20 ways to customise your Mac desktop

By admin On Monday, October 11 th, 2010 · 32 Comments · In

Apple has done a great job making sure Mac OS X is aesthetically pleasing with its Aqua theme, exciting desktop images and clear, eye-catching icons.

Yet out of the box, your Mac looks like every other. To really make it your own, you must personalise it, tailoring it to suit yourself on both a practical and cosmetic level. Change the desktop, use custom icons, install your own alert sounds, and a whole lot more. Here’s how…

1. Changing icons

The Mac’s standard icons are pretty generic. There are some great icon sets to be downloaded from the likes of iconarchive.comiconfactory.com and apple.com/downloads/macosx/icons_ screensavers.

In Finder, highlight the icon you wish to use, and press Command+I to get its Info window. Click on the small version of the icon in the top-left corner, and press Command+c to copy it.

Now highlight the file or folder you wish to ‘badge’ with the new icon, and press Command+I again. Highlight the icon in the top-left of this window, and press Command+v to paste. The new icon is now in use.

To remove it, open the Info window and highlight the icon, and press Delete to reset it to the default icon for that file or folder.

Changing system icons such as the Trash and Finder’s Dock icon is a trickier proposition. You need an icon management app called CandyBar. It’s easy to use, and can mod your Dock as well as your icons. CandyBar 3 costs $29 (about £20), but you get a 15-day, 250-icon trial to evaluate it.

2. Create your own icons

Folder Icon X makes it really easy to badge your folders with icons or images. It doesn’t scale up to the maximum 512×512 images offered by Snow Leopard, but who actually displays their icons that large anyway?

Iconfactory’s IconBuilder is a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop or Fireworks. It’s the icon creator of choice for the professionals.

3. Desktop Images

The easiest way to change over your desktop image is to open up System Preferences (find it under the Apple menu), open the Desktop & Screensaver pane and select one of the designs on offer. If you prefer to work from a plain desktop, you can set it as a solid colour. And if you really wanted, you can even set it up to change the picture at userdefined intervals.

But you’re not restricted to using desktop wallpapers supplied with the operating system. You can use a picture stored in iPhoto directly from the Desktop & Screensaver pane, or from iPhoto’s Share menu. There are thousands of wallpapers available online too.

Make sure you use the correct size image for your monitor (you can check what size you need in the Display preference pane). Download desktop wallpapers to your hard drive and navigate to them through the Desktop & Screensaver preference pane, or if you’re using Snow Leopard, right- or Ctrl-click in Finder and select Set Desktop Picture from the contextual menu.

4. Change account icon

To change your account icon, open System Preferences and select the Accounts pane. Now click on your startup icon and select a new one. Alternatively, select Edit Picture to resize your image, choose a picture from your Mac or take a snap with your iSight camera.

5. Custom logon message

To add a message to your login screen, in the Terminal (Applications > Utilities), type:

sudo defaults write /Library/ Preferences/com.apple.loginwindow LoginwindowText “Your Message”

To remove, type:

sudo defaults write /Library/ Preferences/com.apple. loginwindow LoginwindowText “”

6. The Menu Bar

When Apple released OS X Leopard, its new translucent menu bar proved to be so unpopular, that the option to make the colour solid was added in with the release of 10.5.2.

Open the Desktop & Screensaver preference pane, and check or uncheck the Translucent Menu Bar option. As translucent menu bars can prove to be quite difficult to read with some desktop images, this option is very handy.

7. Menulets

The icons at the right of the menu bar, offering pull-down menus for specific applications and features, are called menulets. Most of these are added to the menu bar using System Preferences or an application’s own preference options.

For example, if you want to add or remove Sound, Universal Access, Bluetooth or Time Machine menulets, go to their respective preference panes and check or uncheck the box. Some menulets disappear when their respective app is shut down, while others can be removed by simply dragging them off the menu bar while holding down the Command key.

There are some menulets that are hidden away, and can only be reached by navigating to [Hard Disk]/System/ Library/CoreServices/Menu Extras.

Here you will find plenty of files with the extension ‘.menu’. Double-clicking on one of these will add its menulet to the menu bar. The Eject menulet is especially useful if you’re using a keyboard that has no eject key.

