An Introduction to Changing OS X Themes

It’s widely accepted that OS X is already a very well designed operating system, with a great deal of attention paid to window appearance and icon design. It was the simplicity of design which inspired me to purchase my first Mac, and since then I’ve been fascinated with tweaking and modifying the interface.

Up until the release of Leopard, the most popular tool for modifying your Mac’s “theme” was ShapeShifter. Unfortunately, this doesn’t yet support OS X Leopard, and it’s looking unlikely that it will be updated in the near future. Another tool to consider is Magnifique, which brings a completely new theming engine (and Leopard support) to the table.

This how-to will provide a brief overview of how each of these apps work and what they can be used for. If you like the idea of changing the look and feel of OS X, keep your eyes peeled for a roundup of different themes coming later this week (both for ShapeShifter and Magnifique).

How Does Theming Work?

The idea of changing the theme of your computer has been around for years, with the functionality built into many distributions of Linux (and even Windows, to an extent). It involves changing the appearance of your menu bar, windows, fonts, scrollbars and buttons – almost every aspect of your Mac’s user interface.

The ability to alter window appearance in OS X is limited to your choice between ‘Blue’ or ‘Graphite’ window chrome – not exactly an extensive range of customization. For this reason, a few applications have aimed to add this functionality to the operating system. For several years, ShapeShifter was the dominant app of choice. Unfortunately, Apple made a range of changes to the way interface elements are created in Leopard, which made ShapeShifter unusable on the new operating system. It’s now slowly being superseded by Magnifique which offers Leopard support.

Setting up ShapeShifter (for Pre-Leopard users)

Just to re-iterate, ShapeShifter is great – but only if you’re using OS X Tiger or earlier. You can download a trial of the latest version to get started (it costs $20 to purchase). Once installed, you’ll see a screen similar to this, which allows you to preview and download themes:

The ShapeShifter Interface

The ShapeShifter Interface

ShapeShifter resides in your System Preferences, and can interact well with other Unsanity utilities for altering various system settings, icons, cursors and more. You’re able to set an ‘Exclude List’ for particular applications you’d prefer not to apply the theme to, and it’s a snap to restore OS X to the default theme if you’re not happy with any changes.

Setting up Magnifique (for Leopard users)

To get started, you’ll need to download the latest copy, currently v2.1. This app is completely free, and functions as a theme browser, downloader, installer, and also creator (if you relish a challenge). Once installed, you’ll see a screen similar to the following:

Magnifique Window

Magnifique Window

The interface is fairly self explanatory – clicking on any of the themes available for download in the lower left will show a preview (if available), and allow you to download and install the theme. If you’d like to apply it, click ‘Install Theme’ when selected, and then proceed to restart the Finder and Dock. Applications will only take on the new appearance when re-launched, so you’ll need to quit and re-open them to see the full effect of a new theme.

Here’s an example of a theme (Milk) in action:

The Milk Theme

The Milk Theme

Uninstalling a theme is a vital thing to get right, and it’s simple enough – clicking ‘Uninstall Theme’ in the lower left will do the trick, again requiring a re-start of your applications to revert to the default theme.

Currently, there’s an incompatibility between iTunes 8.1 and various themes, which can pose a range of problems. It’s probably worth waiting until this is resolved before going ahead and trying out a new theme – you can check out this forum thread for more information.

Looking for Themes

Both pieces of software offer in-built theme browsers, through which it is easy to find themes to preview and download. A few other websites can be of use, with relevant discussion and occasional releases:

We’ll be posting an extensive roundup of themes, for both ShapeShifter and Magnifique, later this week. I’m very interested to hear whether you’re interested in messing around with the look and feel of your Mac – is it something that appeals, or are you perfectly content with the default user interface?


Add Yours
  • Apple OSX is the first operating system where I never ever had the feeling to change the theme. On windows I dit, but OSX feels genuine, solid and intuitive enough for me. Run it a few years now, don’t bothering installing a theme.

    • I feel the same way that Jeroen does. I like to give themes a try but last time I tried Magnifique, it didn’t apply the theme. It acted like it did but when the Finder came back up, everything was the same. It was almost like it semi-applied it. I saw a few elements that looked different but not the overall theme. May give it a try in the future but I don’t feel the need right now.

