its few "refit" flavors and Hydroxigen are good examples of themes that look amazing to me. If you like Apple stuff, ClearlooksOSX and MacUltimate Leopard will help you give your Linux desktop a Mac taste. Similarly, there are also very good Windows Vista and Windows 7 themes, in case you like how they look. The best part is that new themes keep coming and they only get better and better!

Aside from using Icon themes, which do apply system wide, I also like to get high quality icons I can use separately. For example, I like to customize the Cairo dock bar or the Nautilus Home folder.

Custom nautilus home folder.

There are several high quality icon sites available. I have used all three below among others:



Similarly to icon themes, window borders and controls do have a significant impact on the overall look of a given desktop. I personally feel the default controls and window borders in GNOME are far from being the best looking out there. Once again, there are tons of options that can be easily downloaded and applied.

Downloading and applying new window borders and controls is simple yet effective.

The Candido window borders and the inverted controls provide a modern look.

Installing window border and control themes is as simple as installing icon themes, for it is the exact same process. I recommend ART.GNOME.ORG in this case because pretty much all of the themes available can be easily installed. Once again, GNOME-LOOK.ORG does provide lots of great options as well, but they are sometimes more complicated to install as they rely on different engines to work.

I encourage you to try different things and be creative, but please remember that certain contents could be potentially dangerous. Only download what you can understand and/or trust.

Note that you could use Emerald as well, the Compiz window decorator (please refer to the Compiz section below to see how to install it). If you want to use Emerald, you will need to set it up as your default window decorator. In order to do so, run the following command from a terminal:

emerald --replace

Now, from System Menu > Appearance select Emerald and choose whatever theme you like. This will only work temporarily, of course. If you want to have emerald as your default window decorator, you will need to set it up to load by default. Access System Menu > Preferences and add that command to the list of applications GNOME loads when it starts.


GNOME is certainly not as flexible as KDE in terms of color scheme customization, but it does provide enough room for customization. Once again from the System Menu > Preferences > Appearance entry, access the "Themes" tab and customize your current theme.

Customize your color scheme easily from the Appearance applet.

I personally like to use color schemes that match the overall style of the desktop, which is usually dictated by the wallpaper. In this example, the wallpaper is mostly white, with an intense orange graphic in the middle. I consequently configured my color scheme accordingly to show the same colors on selected options and dialog boxes.

Nice consistent feel between menu colors and the background.


Compiz is not part of the GNOME desktop, but it does help in making any desktop manager look even more interesting, so I will briefly cover it here. Anybody who's ever used Compiz knows that you can go crazy with it. It is so powerful and flexible that you can spend hours and hours simply trying what's available.

Compiz is available on almost every Linux distro repositories, so simply install it as you would install any other package. There is a number of packages you need to install to get the best out of compiz:

- Compiz (the main package)
- Compiz Config Settings Manager
- Compiz plugins (main and extra)
- Emerald

I don't use an awful amount of desktop FX myself, only those that I find helpful from a productivity standpoint (desktop switching, window switching, etc.) With that in mind, I can still say that all people that have seen my desktop FX love them, so it is clear that Compiz does make a big difference!

Here are some screenshots of Compiz FX in action:

The famous Compiz desktop cube.

I find this one particularly convenient.

How about some MacOS vibe on window shifting?


Cairo dock is a great docking bar application for Linux that provides lots of functionality and flexibility. Similarly to the Compiz Settings Manager, the Cairo dock settings manager will allow customization to the smallest detail. Animations, icons, background, text and fonts are all customizable.

Cairo Dock does give a slick look to the GNOME desktop.

Cairo dock is very common and usually available from most distros repositories. Once again, if you want Cairo dock to load every time you log into your GNOME session, you will need to include it as another application to be loaded at start up.


I love playing with window, panel and pretty much any object's opacity. GNOME offers lots of possibilities around this concept, the panel being probably the most obvious. Certain window border themes use transparency as well, something pretty common in Emerald themes, for instance.

The panel and Gnome terminal are good examples of tweaking opacity levels.

Gnome Terminal also supports changes in background opacity which. Selecting the right background and text colors (consistency with other elements is important again here) can make it look great!


Wallpapers are probably the most obvious element to enhance the looks of any desktop and something everybody knows about. Because of that, I will simply share some of my favorite wallpaper download sites:


Personally, I like to establish a balance between the wallpaper and other elements on the desktop. If the wallpaper is busy, I usually try to keep my desktop clean. If the wallpaper naturally leaves room for other elements, I often add launchers or use Cairo Dock to make it look more interesting. My advice would be to stay away from making your desktop too busy, though.


Using fonts with high rendering resolution and optimum size can make quite a difference. Once again, personal taste should drive the final choice, perhaps along with screen size. In any case, I think Android fonts are the best out there and I usually use sizes 8 or 9 depending on the screen size. In addition, I find that "subpixel smoothing" is the option that gets best rendering results.

Fonts also play an important role in terms of overall Look&Feel.

Many distros made Android fonts available out of the box (PCLinuxOS, Linux Mint, etc.) Others uploaded them into their repositories and made them available for download. If the latter applies to your distro of choice, simply look for the package "ttf-droid" (package name may vary) and install it.


Hopefully you will agree with me that GNOME can look beautiful with a bit of tweaking. It just goes to prove that Linux users not only have plenty of choices available, but also that those choices are great ones!

Thanks for reading and have fun.


  1. I have been using Ubuntu's gnome interface for quite some time now, though gnome doesn't compare to kde, with some tweaks from etc it looks ok, bisigi themes look nice. Nice post btw

  2. In my opinion kde does not compare to gnome in terms of stability, speed, and usability. After some time spent with kde4 I found myself quite frustrated and ended with gnome again.

  3. @The analyst: Thanks!
    @JH: I had the same feeling initially, but KDE is improving by the minute and the latest KDE SC 4.4.5 is simply amazing. It still lacks the intuitive spirit of GNOME, but once you get past its "secrets" it is simply amazing. I would like to recommend you to check my article on KDE "tricks", might help you feel more comfortable with it.

    Thanks again!

  4. gee do people think GNOME ugly? I didn't know that. I though KDE is Ugly :D because, to me, new KDE is still have some 'rough' in the GUI ...
    I love GNOME! because I have only one lappy which only supported by early core 2 duo T5500 ....

  5. Can I use these instructions and to beautify Gnome on Fedora 13? I see you are using Ubuntu so I'm wandering if other Gnome distros could be considered as well.

  6. And it would be also nice if you could explain how to install/use the icons you got from and


  7. Bunch of Ubuntards. Use a real distro, faggots.