8. Screen Saver

To change your screen saver, open System Preferences, then open the Desktop & Screen Saver pane. Select the Screen Saver tab for a list of all currently installed screen savers and a preview of the one that’s currently active.

You can select one, opt for a random saver to be chosen and define a hot corner to manually activate or disable your screen saver. You can set how long your computer must be inactive before the screen saver kicks in too.

To set up a slideshow as your screen saver, choose one of the options listed under Library. Double-click on it for custom options such as cross-fade and zoom, and use the Display Style buttons under the preview window to opt for one photo at a time, multiple rotating photos or a mosaic.

If you’ve a folder of pictures you want to use in your screen saver, press the ‘+’ button and navigate to it. Experiment with these options and watch the preview.

You can also add a third-party screen saver. If it doesn’t have an installer, locate the file with the extension .saver and drag it into the Screen Savers folder at [Hard Disk]/ Library/Screen Savers.

A free utility called Wallsaver lets you use your screen saver as your desktop image. It’s very impressive, but you must choose a screen saver within Wallsaver’s preferences; it won’t simply opt for the one you have currently set up.

9. A 3D Desktop

BumpTop turns your desktop into a cool 3D environment. You can pin files and folders onto the back wall out of the way and even put desktop items into piles on the floor, which work a little like your Dock’s Stacks feature. Download the custom themes at www.customize.org/bumptop too; there’s a YouTube video on how to install them here.

BumpTop was acquired by Google in April 2010, and the app was withdrawn; it can no longer be downloaded from www.bumptop.com. But all is not lost. It was featured on MacFormat’s coverdisc in issue 221, with a full tutorial on how to use it. See page 99 for details on ordering a back issue, but be quick. Stocks are limited, and they’re going fast.

10. Customise your keyboard shortcuts

Keyboard shortcuts trigger an action without selecting an option from a menu. Pulldown menus accessed through the menu bar often list keyboard shortcuts as alternatives.

For example, in the Finder’s File menu, opening a new Finder window can be achieved using Command+N, a new folder is created with Shift+N and a new Smart Folder with Option+Command+N.

You can also customise keyboard shortcuts or create your own. Open System Preferences and select the Keyboard preference pane. Select the Keyboard Shortcuts tab. To change the inputs for the listed actions, select the one you wish to change, click its keyboard command to turn it into a text field and enter the shortcut of your choice to change it.

To create a new keyboard shortcut, Press the + button. In the dropdown box, select which application you want the shortcut to affect, enter the exact menu option you wish to add a shortcut for and add the keyboard shortcut you wish to use.

For example, in Safari, the History menu gives a Re-open All Windows from Last Session option, but not a shortcut. To create a shortcut that activates this command using Shift+Command+r, press + and select Safari from the pulldown menu.

Under Menu Title choose Reopen All Windows from Last Session, and in the Keyboard Shortcut field, enter Shift+Command+r. Press Add.

11. Customise your Dock

A) System Preferences

Using your Dock preference pane, you can change the size of your Dock, customise or switch off its magnification effect or place it on the left, right or foot of the screen. You can also keep it permanently visible, or make it appear only when you drag your pointer to it.

B) DockDoctor

DockDoctor is a free app for customising your Dock. You can change its colour, opaque hidden applications or re-skin it completely with custom designs such as a chessboard, guitar frets or a rainbow pattern. Extra custom skins are available to download.

C) A Terminal trick

For big Dock icons, enable Magnification, open Terminal (Applications > Utilities) and type:

defaults write com.apple.dock largesize -int 512; killall Dock

To return everything to normal, go back to the Dock’s preference pane and move the Magnification slider.

12. Window Wallpapers

When using Finder’s Icon view, you can give a window coloured backgrounds or wallpaper it with an image. Open the Finder window you wish to customise, and select the Icon view (use the View menu or press Command+1). Now select Show View Options (View menu or Command+J).

You get a window full of options. In the Background section, there are three buttons; White, Color and Picture. Click on Color, then on the square that appears to select a background colour for that particular window. If you want to turn it white again, click the White button.

