How to theme your Linux Desktop

linux desktop themes. There are literally thousands available to make your desktop look just like you want!
An example of GNOME theming: The Elegance gnome shell
An example of GNOME theming: The Elegance Gnome shell

Are you tired of the way your desktop looks? Those icons and widgets that once seemed so endearing are now looking a bit shabby or dated? Fear not, here’s a quick tip on how to get some nice new eye candy for your favourite desktop!

There are literally thousands of themes out there. Themes can comprise wallpapers, icons, widget looks (eg the sliders, mouse pointers, radio buttons and so forth), they also can contain custom fonts, colours, and placement alterations to name but a few tweaks that can seriously alter the way your desktop looks.

In most of the recent Linux distributions that run Gnome, you’ll be using GTK+3 as the window management system. You don’t really need to worry about that, other than to note that you’ll be searching for GTK+3 themes. If you are using older versions of Gnome, then GTK+2 applies. For those of you using the standard version of Ubuntu, then you use a desktop called Unity, so you want Unity themes (note that most Unity themes are GTK+3 themes, however there may be some Unity specific themes that do extra things for Unity users. Finally note that KDE Themes are for KDE users; GTK+ themes do not work for KDE and vice-versa. There’s also themes for XFCE users.

Where do I get a theme?

Firstly, you want to pick out a theme that you really like the look of. I’ve seen people change the theme of their Linux desktop to completely resemble that of a recent Mac, or even Windows 10. The only limitation is people’s imagination. Indeed, making a desktop look and feel like that of another operating system may be a useful way to help other folks get into using Linux, potentially without them even knowing it!

Here are a few links to theming websites which will get you started. Note that there are more out there, these links are just the more popular ones:

How do I install a Theme?

Once you’ve found the theme you like the look of, you can install it via a number of means. I’ll cover the way to do it for each desktop environment, GNOME, KDE and XFCE.


Gnome 'Fruta Theme'
Gnome ‘Fruta Theme’

You can use the gnome-tweak-tool, however I’ve found that the lxappearance tool works best with any GTK+ desktop or variant, such as LXDE or MATE. Either way, you can install the tool by using the Software Center (or other ‘app store’ like software installer that your distribution ships with), or you can run the following command at the Terminal:
sudo apt-get install lxappearance
Or, if you prefer, the respective variant tweak tools:

  • Standard GNOME Desktops:
    sudo apt-get install gnome-tweak-tool
  • Ubuntu Unity:
    sudo apt-get install unity-tweak-tool
  • Elementary OS users can use the Elementary tweaks system:
    sudo add-apt-repository ppa:mpstark/elementary-tweaks-daily
    sudo apt-get update
    sudo apt-get install elementary-tweaks

Once you have installed the relevant theme installation tool, you need to copy the theme itself into the appropriate themes folder. I’m assuming for this example that you have downloaded a file in your Downloads folder (eg /home/username/Downloads). Firstly, you need to unzip the file you just downloaded. You can do this in your file browser simply by double-clicking it, or using the unzip command (or in the case of a .tar.gz – tar zxfp ‘tarfile.tar.gz’) at the Terminal. Once you unzip it, it should provide you a folder, let’s just say for this example, its called ‘theme-folder’.

Finally, you need to copy the theme to your themes folder. You can do this from the file browser too, but since the folder is a finicky hidden folder (.themes, inside your home folder), it may be easier just to do it from the Terminal:

  1. Type in: cd ~ && mkdir .themes
    This command will create a .themes folder in your personal folder. Note that the dot is necessary.
  2. Type in: cd ~/Downloads
  3. Type in: mv theme-folder ~/.themes
    Replace theme-folder with the folder that contains the files that you unzipped. Note you want to move the entire folder, not just the files in it.
The gnome tweak tool allows you to select your newly installed theme

NB, if you intend on providing the theme for every user on the system, and not just your account, you will need to use sudo to copy it into /usr/share/themes, rather than your own .themes folder.

After you’ve copied it to the themes folder, you should be able to see it in one of the tools you elected to use earlier, select the theme and relevant icons, etc and you are set to go. The screen shot to the left demonstrates the use of the gnome-tweak-tool. Note that this is under Advanced Settings -> Theme -> Shell Theme. The dropdown should display the name of the theme that you just moved into the .themes folder.

Installing KDE Themes

To install KDE themes, it’s a little easier, just right click on desktop -> Desktop Settings (or Appearance Settings, depending on which version you use) -> New Theme… -> (Choose a theme) -> Install.

Installing XFCE Themes

Installing XFCE requires the most time, so instead of list all the steps here, refer to XFCE’s well written documentation on the topic:

XFCE Wiki [ ]


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