      Although I think it’s a great idea and everyone should be give the choice to change things up once in a while.

      • It could be that you need to re-start any app before it will take on the appearance of the new theme.

    • I agree.

    • Weird. For me my first thought when I got my new Apple was OMG, why’s everything this dull grey color, surely there’s some way to change it. I got used to it, but still, I distinctly remember being surprised at just how few customization options were available.

    • I did try once….. It was a clean theme and so, but, after 20 minutes it was looking wierd already.. Apple did it 110% right.

  • I’ve installed the theme: iLeopard. It styles the system to the iTunes style

  • I personally love the Leopard theme – I don’t think there’s any reason why it should be changed – but for those craving a little variety, it’s a great solution.

    Thanks for posting it.

  • Doesnt themes slow down the computer?

    • It shouldn’t as it just changes resource files, rather than creating an additional layer of software etc.

  • Woow, this is great, i’ve always used ShapeShifter until i got Leopard, now Magnifique will make me happy again :D

  • I believe the default theme that comes with the OS is solid and functional while looking quite nice. I find that most of these user-created themes just look worse. OSX Tiger/Leopard look fine without any theme enhancements.

  • I used to use Shapeshifter for Tiger also. I tried many different themes, switching it up every month or so. It was nice having different looks. I ended up basically settling on a theme not too different than what Leopard currently feels like, which is kind of funny.

    It would be nice to try out Magnifique though. As long as it doesn’t get in the way, meaning everything is useable. Some Shapeshifter themes that were dark didn’t work in every app, where you would have dark text on dark title bars. Looking forward to your themes roundup, David.

  • It’d have to be a SERIOUSLY impressive theme to get me to change what comes stock standard with OS X. Windoze – that of course was a completely different story…

  • Hey this is great… i’ve been looking for an app like magnifique since i’ve started using leopard… THANKS A BUNCH!

  • here is the current state of my themeing adventures.

    • Thanks for sharing :-) That’s a decent departure from Leopard!

      • Thanks! i should credit the originators of the two themes i grabbed elements from. “Qure” and “Black OS X”
        The icons are a mix of ‘blacksystem’ and my own creations.
        If anyone wants to grab some icons or tools for OS X-themeing, feel free to visit my blog. metasym.wordpress

        Great Post David!

  • Unfortunately, no matter which OS version you have, or which tool you choose to use, you’re limited by the serious lack of theme options out there. They all simply change a few colors, and most not for the better. I currently use the iLeopard theme, which makes subtle but welcome changes. However, I just use the stand-alone installer which offers more customizing options and a “remove theme” option that actually works.

  • I’m really looking forward to Facade coming out.. it will be awesome.
    You should write about it when it comes out! :)

  • Appstorm, thanks for featuring Magnifique.

    If you have any issues/questions/comments/suggestions with Magnifique please post them in the forum over at

    ameeps – Moderator

  • I think the Mac UI is perfectly suited for changing the look. It’s got the right foundation and with a few tweaks you can get it to look a lot more interesting which, I feel, makes a huge difference.
    With Windows you could only do so much to make it tolerable.

    • You can change a *ton* in windows, even the behavior of the interface itself, something I can’t say of OSx. Check out LiteStep for Windows. Seriously.

  • it says the forum is unavailable so i can’t download it!!!!!

  • I guess I’m just never satisfied with what comes out of the box. I spent ages with Gnome and KDE making my desktop look very “Apple-esqe” and now I actually have a Mac, I keep thinking – I just want a little more contrast in the title bars, or It would be nice if the default button highlight was green, not blue.

  • I use Podcastmaker to handle the RSS, details, and FTP to the site. It takes me less than a half hour to import the sermon audio, put it together with the extra audio, and get everything done and up to iTunes.

  • I downloaded Magnifique, installed but appears to me an applescript error -1703 so I can´t use the application also can´t apply any theme!!! so what´s happening, the Magnifique page seems to not being on functionality… please!!! someone help, help me pleaseeee!

  • Based on Twitter suggestions, we also added the list of forums that you all recommended!

  • none of these options work on mac osx Leopard. I think they sold shapeshifters site so you realy cant change your skin on leopard. plz emailme

  • pretty helpful stuff, overall I think this is really worth a bookmark, thanks

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