Switcher Sensei: Few ways to skin this cat

David Braue
19 September, 2010
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Coming from a Windows world, you may well be used to changing the look and feel of your desktop windows, scrollbars, tabs, and what-have-you with impunity. Windows has long offered built-in support for themes, display fonts, colours, sizes and more that you could think of. And, where Windows’ capabilities ended, third-party applications would intervene.

On the Mac, things are far more limited. You recall Henry Ford’s apocryphal quotation that he would sell you any colour car you wanted, as long as it’s black? Well, we suspect the Mac OS X design team was a big fan of Ford: out of the box, the OS offers just two ‘themes’: blue and graphite. On the positive side, that means no more headaches from co-workers who think hot pink and peppermint green go nicely together.

You can select any colour you like to be used when highlighting text, though; both options are available through System Preferences > Appearance, which offers other options more pedantic than dramatic.

While you can’t morph the shape, font or colour of window elements, you can change the look of specific folders. To do this, open the folder; switch to Icon View by clicking on the toolbar button with four squares on it; type Command-J to open View Options; and choose whether you’d like the window to have a coloured background, or to use a picture as the background.

You can also use View Options to control the size and spacing of icons, force the window to open in Icon View, move and resize items’ text, control sorting of items, and so on. It’s worth mentioning that Finder can colour-code any item, individually or in groups: choose the item, type Command-I to bring up the info window, and choose the colour you want next to ‘Label’.

If you’d like to change your Dock, System Preferences > Dock lets you change its size, position and behaviour. For example, some users replace the Dock with more flexible alternatives like DragThing. Candybar and Leopard Docks let you customise your Dock’s appearance, while Overflow helps manage its items.

For more conventional ways to jazz up your desktop, drop by System Preferences > Desktop & Screen Saver, which controls – you guessed it – your desktop and screen savers. Mac OS X ships with a variety of desktops, including solid colours, nature, plant, art and other images.

You can also pick images from iPhoto, Aperture and individual folders, and choose to have Mac OS X shuffle your backgrounds at set intervals. Click + to add another folder for easy access. Also note that the desktop selection window (the main panel at the top of the Desktop Preferences pane) is a live drop zone, so you can drag-and-drop any image file straight into the Desktop window to use it.

Mac OS X can use a number of built-in screen savers (they’re stored as .slideSaver, .saver or Quartz Composer .qtz files in the Macintosh HD > System > Library > Screen Savers folder), shuffle through your pictures in some quite interesting designs, cycle through iPhoto events, and so on. Choose Pictures > Shuffle to pick specific groups of photos to choose from and the transitions to use. And click on the Hot Corners… button to pick a corner where you can rest your mouse to automatically enable or disable the screen saver.

Some third-party apps give you more options. Apple, for example, collects many screen savers at bit.ly/drWIC3 and versiontracker.com lists nearly 600 options. Visage lets you set up a screen saver as your desktop background, change the background of the login screen, customise the login panel and personalise system alerts. Sadly, add-ons like Uno and the once massively-popular theme skinner Kaleidoscope don’t work with current versions of Mac OS X – no doubt casualties of Steve Jobs’ obsession with clean design.

This article originally appeared in the August issue of Australian Macworld magazine.

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