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Why Gnome denies Theming -and the new Tweak Tool!

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Normally I don’t like to make big posts, but this time will be an exception and I ll write -with my poor English :)- as much as necessary.

Gnome’s Bad Communication

First of, I blame Gnome for a reason and one reason only. Gnome Foundation lacks to communicate with the public via a way that  just can’t be ignored. When Gnome states something, it should immediately sound to the last person in Earth. Instead in Gnome even the biggest things are remain hidden on Mailing Lists or Planets.

Gnome’s mistake is that relies in other projects/people/pages to announce their weaknesses or incompatibilities or even their best features. For example when Gnome 3 released, it wasn’t working with ATi proprietary drivers. Gnome didn’t even bother to post on its page an explanation and a work around. We are talking about 30% of Gnome users that had a broken system and Gnome was officially acting as everything was cool.

Alright, Gnome doesn’t support closed source drivers, Gnome users are clever and found out easy what’s going on (but not through the Gnome page!), all the blaming goes to AMD for this fiasco and everyone is happy. But the fact remains: Why Gnome didn’t make its position clear by an Official Statement?

How all these are related to theming? Well, I wish we had an official announcement from Gnome: “We do not support themes and extensions for these reasons”. And the reasons exist but the announcement exists not!

Getting back to the original topic

We are moving towards the fourth (4th) Gnome3 release (3.6) and theming customization by default won’t happen. What is quite funny is the fact that jumping from GTK3.0 to GTK 3.6 many attention has been made on GTK theming and some in Shell theming. So, on one side developers are working hard to build a better theming mechanism and on the other end they don’t give support to change themes.

That leads many people to accuse Gnome for the one thing that actually Gnome isn’t. A standardized “company” product similar to Apple’s logic of “that we made, that you’ll get”. That’s complete wrong and the truth is exactly the opposite.  Gnome3 is the only OS that provides so many ways for serious customization, via extensions, via themes via forking the core Shell’s JS files.

And if you still don’t like it? You can move to another open source OS that more likely will run Gnome Technologies?;)

Let’s see a story

Alba (a Gnome contributor) proposed some mockups how you could customize Gnome within Control Panel.


[1] Change Wallpapers

[2] Change Themes: Shell, Gtk and Window Theme


[1] Change Icons

[2] Change Extensions

And this is what Alba calls Dynamic Highlight Colors and you can change the Gtk-theme highlight color depending of the wallpaper color.

Alba explains:

“I know, consistency and brading are important, but i think with the current lack of customization options since Gnome 3, we are losing great potential for user satisfaction.

I won’t explain all the theory behind this – if you’re interested in UX Design you’ll know how important such emotional prodcut-attributes are – but i’ll try to explain in short, why i think we should bring customization back to Gnome 3. There are tons of research papers that point out, that the strive for individualism and self expression are really strong human needs (For a general overview see [1] & [2]) and the marketing industry knows this for ages. People want to distance themself from others, and they are willing to take some hurdles for that. You can see that on how some Windows folks behave, just get an unique desktop. They’re taking quite a risk by patching .dll files and replacing the explorer.exe with ones from unknown sources. (Yes, you actually have to do this)

I think that aiding the user for his strive for individualism and self expression could be a real advantage over OSX and Windows, additionally it would also emphasize Linux’ conception of freedom of choice.”

After this, the senior Gnome developer Andreas Nilsson posts a kinda weird link ( which leads to an old discussion in Fedora mailing lists. If you are lazy to read it, Adam Jackon for a kinda similar situation -what features should be included by default- (about juju) concludes:

But the chain of logic from “Linux is about choice” to “ship everything and let the user chose how they want theirsound to not work” starts with fallacy and ends with disaster“.

Nilsson’s comment wasn’t very helpful, he does his point clear but he doesn’t explain the reasons. Luckily, what Nilsson fails to do, Allan Day does. I think this is the very first time that someone from Gnome explains the reasons for not including a Theme Customization Option by default in public.

