Installing and Customizing Ubuntu Desktop Themes

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One of the key advantages of Linux desktops in general is the fact that they can be customized to meet any particular preferences. In this chapter of Ubuntu Desktop Essentials we will look at changing the theme used by the Ubuntu GNOME desktop environment.

What is a Desktop Theme?

The theme of a desktop defines how various aspects of the desktop appear. Each theme contains a number of categories which define how different elements of the desktop appear:

  • Controls - Defines how items such as pushbuttons, toggles and sliders appear.
  • Colors - Specifies the color scheme of windows, input boxes, selected items and tooltips. A different color is specified for each item.
  • Window Border - The design style of the border surrounding each window on the desktop.
  • Icons -Defines the design of icons which appear on the desktop (for example Folder, Trash and Computer icons).
  • Pointer - Defines the size and style of the mouse pointer icon.

A number of different themes are installed by default with Ubuntu. In addition, a wide range of other themes are available for download. Also, a theme may be further customized if you do not like a certain aspect of a particular theme.

Note that themes are not considered to be a system-wide setting. This means that changes made to the current theme affect only the currently logged in user. Other users will still see their preferred theme when they log in.

Changing the GNOME Desktop Theme

The desktop themes define the color and shape of the decorations around the Windows and the color schemes used for the foreground and background of dialog contents. By default Ubuntu uses the Human theme. This is essentially a theme called Clearlooks with earthy looking colors applied to it. A number of pre-installed themes are also available for selection, and many themes are available for download online.

Themes are controlled by the Theme Preferences panel accessed by selecting the Administration->Preferences->Appearance menu option and clicking on the Theme tab of the resulting dialog. Once selected, the panel appears as follows:


To install a new theme from the list simply select it and click on the Install Theme button. The desktop will immediately change to reflect the new theme.

Customizing a Desktop Theme

In addition to selecting a theme it is also possible to customize themes. For example, it is possible to change the colors and borders of the Clearlooks theme. To try this, select the Clearlooks theme from the main screen of the Theme Preferences dialog and click on the Customize button. The Customize Theme dialog will appear as follows:

The GNOME Theme Details Screen

Any new selection from the list of Controls will immediately be reflected by the desktop. For example the following screenshot shows the Theme Details dialog with HighContrastInverse selected:

The GNOME Inverse Contrast Color Scheme

Colors can be changed by selecting the Colors tab of the Customize Theme dialog and changing the color settings for the window borders, text input fields and text selection highlighting.

The window border can similarly be changed by selecting from a range of pre-designed styles using the Borders tab of the Customize Theme dialog. The following screen shows the Atlanta Window Border Theme:

The GNOME desktop with the Atlanta Border Theme

Finally, the style of icons displayed in the desktop can be changed. By default Ubuntu uses the Human style of icons. The following image shows a portion of the desktop showing icons using the Human icon theme:

Gnome desktop icons human.jpg

The following image shows the same desktop icons after the icon theme has been changed to Mist

Gnome desktop icons mist.jpg

Downloading and Installing a Theme

Although Ubuntu is installed with several different theme options, in reality this represents just a small subset of themes that are available online. A wide range of themes are available for download from

The themes are downloadable by theme sub-category (i.e Window Border, Icons etc). Let's start by installing a new Window Border theme. On the right hand side of the GNOME Art website click on the Window Border link beneath Desktop Themes. This will filter the list of themes so that only Window Border themes are displayed. Scroll down the list and click on a theme that is not currently available on your Ubuntu installation (for this example we will use the MetaGrip theme).

Download the theme to the desktop so that it appears as a desktop icon:

Fedora desktop theme icon.jpg

The new theme can be installed one of two ways. Either click and drag the theme package from the desktop to the Appearance Preferences dialog to add the theme, or click on the Install... button in Appearance Preferences and navigate to the location where the theme is installed.

Once the theme has been added you will be asked if you wish to apply the new theme to the current desktop:

Ubuntu apply new theme.jpg

If you choose to apply the new border theme it will immediately take effect on the desktop. For the purpose of this tutorial, however, we will opt to apply the theme later by creating a custom Ubuntu desktop theme.

Creating a Custom Theme Package

Any theme may now be used to either customize an existing theme, or to create a new desktop theme.

In this example we will create a custom theme which includes our new Window Border design. Click on the Custom theme in the Appearance and on the Customize... button. In the resulting Customize Theme dialog select the Window Border tab so that the list of available window border themes appears:

The Ubuntu Theme Customization Dialog

Scroll up and down the list of themes until you find the new theme (in this case the MetaGrip theme). Select the theme and watch the desktop window borders change instantly to this new style. Spend some time changing some of the other theme settings such as text colors and icon and pointer styles. When you have a new theme that you are happy with simply close the Customize Theme window.

Assuming this is a theme you would like to use again the next step is to give the theme a name and save it. To achieve this make sure the Custom theme is selected and click on Save As.... The Save Theme As dialog will now appear. Provide a name for your theme and add comments if desired. You can also optionally include the current desktop background in the theme package:

The Ubuntu Desktop Save Theme Dialog

Once the theme is saved it will appear in the list of available theme packages along with the standard Ubuntu themes.


In this chapter we have looked in detail at selecting, installing and customizing Ubuntu desktop themes. In the next chapter we will look at Configuring Ubuntu Desktop Fonts

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PreviousTable of ContentsNext
Changing the Ubuntu GNOME Desktop BackgroundConfiguring Ubuntu Desktop Fonts