Guide to customizing Ubuntu’s look and feel

In this guide I’m going to explain, as easy as humanly possible, how to customize the look and feel of just about anything in Ubuntu.

note: this page is not bandwidth friendly.

updated 09/08/08

It’s going to cover the following subjects.

1. Setting a different wallpaper (for each workspace)
2. Installing a new theme
3. Changing the panel size, transparency
4. Installing a new icon set
5. Setting up Compiz Fusion (and it’s effects, like the rotating cube)
6. Setting up transparent windows borders
7. Setting up true panel and menu transparency
8. Installing/changing system fonts
9. Installing/using new system sounds
10. Installing “widgets” and adding new ones
11. Making root applications use your theme/icons
12. Installing a dock
13. Installing a different login screen
14. Use a splash screen/install a new splash screen
15. Install a different grub theme
16. Install a new mouse theme
17. Conky, a lightweight system monitor and more.

1. Using a different wallpaper (for each workspace)

Right-click your desktop and click “change desktop background”.

Navigate to the picture you would like to use, double-click it.

In the “style” drop down menu, you can choose how the picture will be displayed on your desktop.

I suggest using “fill screen”, but you can play with this and select the one you like the best.

Then you can close the window.

If you want have a terminal window as background, click here

If have compiz fusion 0.7.6 installed, there is a wallpaper plugin you can used called “wallpaper”.

It will allow you to set a different wallpaper for each workspace.

Installation notes here.

2. Installing a new theme

The best site for gnome themes is called “gnome-look”.

In the “GTK 2.x” section of the website you can download the themes.

After you downloaded a theme, make sure it’s extention read “.tar.gz”.

Some times you download more than just a gtk theme. If that is the case, you’ll need to extract the archive (right-click, extract here). If there isn’t a .tar.gz for the gtk theme, but just a bunch a little picture files. Right-click the folder containing the pictures and press “create archive”.

The same goes from themes downloaded as .rar of .zip or .7z, extract them and then create an .tar.gz archive.

That being said, in most cases it will already come in a .tar.gz container.

After the file is downloaded, navigate to “system -> preferences -> appearance”.

Press the “install” button and select the theme you downloaded (or repacked).

Some times a message box will appear asking you if you want to use the theme, press yes.

If this is not the case, click on the “customize” button, in the “controls” tab, select the theme you installed.

3. Changing the panel size, transparency

Right-click the panel (top or bottom) you want to change and click “properties”.

There you can change the panels size.

In the “background”  tab, you select the second option to get a transparent panel, but this will not use the theme style you selected previously.

If you want transparency and still use the theme style, look at point 7. of this guide.

4. Installing a new icon set

The same as installing a new theme.

You can download icon sets on

Navigate to “system -> preferences -> appearance”, click install and select the icon set you downloaded.

If you don’t get a message box asking you the use the new icons set, click the “customize” button and in the “icon” tab, select your icon set.

5. Setting up Compiz Fusion (and it’s effects, like the rotating cube)

Compiz fusion is installed by default on your ubuntu OS (from gutsy and up).

Your graphics card should be working before you attempt this.

Even though Compiz Fusion is installed by default, it settings manager isn’t (don’t ask me why, I have no clue).

Navigate to “applications -> add/remove” and search for “compiz”. Select “advanced desktop effects settings” and press “apply”.

I’m not 100% sure this next step is neccessary, but it can’t hurt.

Navigate to “system -> preferences -> appearance”  and it the “visual effects” tab, select “extra”.

Then navigate to “system -> preferences -> advanced desktop effects settings” to change customize compiz fusion.

I will not explain all the options, but just the basic ones to get a nice looking setup.

I’ll embed a youtube video for each one, so you know what the effect does.

1. Desktop Cube

For the cube you will need to enable the following plugins

– Desktop Cube
– Rotate Cube
– Cube Reflection (optional, but better lookin imho)
– Cube Caps

You can also use “3d windows” and “cube gears”, but those are totally optional and will put more stress on your system.

To set the images on the top of the cube, click “Cube Caps” and point the images you want to use in the “appearance” tab.

To set a background image behind your cube, you’ll need to download a “skydome” picture and set it up in “Destkop Cube’, appearance tab. If you pick “animated skydome” the skydome will be “moving”, if not, it will just sit there and will not change.

Also, in “Desktop Cube” you can set the cube’s transparency in the “transparent cube” tab.

Now, by default you’ll only have 2 side on the cube, so it won’t even look like a cube.

Go the the “General Options” plugin, and in the “desktop size” tab, set the “horizontal size” to 4.

To use the rotating desktop, press the scroll button of your mouse in an empty area of your desktop and move it while holding it pressed in.