Allan Day Says:

“System Settings already provides background selection. Setting a tint/highlight colour could be advantageous – we’d need to discuss how that would fit into the overall design of the system settings. However, I’m dead against gtk/shell/pointer theming, as well as extensions. Some reasons for that (this isn’t exhaustive):”

  • Makes it harder for 3rd party application developers to target our platform (which themes/extensions do we ‘support’? do they have to test against all of them?)
  • Degrades the user experience – most alternative themes are relatively poor quality. We don’t have the resources to make a good set of high-quality themes
  • The default themes aren’t merely about aesthetics – they are designed to convey the desired user experience.
  • The default themes are designed to work in combination with one another – the shell theme and the gtk theme are designed with each other in mind.
  • Extensions are essentially unsupported. Putting them in the system settings says ‘these are supported as a part of the system’.
  • We already have a web site for installing extensions – this is better than what you are proposing for extensions here.

and Allan continues:

These are all reasons why these things shouldn’t be a part of the default system. They could be a part of the tweak tool.

Just because some personalisation is desirable does not mean that everything should be customisable (I strongly disagree with Maslow on theoretical grounds, I might add). That isn’t to say that extra forms of personalisation cannot be evaluated, of course. A photo gallery screensaver is one possibility that has been discussed, for example.

Let me make my self clear on this. I don’t agree with Allan but I understand his points. One of the biggest problems of Gnome3 themes is that they can bug your system or modify the expected behavior in an invisible way to debug the issue. For example, a GTK theme can make you unable to delete files, or a Gnome Shell theme can make the onscreen keyboard unusable.

So the real problem is because theming in Gnome is actually bad. Themes shouldn’t interfere with the system functionality. My guess is that when this issue is gone then customizing will come back to Gnome.

For me, this isn’t an issue because I already know the bugs that are caused by themes. On the other hand I know how to install and use Gnome Tweak Tool. A new user if he had a theming option, what he would do if he couldn’t move files just because a bug on the theme?  What are the chances to guess the cause?

The Cool Allan Day!

I am really happy that Gnome has people like Allan. While he disagrees for merging the Tweak Tool in Control Panel, at the same time pushes the proposals for the new Tweak Tool for Gnome 3.6.. and these mockups are magnificent!

The upcoming Gnome Tweak Tool!

A reset to default option for all themes and extensions!


[1] Choose what will be visible on the desktop

[2] Scaling factor of fonts was removed because you can set the font size and wasn’t working very nicely anyway


[1] A keyboard layout that overrides the default system layouts. Handy for quickly add/remove layouts

[2] An access to laptop’s Lid power settings


[1] That’s great! You can finally customize and save themes like Gnome2!

[2] And this is how you can customize it. You can set from the top drop menu: Controls, Icons, Cursor, Pointer, Shell and Window.


[1] Set the behavior of windows

[2] That’s one of my favorites, yes! you can have a fixed number of workspaces!!

The end

On the end, I want to ask Gnome Foundation to make available a FAQ with all the topics that users aren’t satisfied with and quickly explains the reasons behind them.

And for the heroes that came all the way down here, a small gift: The Gnome 3.4 Cheat Sheet!

Bring customization back in Gnome – Gnome Live

  We can't watch comments unless G+ provides an API or if you send a notification, e.g +World Of Gnome
     Sometimes is better to place your questions on GNOME Community
  • Satyajit Sahoo

    Yeh. I know themes can bug the system. A wrong line in the theme can even make you not be able to login. And that’s from my experience.

    • Jrodd

       This can be fixed by deleting the theme totally and picking a new one :)
      haha. I’ve seen that in the past but not lately. everything works fine most of the time. The worse I’ve seen happen is the themes elements look jumbled or funky if a user messes up the theme.

      • Alexis Diavatis

        The problem is that you can’t even imagine is theme’s fault. For example, with some version of Zukitwo GTK I couldn’t rename files in Nautilus. It took me like 2-3 days to figure out what was going on :) 

        • Jrodd

           Yeah the GTK3 themeing in CSS (and GTK2 in GTKRC for that matter) is pretty hard I hear. Getting things right and making everything perfect that is. Some Themers learn by reverse engineering other themes. It’s not the easiest thing in the world but it’s rewarding.

