Customizing Your Ubuntu Desktop Appearance

Although the Gnome desktop environment is very sleek, sometimes it is a pain to customize the appearance (i.e. editing files as opposed to menu items). Here are some tips to help you customize Gnome…

Changing Desktop Background

You can change the appearance of your Desktop background in a similar way as you did for MS Windows. There are two methods to do this:

  1. Right-click on desktop and select “Change Desktop Background” from the content menu
  2. Select SYSTEM -> PREFERENCES -> APPEARANCE , then select the “Background” tab

Regardless of the method, the “Appearances Preferences” dialog box will appear. Make certain that the “Background” tab is selected. You now have the option to select a background, or add a background you may have created. You can also later install various “artwork” if you desire – just run the Synaptic Package Manager and search for “artwork”. Refer to the previous menu on “Install Applications in Ubuntu” for additional help…

Changing Themes

Just like when using MS Windows, the user can select different themes to change the behavior and characteristics of application windows.

To change a theme, you select SYSTEM -> PREFERENCES -> APPEARANCE . When you do this a “Appearances Preferences” dialog box will appear. Make certain that the “Themes ” tab is selected. Then you can select the theme that appeals to you. You can also “customize” your theme to select specific characteristics (i.e. “pick and choose”)…

If you are interested in having various parts of your application window behave like Windows Vista (eg. transparent or “glassy” titlebars, glowing buttons, etc…), then you should install the application called “Emerald” that allows the user to “tweak” those features. Please refer to the “Setup Special Desktop Effects” link contained in the Ubuntu Guide WIKI (link displayed at the end of this posting).

Setting Font Type / Font Size

One of the first things you may want to do is set the font family and font size of icons on your desktop, or in applications.

To set the font family and size, you select SYSTEM -> PREFERENCES -> APPEARANCE . When you do this a “Appearances Preferences” dialog box will appear. Click on the “Fonts” tab. The section labelled “Application Font” will affect the type and size of the font for applications and application menus (including the top menu for “Applications”, “Places”, and “System”. When you make a selection, the changes will quickly take effect.

You can play with these settings to customize the font appearance of your system. The rendering section allows the user to adjust or “tweak” the font display settings in case you have an older computer display. It is recommended to leave those default settings…

Changing Icon Text Colour

If you are using the Gnome desktop environment, it is not as “intuitive” to make simple settings like icon text colour. Although the KDE desktop environment is considered a more “user-friendly” interface for setting icon text colour, I believe that it is better to work in the Gnome environment. I had used KDE for many years, but eventually came to realize that Gnome provides a “cleaner” interface.

That is a great thing about Linux, you can install and use many different desktop environments (such as KDE, Gnome, Xfce, Enlightenment, Open Windows, Project Looking Glass, etc…).

Since Gnome was designed to work with an application called the “Gimp Tool Kit“. Some settings to change the characteristic of the Gnome desktop environment are performed by editing the settings in a file contained in the user’s home directory which is called .gtkrc-2.0 . The file has a period in front of it which makes the file “hidden” from normal view (like they say “out of sight, out of mind or damage”). The “rc” after “gtk” refers that this file is a “run-command” file. This means that when the Gimp ToolKit application is run (normally at system start-up), it will set the environment of that application by first reading and using settings contained in this file.

Therefore, you will need to use a text editor to make changes to this file. If you try to edit this file, and it is empty, then here is a link to an existing .gtkrc file that I am using on my system. Here is the link: [ .gtkrc-2.0 ] . Read the comment in the file to show you where to change the text colour. The color number is a combination of HEX numbers in pairs for RED, GREEN, and BLUE light intensity. Combinations of these numbers create a very wide variety of colours…

Simply copy and paste these settings into that file, and save. The changes will take effect when you logout and login to your graphical Linux environment.


We will assume that you are copying and pasting above link’s contents into this file…

  1. Click on the link displayed above labelled .gtkrc-2.0
  2. Select the entire contents and copy to the clipboard.
  3. Click on APPLICATIONS -> ACCESSORIES -> Text Editor.
  4. Paste the clipboard contents into your text editor window.
  5. Click on the Save button.
  6. In the area at the top labelled “Name:” type .gtkrc-2.0
  7. Click on the Save button at the bottom.
  8. Close the text editor application.
  9. Either Reboot your system, or at least logout then login to your graphical Linux system for changes to take effect

I orginally created this article for my Ubuntu Guide WIKI:

Please use this WIKI as a resource if you find it useful – that is why I created it!

Murray Saul


~ by Murray Saul on October 26, 2009.

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