To install a background wallpaper, in the View Options window, click the Picture button and drag the image you want to use into the box as instructed. Make sure it’s not too big – pictures are not resized. Again, if you want to turn it back to plain old white, press the White button.

Incidentally, you can also enlarge or shrink icons using View Options, and if you access the View Options window from the desktop, you can change the size of your desktop icons.

13. Personalise your Finder windows

There are several more ways you can personalise your Finder windows. The most practical is to customise the buttons in the top bar. Make sure the Finder window is active, with the side bar visible; click on the pill-shaped button in the top-right corner if it isn’t.

In the View pull-down menu, select Customize toolbar. You can now drag buttons into and out of the toolbar and change the way the buttons are displayed. Changes affect all Finder windows, not just the one you’re working on. If you want to go back to default, just drag the default button set onto the toolbar.

You can change the look and feel of OS X in other ways too. In the System Preferences, click on the Appearance pane. If you dislike the blue buttons and scroll bars, and the traffic-light gumdrops in the top-right corner of every window, turn them graphite. You can also adjust the scroll bar and scroll arrows’ functionality here, but Tinker Tool offers even more options.

14. Unlock hidden functions

Deeper opens hidden functions within your Mac and OS X applications. For example, you can set the Dock to show only running apps, or change the file format of screen captures.

Get it free from here. Currently Leopard-only, a version for Snow Leopard is now in the pipeline.

15. Tinker with TinkerTool

A) Download TinkerTool

TinkerTool is free to download from here. It allows access to settings and customisation not available through system or application preferences. It also has a reset option in case you get carried away.

B) Transparent folders

In TinkerTool’s Finder tab, tick Use Transparent Covers when Inspecting Folders to get a see-through effect in Quick Look. You can see what’s in the folder as well as the usual info about size, number of contents and the date.

C) Changing fonts

You can also change the default fonts used by OS X and its native applications. There are plenty of ways you can personalise your Mac with TinkerTool, so download and experiment to suit your style.

16. Online customisation resources

Check out InterfaceLIFT and Pixel Girl Presents for custom icons, themes and wallpapers.

17. Customise the side bar

Side bar menus can be customised through Finder’s preferences. Choose what devices, shared drives, locations, places and search options appear in your side bar here. You can also drag an application, folder or file onto the Places menu to give easy access to just about any item on your Mac.

Alternatively, an item highlighted in the Finder can be added using the File menu, or Command+T.

18. Universal Access

If you have difficulty with your sight or hearing, or find it tricky operating your Mac’s keyboard or mouse then the Universal Access preference pane is designed to help.

The Zoom function within the Seeing tab is especially useful whether or not you have seeing difficulties, and switching your display to white-onblack or greyscale can also be of immense help.

19. Change your alert sounds

When your Mac or a running app wants to get your attention, it plays an alert sound. You can change this sound if you wish. To change the alert used by your Mac, and by OS X apps such as iTunes, open your System Preferences and access the Sound Preferences pane.

Click the Sound Effects tab and choose a new sound effect from the list. To change the sounds for each app, use its own preferences.

You can also install custom alert sounds. Simply navigate to Users/ [Home Folder]/Library/Sounds, and drag the sound file into it. The new sound is then available through the System Preferences list and applications’ preferences, as outlined earlier. Sounds added in this way are listed as Type: Custom in the alert sounds window, and are available only to yourself, not other user accounts.

If you want to make the custom sounds available to all users, go to Hard Drive > Library and create a ‘Sounds’ folder. Place your files here and restart. These will now be listed as Type: System Shared.

Files must be in the AIFF format. There are online tools to convert sound clips to AIFF format, such as Audacity. If it saves the file as’.aif’, edit it to ‘.aiff’ in Finder.

20. New themes

There used to be a thriving community for modding and skinning your Mac, but the last few releases of OS X have made it increasingly difficult. Popular theme management applications such as Unsanity ShapeShifter and PCWiz Magnifique failed to make the transition over to Snow Leopard.

One of the few theme-related applications left for Snow Leopard users is Geekspiff’s ThemePark. It’s more for artists who want to build their own themes than casual modders, and although you can install themes built by other people, there doesn’t seem to be many around. Maybe that will change with time.


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