          Do you think Gnome 3.6 will break 3.4 themes?

  • Hunterm

    Every last one of reasons can be fixed easily. Start requiring metadata for themes describing which versions it works for. Saying most themes are not high-quality is implying that everyone is demanding an absolutely high-class theme. Some people enjoy simple themes.

  • Abdul Arif

    after much consideration, I actually agree with Allan Day.. why we wants to create an multipurpose knife with a kitchen napkin dispenser? it might came in handy for some in some rare cases.. It’s best if the multipurpose knife only include the essentials so it can be used as efficient as possible..

    the same goes to the Gnome UX.. leave all the customization OUTSIDE the Gnome Core.. So if anything goes wrong, users may revert to the standard Gnome and re-customize everything again.. It’s much better than formatting & re-installing your Distro(s).. 

    • David Sugr

      The fundamental problem is that the default configuration, functionality, and theming of gnome is functionally unusable for many essential use cases.  Themes and functionality extensions are perhaps the worst place or way to address this, as they can indeed break things.  But until the fundamental and defective design issues in gnome itself are addressed, they remain the ONLY means to make gnome even usable for most people as far as I am concerned.  To pretend otherwise is to be in complete denial, and playing the extension lottery with each release is not a long-term viable solution.  Goodbye and thanks for all the fish!

  • jp

    “Degrades the user experience – most alternative themes are relatively
    poor quality. We don’t have the resources to make a good set of
    high-quality themes”

    But some alternative themes are of much better quality than the default theme. Especially the default icon theme is very ugly when compared to faenza / faience. 

    • ScionicSpectre

      Rectangular icons aren’t so good for accessibility- some people with poor eyesight need the edges of icons to distinguish them. Of course, when it comes to monochrome toolbar icons, I think you’re right. We are headed in this direction, of course, as is evidenced in Epiphany’s toolbar. That’s why we have a symbolic icon set.

      I think the most common complaint is the folder icon color in the default theme.

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  • jon_downfromthetrees

    Great article.  Much to think about.

    I actually think there is not much value in theming Gnome 3 because there is not that much there to change. I don’t consider a background image as part of a theme.  After that, there is only the color of the top panel, etc. If something like transparency looks good to you, go for it.

    Themes don’t add any new capabilities, so they are of limited interest to me.

    • AneDijitak

      “Themes don’t add any new capabilities, so they are of limited interest to me.”
      I’m less interested in changing themes either, until I have to use super ugly icon theme like the default one, and also inconsistent looking gtk 3 / gtk 2 theme (Adwaita/Clearlooks). They really hurt my eyes.

      • allan registos

        Design == Aesthetics, this is what we have in the _design_ universe.
        Allan Day: The default themes aren’t merely about aesthetics – they are designed to convey the desired user experience.

        I understand the theming problem for developers, but at least, like Windows XP it has three default themes.  And most applications if not all works with these default themes in Windows.  So the problem here is how GNOME was designed from the ground up.  I feel like “themes” and the default icons are just an after thought.  Allan Day should say instead, = default themes are not about aesthetics, instead of “merely about aesthetics”. Because it is not.  The design is so bad, and I think they should do the right thing to design aesthetically the default theme.

    • Jrodd

       but jon! the default theme is horrible!

      • jon_downfromthetrees

        Well, that’s a matter of opinion.  My point, though, is that Gnome 3 offers considerably less real estate to be themed in the first place.

        My biggest requirement in a theme is that it not be annoyingly visible.  I don’t like things that call attention to themselves, like transparency. If it doesn’t actually do something useful, I’m not interested.

  • Valerio

    Your English is much better than you think!

    • Alexis Diavatis

      Thank you, just very short time to re-check spelling.

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  • Dave

    Finally a Rest to Default option!  That’s something I’ve been missing.

