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 It’s now slowly being superseded by Magnifique which offers Leopard support.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?