Or hold in  “ctrl + alt + left mouse” to use it.

2. Expo

Just select the “expo” plugin to start using it.

You can set a screen edge for this plugin, which I find very usefull.

In the “bindings” tab, click the “expo edge” and select a windows edge.

If you now move your mouse to that edge in a swift manner, you’ll activate this plugin.

In the “appearance” tab, you can set some effects in the first drop down menu. It’s up to you if you use them.

3. Animations

Animations basically are the little effects you get when you close/open/minimize an application, menu, pop-up window.

In each of the tabs you can set the effect for an action.

My advice is to edit the first one and from the drop-down menu select another effect. Test it out to see if you like it and pick another one if you don’t.

4. Wobbly windows

The video says it all.

5. Trail Focus

I didn’t find a video for this one, but this basically just darkens the windows that aren’t in use, so you can focus more on the active window.

6. Shift switcher

This one “emulates” windows vista “aero” effect or the “coverflow” effect used in ipod touch devices.

In the “appearance’ tab, from the first drop down windows you can either select “flip” (aero) or “cover” (coverflow).

In the same windows you can set some more detailed preferences for the effect.

You use this effect by pressing “super + tab”

On most computers the “super” key is the one with the windows logo on it.

There are a lot more effects, try them. Some effects are not compatible with other effects so a pop-up windows will appear asking you to disable the other effect or cancel.

Update: The compiz version in the ubuntu repositories is a bit outdated.

You can install the newest version of ubuntu by going to “synaptic package manager”, go to settings -> repositories. In the “third party software” press add and copy/paste this line

deb hardy main

Then press the reload button in synaptic.

The update manager should inform you that updates are available for compiz fusion.

Install them and you’ll be using the latest version.

Some of the new effects in this new version.

6. Setting up transparent windows borders

You’ll need to download a program called “emerald” either using “applications -> add/remove” or “system -> administration -> synaptic package manager”.

Not all emerald themes are transparent, like some of the mac osx ones.

You can download these borders from gnome-look. Either in the “compiz” or “beryl” section.

The file must end .emerald.

Navigate to “system -> preferences -> emerald theme manager”.

Press the import button to select your downloaded theme, double click it to use it. It could be possible that you’ll need to enter a command to use it.

Press “alt + f2” and copy/paste “emerald –replace”.

(NOTE: it is “- – replace” without the space, changes this automatically)

Add the same code to “system -> preferences -> sessions” ,after you press “add”, in the middle field to start emerald when you start up your pc.

Note: it might be a good idea to install “compiz fusion icon” from “add/remove” so you can change between emerald and the standard windows borders, that way if you add a new emerald theme, you don’t have to enter the command and can just use that little program.

7. Setting up true panel and menu transparency

I’ll already covered this topic, so I’ll direct you to that page.


8. Installing/changing system fonts

There are a lot of fonts that can be installed from “system -> administration -> synaptic package manager”.

If you want the true type Windows fonts, search for “msttcorefonts”. This package is in the ubuntu-restricted-extras, so you might already have them.

Another popular font set are the Red Hat Liberation fonts, search for the package “ttf-liberation”.

You can also downloads lots of fonts from the web. The best website for free fonts is

If you download and they come in an archive, extract it first. You only need the .ttf files.

To install them, go to “places -> home folder” and press “ctrl +h”. This will show the hidden folders.

Look for “.fonts” (note the dot!). If the folder does not exist, create it (again, make sure you put the dot before it).

You can instantly use the fonts after you restart the application you want to use them in.

Now, to change the fonts the sytem uses, navigate to “system -> preferences -> fonts”.

The options are pretty straight-forward.

9. Installing/using new system sounds

I already cover this subject, so I’ll just provide you with the link to the post.


10. Installing “widgets” and adding new ones. wrote a complete and easy to follow tutorial on this one.


11. Making root applications use your theme/icons

It happens to be the case I already wrote about this, so I’ll point you to my post about it.


12. Installing a dock

There are loads of dock, and  I compared them in this post.

I believe the best dock is “cairo-dock”.

To download this dock, visit this site and download “cairo-dock_v1.5.6_i686.deb” and “cairo-dock-plug-ins_v1.5.6_i686.deb“.

First install the dock, then the plugin package.

Install them by double-clicking the file.

You’ll need to enter your password. Then press the big button on the top right.

After you installed both packages, go to “applications -> system tools -> cairo-dock”.

You’ll be greeted by a little wizard that will help you select the theme, …

You can easily change it’s option by right-click the dock, go to “cairo-dock” and press “configure’ or “manage themes”.