  • morgan cox

    gnome3 is not actually usable for a gamer or someone who wants to do any work.

    Its to ONLY DE that various games do not work, if you have a Nvidia card for a start, i.e

    – Any other de games are playable, i.e hedgewars….

    Also due to lack of a task bar is relies on the user memorising where every single app is …. cool concept, in the real world (i.e @ work) its just not usable, even unity is better for actualy work (kde,lxde,xfce,e17, are all usable – cinammon is – sort of)

    • Nick G

       Do you plan on finishing off the comments on your bug report. Did you manage to diagnose if was the proprietary driver or a bug in gnome?

      • Alexis Diavatis

        It was bug in ATi because I was doing some clutter development few years ago, and my company had to switch from ATi to nVidia in order to use Clutter. By the way Clutter Toolkit is been written by Intel.  

      • Jeff Strehlow

         If there are bugs in certain functions in the Nvidia driver, Gnome 3 shouldn’t use those functions. Apparently the other desktop environments don’t and that’s why they work with Nvidia. Maybe the graphics will be slower than it should be, but at least it will work. To simply point your finger at Nvidia and say “it’s not my fault”, that’s not good enough. Other desktop environments make it work so Gnome can to.

    • Jeff Strehlow

      I find Gnome 3 awkward to use.  I was using Gnome 2 before on my computer and planed to put Gnome on my wifes computer eventually. But after trying Gnome 3, I switched to LXDE and put Ubuntu (with Unity) on my wifes computer.  At least with Unity the application can be launched and windows switched without going to another screen first.

      I’ve read that after Gnome 3 coming out, there was a huge drop in the number of Gnome users.  If that’s true it should tell the Gnome developers something.

      • Alexis Diavatis

        This is not true. There are some stats that shows increase. But showing stats is the best way to lie.  My advise, try some extensions!

        • Jeff Strehlow

          I know about the extensions. I tried some of them and they helped some but I still wasn’t happy with the result. For one thing the panel extension places a tab on the right screen edge which interferes with using the scroll bar.

          And the extensions might break when I upgrade. Thanks, but no thanks. I like making things simpler, not more more complicated.

          • Alexis Diavatis

            I see. Then I suggest you to give another try to 3.6 in September. You get also an auto-extension update feature that won’t break your system in upgrades. 

  • 2eurocents

     “… via forking the core Shell’s JS files”

    are you serious? i’m just choosing a distro and DE to install on my grandfather’s computer. are you saying that if i choose a distro with gnome shell i’m supposed to tell him to “fork the core shell’s JS files” when he complains that the default theme is too bright for his eyes – or too dark?
    what planet do you live on, besides “planet gnome”?
    i hope you can take a step back and appreciate the absurdity of your arguments, and your position.

    • Alexis Diavatis

      Forking JS goes on 3rd party distributors. It means that G3 coding is quite simple to fork it!

  • Bill

    I really enjoyed this, I love Linux because that you can customize it to the way you like. I have even edited the .js files of some of the extensions to make them do what I want. If Gnome forced me to use that default theme, I don’t think I would use it.

  • ScionicSpectre

    I guess it doesn’t matter since we’re beyond this, but I should mention that neither OS X or Windows provide a default function to alter widget and icon themes. I’m glad they’re tweaking the Advanced Settings to be a bit more presentable and coherently organized.

    While it’s a big deal for some people, it just doesn’t feel like the kind of issue I’d expect a whole blog post about. I guess it is good that you’re helping to educate people who aren’t aware of the reasons behind some of GNOME’s design. I honestly thought the resistance would subside after a year and all the uber-geeks fled to XFCE. I suppose GNOME 3’s not so easy to let go of, even for these people.

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  • TheGacko

    This is a good article and probably the most important point being: Gnome as an organisation needs to document/communicate their reasoning’s around some of the crazy changes they do. This just makes Open Source work better.

    On the point of Gnomes stance on not supporting themes/extensions. I do understand Allan Day’s points and like others have said both Windows and OSX do not support Themeing out of the box, perhaps for the same reasons as Gnome. BUT.. 

