Customise desktop colour

Rob Griffiths
9 May, 2008
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When it comes to customising your desktop, OS X seemingly provides anything you could want — there are a number of Apple-provided images, there are connections to your user’s Pictures folder and iPhoto library, or you can use any of ten supplied solid colours for your desktop background. But if you’re a fan of solid colours, you may not agree with the ten that Apple has provided. Or, you may have a corporate "identity" colour that you want to deploy throughout your office. Thankfully, there are two relatively easy ways to get additional colour choices.

One way to get more solid colour choices is to actually add them to the Solid Colors section of the Desktop & Screen Saver System Preferences panel. The ten colours shown here (Mac OS X 10.4 users — there’s a "hidden" solid white colour at the end of your list; it shows up with a drop shadow in 10.5) are just PNG files stored in a folder on your Mac. To create more colours, navigate to the top-level Library -> Desktop Pictures folder in the Finder. Select any one colour in that folder, and duplicate it (Command-D, or File -> Duplicate), and then rename it to reflect the colour you’d like to use. Note that colours appear in the Desktop & Screen Saver System Preferences panel based on their name. As a result, to make your colours show up at the top of the list, for instance, preface their names with a space. (You’ll need to be logged in as an administrator to change this folder.)

Now open the duplicated and renamed image file in your favourite image editor, and change its colour to the one you’d like to use. Basically, that’s all there is to it — the next time you load the Desktop & Screen Saver System Preferences panel and select the Solid Colors folder, you’ll see the new colour swatch you created. Repeat this process for as many colours as you’d like to use regularly.

The only problem — and it’s not a big problem — with modifying files in this manner is that it leaves your modified colour swatches with different ownership than those of the system-provided swatches. If you’d like to fix this, select your modified swatch and press Command-I (File -> Get Info). In the Sharing & Permissions section, click the lock icon and enter your password to make changes. Highlight the Staff row and click the minus sign to delete it. Then click the Plus sign and click on Administrators in the new window that appears; then click Select. Click on the pop-up next to admin in the Get Info window, and change the permissions to Read & Write. When you’re done, it should appear as in the image at right, though with a different username.

Keep in mind that this method also places new files in a System-owned folder, so they may get wiped out with the next major system update. (I wouldn’t expect a minor update, such as OS X 10.5.3 when it’s released, to modify the images in this folder.) Given that we’re at least a year or two away from OS X 10.6, though, that’s not much of a worry right now.

What if you’d rather not create additional image swatches — you’d rather have the flexibility to just pick any given colour from a standard Apple colour picker to use as a solid background? With just a bit of trickery, you can do just that.

When you use a desktop image that’s smaller than your monitor’s resolution, the Desktop & Screen Saver System Preferences panel gives you a few choices for handling them — they can be tiled (repeated) to fill the screen, fit to the screen, zoomed to fill the screen, stretched to fill the screen, or simply centred. The secret to this trick is that when you elect to centre a smaller desktop image, you also get to specify the colour — using the standard Apple colour picker — that you’d like to use to fill the rest of the background.

So to use any colour you like as a solid desktop background, all you need is a completely transparent desktop picture that’s smaller than your screen. When you “display” this image in centred mode, it will be invisible (because it’s transparent), leaving you with the solid colour surround covering your entire desktop. You can create a transparent image in any of the usual image editors, or I happen to have a 32-by-32 pixel image I created just for this hint that you’re welcome to use. Save this file as blankpic.png, somewhere on your system where you won’t erase it but it won’t get in your way.

Open the Desktop & Screen Saver System Preferences panel, and then drag blankpic.png into the image well area at the top of the Desktop panel. Click on the pop-up menu next to the well and set it to Center, then click the colour-filled box to the right to display the standard OS X colour picker. Select a colour in the picker, and watch it change instantly on the desktop. When you’ve got the colour just right, close the colour picker and you’re done. Whenever you want a new colour, just open the Desktop tab of the Desktop & Screen Saver System Preferences panel, click the colour wheel, and choose your colour.

Obviously, you can use both of these methods — add a few favourite colours as their own swatches, and then use the colour picker method for those times when you’d like a colour you haven’t previously created.

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