July 1, 2004

Customizing GNOME

Author: Jem Matzan

Red Hat and Sun have showed us that GNOME can be both nice to look at and fun to use. However, GNOME is horribly bland in its natural state, and fixing it so that it's more palatable seems like such a daunting task. But what if you could do your own Bluecurve-like customizations and turn a boring and annoying default GNOME installation into a thing of beauty and productivity in about 20 minutes?

In this article we're going to discuss GNOME 2.6, but many of the tips that you'll learn can be used in versions of GNOME back to 2.0. While some distributions modify GNOME a bit, everything you read here should work in any edition of GNU/Linux, Free/Open/NetBSD, Solaris, and any other operating system that offers GNOME support. The only exception is Red Hat and all Red Hat derivatives such as Fedora Core and White Box Linux, which have some of the menu editing tricks disabled in some versions. These distributions are heavily customized already, so you wouldn't need these customization tips for them anyway.

Unless your distribution has special customizations, the default look for GNOME is something like the old Mac OS. It's quite different from the Windows or KDE style, where the window list and menu are combined into one element, situated at the bottom of the screen. This is actually quite a convenient position for a menu, provided it's customized for maximum productivity. But GNOME has its main panel at the top and the window list at the bottom, and the launcher and menus probably don't have all of the programs you want.

The default GNOME interface is not very attractive

The stock GNOME theme is also pretty boring and old-looking. Plain gray window decorations and buttons, unexciting desktop background, and plain-jane icons. It probably looks something like the first screen shot on the left.

Moving and consolidating the panels

The first step to making GNOME more user-friendly is to move the main panel to the bottom of the screen where you're used to it. Right-click on an empty space in the main panel; this brings up a popup dialogue with a half-dozen or so options. Click on Properties to display a window called Panel Properties. The General tab should be selected. In the Orientation drop-down box, select Bottom. The menu bar will now be at the bottom of the screen.

Now the main panel is in a better position, but the desktop view button and the window list are in a separate panel. To consolidate the two panels, right-click on the desktop view button and then click on Unlock in the popup dialogue. Right-click the button again and select Move. Without clicking any mouse buttons, move the mouse pointer to where you want the desktop button to be -- usually next to the Actions menu with your other quick-launch icons. When you find a suitable home for the icon, right-click the mouse and the icon will drop into place. If you're unable to move the desktop button to where you want it, the other items in the panel are probably locked. Simply unlock them and they'll slide over when you move a different icon over them.

The main panel panel is now consolidated and the second panel is gone

Repeat this process for the window list -- right-click on the resize handle for the window list, unlock it and move it to the main panel. Eventually you'll want the window list to occupy all of the space between your quick-launch icons on the left and your right-hand-side items like the clock and volume control, but for now leave yourself some empty space in the main panel panel so that you have someplace to right-click the mouse when you need to access the popup dialogue for the panel.

If you use multiple desktops you'll want to move your workspace switcher to your main panel as well. Unlock it and move it to where you prefer to see it.

For now, leave everything unlocked. When you're finished rearranging your panel and have everything where you want it you can lock the icons so that they can't be accidentally moved or resized by other items.

Now it's time to say goodbye to the empty panel that used to hold your window list. Just right-click on it and select Delete This Panel from the popup dialogue. You'll be left with a single panel and a little more screen area for your programs.

The foot menu

The next step is to consolidate the Applications menu and the Actions menu into one common menu, thereby creating more free space in your main panel while making the menu system easier to navigate. You can do this by adding the foot menu and deleting the Actions and Applications menus.

The smaller foot menu has replaced the space-hogging menu bar

First, right-click on an empty space in your main panel. If you don't have any empty space or you don't get the correct popup dialogue as described, resize your window list so that you have some empty space to click on. Click on Add To Panel in the popup dialogue. The dialogue will expand to the right to show a list of things that you can add. Click on Main Menu; this adds the foot menu to your main panel. Move it all the way to the left -- or if you prefer it someplace else, move it to the desired position.

Now right-click on the Applications button and select Remove From Panel. If this option is grayed out, you'll have to unlock the button first. You should now have one icon for your main menu where before you had two larger ones.

Next: Adding applications

Examine the foot menu to see if it contains all of the programs that you use. If there are programs missing from the menu, make a list of them in a text file or on a piece of paper.

There is no easy way to add these programs to the foot menu in GNOME 2.6, so you'll have to add them manually. Click on the home icon in your menu panel; this brings up the Nautilus file manager in your home directory. Go to the File menu and select Open Location. This brings up a window with a single text field in it. Type in Applications:/// and press the Enter key or click the OK button. The applications section of your foot menu should appear in a separate window as icons. Modifying these icons changes your foot menu, but not immediately -- all changes take effect the next time the system is started. You can close your home window now -- you're done with it.

GNOME's menus need to be altered by hand

You can safely delete menu items you never use; deleting icons does not delete programs, so you're not actually removing anything important from your computer. If you open a program group -- like the Internet group, for instance -- another window will open up containing the menu items in that group. Usually you won't be deleting much, because the GNOME menus don't tend to accumulate a lot of unnecessary entries. More than likely you'll primarily be adding icons for programs that you want in the menu system from the list of missing programs that you made earlier.

Adding icons is a relatively simple process. Go to the File menu and then select Create Launcher.

