Getting Artsy and Crafty with GUIs

One of the few ways we are allowed to manifest our personalities and our sense of taste (or lack thereof) with computers is by decorating our desktops. In the Microsoft world, there is only one GUI environment, which you can decorate and modify via plug-in themes and color schemes. Those migrating to Linux will soon realize that, unlike Windows, Linux has two odifferent GUI environments that you can customize to your heart's delight. Those are GNOME and KDE. And, as Martha Stewart says, it's a Good Thing.








Desktop Screenshot 1
Figure One: Visiting Themes.org will provide you with many options to customize your desktop space.

One of the few ways we are allowed to manifest our personalities and our sense of taste (or lack thereof) with computers is by decorating our desktops. In the Microsoft world, there is only one GUI environment, which you can decorate and modify via plug-in themes and color schemes. Those migrating to Linux will soon realize that, unlike Windows, Linux has two odifferent GUI environments that you can customize to your heart’s delight. Those are GNOME and KDE. And, as Martha Stewart says, it’s a Good Thing.

This is where things get a lot more complicated and somewhat overwhelming for the end user. Not only does Linux have two distinct GUI environments from which to choose (and customize), but it also has at least a dozen window managers that sit on top of those environments, and each has its own unique themes. It’s enough to make decorating your desktop space a Major Project.

GNOME and its Window Managers

Configuring your GNOME desktop can be a bit complicated. If you really want to have a nice color-coordinated desktop scheme that has classical styling, that doesn’t clash with your chinaware, and is in vogue with seasonal trends, it’s going to take a bit of work. You will need to take both GNOME’s color/font schemes and its textures into consideration, in addition to the color/widget schemes and textures of the window manager that is running on top of GNOME.

What’s a window manager? A window manager is a program that controls the way windows behave on your desktop. This means the window manager is responsible for determining which window is currently active and receiving mouse and keyboard input (this is known as “focus”), the size of the windows, which windows are minimized/maximized, etc. Some window managers are almost desktop environments in and of themselves; they have so many features that you could spend days getting them to look just the way you want them to (and some people do just that!).

Depending on which distribution you use, your default window manager in GNOME may vary. In Red Hat Linux and its derivatives for example, the default is Enlightenment (http://www.enlightenment.org), or just “E” for short. You can change your window manager by selecting “Settings-> GNOME Control Center” from the GNOME Main Menu and then selecting “Window Manager” from the Control Center menu. The GNOME Control center’s window manager settings are preconfigured to run either Enlightenment, Sawmill, twm, WindowMaker, or a bunch of others depending on whose distro you are running.

Which window manager should you use? It has to do with personal preference and your sense of style. I like Sawmill/Sawfish because it’s not too complicated, and it doesn’t take up a lot of system resources. A lot of people like Enlightenment because it has about a bazillion features and has weird special effects and little “epplets” that can be used to enhance your desktop. AfterStep and WindowMaker are popular with the former OpenStep/ NeXT crowd because they come close to mimicking the OpenStep desktop, as well as providing some additional functionality for applications written for GNUStep.

Once you’ve chosen your window manager in GNOME, you can download themes from the Internet and install them on your desktop. A good place for GNOME, KDE, and all the window managers themes is themes. org, which is part of the Linux.com affiliate site network (see Figure One). Themes.org is divided into several virtual Web sites, each dedicated to different window managers and environments. For example:

* http://kde.themes.org is for KDE

* http://gtk.themes.org is for GNOME

* http://e.themes.org is for Enlightenment

* http://sawmill.themes.org is for Sawmill/Sawfish

* http://wm.themes.org is for WindowMaker

There are quite a few others, and if you want to experience them all I would suggest that you go to the main themes.org page and take a peek at the screenshots that are available of all the various window manager/desktop combinations.








Desktop Screenshot 2
Figure Two: The Theme Selector option in the GNOME Control Center allows you to see available themes in action.

In KDE, things are a bit easier, as KDE has its own integrated window manager. You can also use Enlightenment as a window manager for KDE, but unless you really want to make your life complicated, you probably want to avoid doing that.

Installing Themes

Generally speaking, themes are compressed into gziped tar archives of graphics files and widgets. Sometimes your environment or window manager can read these directly, but occasionally you may have to untar/unzip them to specific directories of your filesystem before you can use them.

To install a new theme for GNOME, all you need to do is go to the Desktop->Theme Selector menu in the GNOME Control Center, and then click on “Install New Theme.” You’re then presented with a dialog box where you can pick the gzipped file you’ve downloaded, after which the new theme should be listed in the Available Themes box (see Figure Two).








Desktop Screenshot 3
Figure Three: You can access Theme Manager through the KDE Control Center to add newly downloaded themes.

KDE themes are installed in much the same way — simply open the KDE Control Center, click on the Desktop tree, and then on Theme Manager. From within Theme Manager, choose Add, and then choose the theme file you just downloaded (see Figure Three). Be extremely careful not to confuse GNOME or window manager themes with KDE themes — KDE isn’t intelligent enough to discern the difference between them, and once you install an incompatible theme you can’t remove it with the Theme Manager — you’ll have to delete them manually from the .kde/share/apps/kthememgr/ Themes directory in your home directory.

Enlightenment themes and Sawmill themes should be downloaded and extracted to their own directories underneath /usr/ share/enlightenment/themes and /usr/share/sawmill/<versionnumber>/themes respectively, as unfortunately Enlightenment and Sawmill don’t have a way to install them directly. Once the theme is copied and extracted to those respective directories, you can run the configuration tools for Enlightenment and Sawmill to choose them.








Desktop Screenshot 4
Figure Four: Sawmill’s theme selector through GNOME.

Enlightenment’s configuration tool is called e-conf and it’s located in /usr/ bin. You can launch it by simply issuing the command e-conf from a terminal window. Sawmill’s theme selector can be accessed directly from within GNOME Control Center by clicking first on the Sawmill Window Manager menu and then on Appearance (see Figure Four).

So now you’ve got your themes installed for your window managers, GNOME and KDE. Chances are you’re going to have to fool around with different combinations to get the precise effect you want. Don’t despair if things look a bit uncoordinated at first — after all, you’re using Linux, and Martha uses Windows 98!

Maybe penguins will be in style this fall?




Jason Perlow is a freelance writer and systems integrator. He can be reached at perlow@hotmail.com.

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