To start the dock when you boot up your pc, go to “system -> preferences -> sessions”, press “add” and in the middle field enter “cairo-dock” (without the ” “). You can make up what you put in the other fields.

13. Installing a different login screen

First you’ll  need to download one, I suggest this site.

After you download it, navigate to “system -> administration -> login window”, press on the local tab and drag the file in there.

Then select it and make sure no other login windows are selected.

Close the window.

If you like the login screen, but dislike the wallpaper it uses, follow this link to use your own wallpaper.

14. Use a splash screen/install a new splash screen

First install the package “gnome-splashscreen-manager” from “system -> administration -> synaptic package manager” (or use apt-get).

Select the “show splash screen on start up” to start using a splash screen.

The default is the blue gnome splash screen, and changes are it won’t fit with your themed desktop, so let’s install a new one.

As you might have figured by now, the best place to get splash themes is

In the splash screen manager (to open, press alt+f2 and enter gnome-splashscreen-manager), there is an install button.

Select your file and the splash screen should be installed.

Some people reported that the above solution didn’t work.

If that is the case, you can try “ubuntu tweak” to set a new splash screen.

Download the .deb file here.

Go to “startup -> session control” and then tag the “show splash theme” box.

Then press the big button and select the splash screen you like.

(note: I haven’t tried this, should it not work, let me know)

15. Install a different grub theme

You can download themes from the same gnome-look link from point 14.

Look for the themes with a “grub” mentioning.

After you downloaded one, open up a terminal (applications -> accessories) and do this

sudo ln -s /home/username/Desktop/my_image.xpm.gz /boot/grub/splash.xpm.gz
sudo update-grub

Replace “/home/username/Desktop/my_image.xpm.gz” with the actual location of the grub theme.

(you can find the path name in nautilus, if you don’t it)

16. Install a new mouse theme

You will need an x11 cursor theme.

These can be found on many places, but I suggest going to gnome-look for them.

Untar the downloaded package (right-click, extract here) and copy the folder to /home/username/.icons

.icons is a hidden folder in the home folder. Press “ctrl+h” to view them.

Then navigate to “system -> preferences -> appearance” and press the “customize” button.

In the “pointer” tab, select your new mouse theme.

17. Conky, a lightweight system monitor and more.

Conky will draw system info on your desktop. It can do a lot of things, an example:

Install and customizing instructions can be found here.


Any suggestions to improve this guide or other requests dealing with customizing Ubuntu (or my bad spelling) can be made in the comments.

Feel free to use/modify this guide on your site, but posting a link back here would be nice.

  1. I like this, Bill. Are you considering adding some more screenshots in the future?

  2. Do you like anal?

    • linuxowns
    • June 16th, 2008

    @ Ubuntu cat:


    I plan on adding some others things too.

    @ Ibod:


  3. Great guide, especially for newcomers to the Linux and Ubuntu world 🙂

    • kushelmex
    • June 17th, 2008

    nice guide!

    • linuxowns
    • June 17th, 2008


  4. Thanks for all the tips on customizing the Ubuntu Linux Desktop!

    Nice, easy, short and simple ways to set up Ubuntu.

    You can also go to to see free sample videos showing how to use Ubuntu.

    And go to to have a look at the Ubuntu Linux Book that is being developed as a “Blog to Book” project to create Linux training materials for Ubuntu Linux!

    Have a look and then click on “Comment” to let me know what you think.

    Clyde Boom, The Easy Linux Training Guy

  5. Thanks for a nice tutorial. As a recently started ubuntu user, I found out some of your tips already, but I wish I had had your tips, would’ve saved me quite some time 🙂

    • George
    • June 18th, 2008

    A very helpful post. Especially the Animation and Shift Switcher parts. I was always wondering how the Flip 3D effect in Aero can be achieved in Compiz. Now I got the answer. It’s actually very simple. Thanks very much.

  6. Nice guide. I may give Linux a try sometime. Oh my geek friends keep telling how Windows is evil and that I should switch over. Is Ubuntu the best version to use?

    • linuxowns
    • June 20th, 2008

    Yes, or the Ubuntu derivative called “linux mint”.

    I’ll update this thread tomorrow, I’ll add conky to it and I forgot to mention the “x11 mouse cursor themes”, I’ll add some other stuff as well (pics, google gadgets, …).

  7. Hi
    you have a nice work here friend
    Thank you to manage the site on topics

  8. That’s very nice…

    • david nineteenpointfive
    • June 22nd, 2008

    I have an easier solution, that looks as good without the compiz mess. Themes: In appearance preferences, use “Moomex” for the window border, “Bluetopia” for the controls, and “blendedcrystal-2.2” for the icons.