In the Name field, type in the heading that you'd like to see for the menu item. For instance, if you're adding the K3b CD/DVD-writing application, you'll probably specify K3b as the name to display in the menu. The Generic Name and Comment fields are not necessary, but if you like you can copy the same information from the Name field. The Command field is where you type the name of the binary executable file -- the text you would you type at a terminal prompt to run this application.

It might be that you have no idea what to type in here. You can try out some ideas by opening up a command line shell; usually the command is the name of the program in all lowercase letters. If you don't know what to type in and can't figure it out at the command line, the next step is to click on the Browse button to sift through the directory tree to try to find the correct program. The best places to look are usually /usr/X11R6/bin, /opt, /usr/local/bin, and your home directory (and subdirectories therein).

Icons for the programs are sometimes selected by default. When they're not, choose your own by clicking on the button that says No Icon. A number of stock GNOME application icons are shown. Click on one that you like and then click the OK button. If you want to try to find an icon specific to your application and it is not in the initial list, you'll have to go looking for it. Usually these icons can be found in a directory titled with the name of the program in the /usr/share, /usr/local/share, or /usr/X11R6/share directories, or subdirectories therein. Sometimes you have to really dig for it -- the K3b graphics, for instance, can be found in the /usr/local/share/apps/K3b/ directory.

We've added program icons and Dictionary Lookup and Sticky Notes applets to the panel

Once you've filled in all of the requisite information, click on the OK button. You'll notice that the icon doesn't appear immediately, even after a refresh of the window. The new menu entry only appears after you've restarted your system.

Adding quick-launch icons

You probably want your most oft-used programs to have icons in the quick-launch area of your menu panel. You should already have some there; it varies from operating system to operating system, but usually you have icons for your home directory and for a command line shell along with others.

You can remove any icons there that you don't use by right-clicking on them and selecting Remove From Panel.

To add an icon for a program, right-click on an empty space in the panel and then click on Add To Panel. The menu will expand to the right just as before, except this time you're going to click on Launcher From Menu. The menu will again expand to the right, revealing a modified version of your Applications menu. Select the program that you'd like to add to the menu by left-clicking on it, then move the icon to where you want it in the panel. Repeat this step until you have your quick-launch area the way you want it.


Applets are little programs that run within other, larger programs. You can add a variety of interesting applets to the panel. Right-click on an empty space in the panel and then click on Add To Panel as before. Applets are listed in the categories above the Launcher option. There are quite a few of them -- more than you can possibly add to your panel. Experiment with different applets to see which ones you find most useful.

Resizing the panel

Resizing the panel makes it easier to see and use

The panel is a little too small to accommodate a lot of open windows, and the icons are rather small. If you have many programs running at once it will be difficult to see them in the window list. To remedy this -- and to make the panel a little easier to see and use -- you can make it larger.

Right-click on an empty space in the panel and then click Properties in the popup dialogue. In the Size field, increase the value to at least 48 pixels. This is the minimum size required to accommodate two rows in the window list. You can of course make it larger or smaller according to your preference.

Next: Choosing a new theme

Now let's tackle the boring default theme for the windows and icons. Most distributions come stocked with a number of preinstalled themes that are much more interesting than the default. To explore them, click on your foot menu and then Applications, Desktop Preferences, and Theme. A window will appear with different themes in it. Click on each one to see what it looks like when applied to your desktop.

There are many appealing customizations you can make to GNOME's interface

If you want to customize parts of the theme or combine elements from different themes, click on the Theme Details button and play with the options until you find a configuration you prefer. Still not satisfied? Visit the GNOME art site and download some different themes. There are dozens of attractive themes to choose from -- you're sure to find something you like.

The easiest way to install a new theme that you've downloaded is to extract it from its archive and drag the resulting folder into the Theme Preferences window. This brings up the Add Theme dialogue with the proper path already entered for you. Simply click OK and the theme is added. You have to close and reopen the Theme Preferences window for the new themes to show up.

Remember that most of the themes you download are not complete themes but pieces of themes. In other words they're icon sets, application schemes, or window borders. That means that, after they're installed, you have to look for them in the proper section of the Theme Details window. You can spend hours going through different combinations of these elements; experiment until you find a combination that suits you.

A prettier background

Lastly, let's change the default background. Right-click on an empty space on your desktop and then select Change Desktop Background from the pop-up dialogue. This will bring up the Desktop Background Preferences window. Here you can set the background to a picture stored on your computer or to a color or gradient. The GNOME art site also has more interesting backgrounds available.

The desktop background is the final step in customizing your GNOME desktop

If your picture is not large enough to cover the entire screen when set to Scaled, you can choose a background color to fill in the rest of the space. In the example below, the picture only covers about 80% of the screen, but since it has a black background, the desktop background color can be matched to give the appearance of a picture that covers the whole desktop.

The end

And that's it -- you've successfully modified your GNOME desktop environment to achieve better productivity. You may find after a period of time that there are some items in your panel or menu that you rarely use, or perhaps you'd like to move things around a little more. Customizing your desktop is not a one-time event, but rather a process that evolves as your computer use does. Don't be afraid to experiment with different appearance settings -- if you ever get to the point where you've made GNOME totally unusable, you can delete your ~/.gconf directory and GNOME will regenerate your configuration files with the default settings.

Jem Matzan is the author of three books, a freelance journalist and the editor-in-chief of The Jem Report.


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