    For backgrounds, simply choose from wallpapers.

    • david nineteenpointfive
    • June 22nd, 2008

    Also, for cursor, I use “vienna3”. by the way, you can download these various theme parts from or Save to your desktop, then click install when you go to your “appearance preferences”.

    • jimihendrix
    • July 23rd, 2008

    splash screen thingie didn’t work

    i still got the same old ubuntu one

    • linuxowns
    • July 23rd, 2008

    You could try using ubuntu-tweak to install it.

    I’ve updated the splash screen instructions.

  9. Thanks !

    • Roger
    • September 7th, 2008

    I have a problem installing the dock and selecting a theme. I just did what you wrote, but I cant apply it 😛


    • linuxowns
    • September 7th, 2008


    Post your question on or the forum your distro uses.

    People will be happy to help.

    • RussW210
    • September 12th, 2008

    Hey Bill, you helped me out on once and I found your website through there. Have been looking through and there is some good information for my noobie self. Keep up the good work.

    • linuxowns
    • September 12th, 2008


    I appreciate the feedback.

    • Janez604
    • September 17th, 2008

    awesome !!!!!!! THANKS SOO MUCH

    • Vadi
    • October 3rd, 2008

    Might want to promote also, as people have gotten annoyed about ubuntu stuff on gnome-look 😉

    • Miguel
    • October 14th, 2008

    I like that dock on the video about animation.
    Anyone know how to get it?

    • linuxowns
    • October 14th, 2008

    Instruction to get that dock are here:

    The howto is a bit of age but I think it still works fine.

  10. I’m having major difficulties with themes. It seems, that I can’t actually install any icons, and no theme changes my panel’s outlook. I have no idea why. Also, if I’m trying to use Emerald as the theme manager, it has to be used by terminal. By typing “emerald –replace.” I don’t know what to do… Help, my ubuntu’s out look is so boring… 😦

    • linuxowns
    • October 22nd, 2008


    For the emerald theme:

    Go to system -> preferences -> session and create a new item.

    Paste the emerald –replace code there.

    That will do the trick.

    Have you tried pasting the icons in /home/username/.icons and the themes in /home/username/.themes ?

    Do you have the correct engines for the themes installed?

    I suggest you go to your distro’s forum and post your support question there.

    • Yiming
    • November 10th, 2008


  11. I downloaded the cairo-dock … and got the following message:

    /tmp/cairo-dock_v1.5.6_i686.deb could not be opened, because the associated helper application does not exist. Change the association in your preferences.

    Also, why do you recommend 1.5.6, when there are much newer versions available?

    • linuxowns
    • December 28th, 2008

    Moss Bliss, this article wasn’t written yesterday. It’s a few months old :p

    About the error, download the file to your desktop.

    Open up a terminal and enter this command:

    sudo dpkg -i cairo-dock_v1.x.x.x.deb

    • Rob P
    • January 9th, 2009

    Bill, just decided as a little “Christmas Project” to banish Windows from my house and build my servers and laptop with Ubuntu! Just wanted to say thanks for your website, it was a great, easy to follow way to get cracking with all the cool stuff!

    • Tyler
    • January 29th, 2009

    Nice guide! Another handy bit to write some on is shortcuts. There are a ton of defaults, and just about everything can be set up with a shortcut.

    • PKRakesh
    • February 2nd, 2009

    Marvelous !!! ..Very useful guide.

    • Matthew
    • May 3rd, 2009

    This is soo great… I am extremely grateful for the time and effort you have put into compiling this. Thanks a lot.

  12. hi
    i am trying to customize my desktop and followed the above steps but as written in step 5 I am not able to see any advanced desktop setting option.
    need help.

    • aaron
    • August 3rd, 2009

    What’s the theme you are using in step 6?

  13. Hello – just a little note to say kudos for this entry. Very interesting.

  14. Marvelous !!! ..Very useful guide.

  15. Hi webmaster, commenters and everybody else !!! The blog was without a doubt terrific! Very useful topic and inspiration, both of which we all need! Keep up the good work you do such a great job that can’t tell you how much I, for one love all you do!

  16. I like that dock on the video about animation.
    Anyone know how to get it?

      • Kidd
      • June 6th, 2011

      I would like to get the dock as well. I thought it was AWN but now, it doesn’t look quite like it. It’s not Docky for sure.

      Try AWN

  17. Great and very informative post you have shared with us i like this blog post.

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    • Info Stream
    • December 5th, 2012

    Reblogged this on INFO STREAM.

  19. Hey there are using WordPress for your site platform?
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  30. Thanks for finally writing about >Guide to customizing Ubuntus look and feel
    | Linux Owns <Loved it!

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