    I think the OP point of saying “My guess is that when this issue is gone then customizing will come back to Gnome.” rings true in that.. I think that this issue can go away with some developer effort. It should be possible to implement theming in a controlled way just like Chrome and Firefox so that changes are passed through a controlling API preventing any parameters that would kill the system etc. I think this is certainly possible so really the fact this isn’t available is that nobody has programmed a good way of doing it (in a controlled, non-system breaking, way).

    The fact that there are Gnome 3 Themes when using the Tweak Tool which generally works very well probably confuses the matter as it makes it seem that Themes are present and available in Gnome 3 (by replacing JS files etc) but only really in the way that themes are available for all Open Source projects in that anything can be replaced/tweaked to make it look/work anyway you want if required.

    Allan Day does say “That isn’t to say that extra forms of personalisation cannot be evaluated, of course.”.. That does leave an opening for even a simple theme support similar to how Chrome supports a basic background (although this is ugly.. just an example of simple themes).. perhaps just changing the highlights as mentioned etc.

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  • syncdram

    I know its a bad thing that’s going on here. But, only if you use gnome. I walked away from Gnome to find a alternative that not based on this shell and not ubuntu based. We all have choices and mine was to let Gnome hang itself. But if you choose to stay with Gnome you will find they don’t have the end user in mind, thus posts like this.

  • Sean

    The core of GNOME live under a rock in their own sandbox, don’t listen to users and it takes a few people like Alan Day to communicate such ideas and needs back to the core GNOME people. The users don’t know the half of it and just how out of touch GNOME are with their users. GNOME just took a look at OS X and a smart phone and then came up with GNOME 3, totally forgetting about fun and customisation of the desktop and they even took monochrome to a how new level claiming the default theme doesn’t get in your way. LOL.

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  • James LaBarre

    It seems to me the Gnome developers have been hanging out WAY too much with the Pidgin IM developers, and have decided to adopt the Pidgin developers’ attitude of “we know best, and screw the users”.  They’ve adopted the attitude of changing functionality on a whim, and then telling users they’re stupid for wanting the now-broken functionality to get replaced.

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  • Jrodd

     Nope not buying it, I Disagree totally with this no customization thing. The default Gnome Theme(s) are pretty atrocious (They have always been no offense, good try) Evey one tweaks them besides fedora since Gnome3.

    The arguments against this don’t hold up. Distros provide a sensible default theme most of the time. (Better then gnomes default) Your avrage user may stick with the supplied default. Or change it! They should be able to do this by default. Your average user may never encounter this. Thus it’s not a issue. If they do decide to switch themes I’m pretty sure they know how to do it and what they are doing. If the theme sucks they switch to another! or back to default.

    Yes themes can have issues however this is not a issue the gnome team needs to worry about. People who use different thees generally switch to another theme to fix a issue their current theme may have. Inconsistencies are a issue for the theme maker NOT GNOME.

    Gnome!, your sofware is great but is going to be customized by everyone and their mother so please stop trying to lock down everything you are not iOS or Metro. Your are a Open Source desktop. It’s not a concern of yours. (This customization does not taint your platform because for the most part it is stable and works well, And most who use it, know what thy are doing .) Please Simply supply nice defaults, stopittttt :) and don’t worry about it. and it’s not your issue what theme someone uses. If people use a theme developed by hard working themer they should taken care of.

    So I humbly vote:
    Bring back custimzation in GNOME!!!! Tommarow… or in 10 mins

    • Alexis Diavatis

      You know that Gnome Tweak Tool is part of Gnome modules? Gnome developers contribute on it. Allan just explains the reasons that they don’t merge it in Control Center. However many distros ship it by default. But ok, it would be better if Gnome Tweak was as a plugin to Control Center. 

      • Jrodd

        Sorry If I sounded angry, Your right :) I’m very grateful they still support it and help with it (By developing the tool). I just got kind of offended that he called most other themes “poor quality” alot are great! but I guess to each is own.

        Anyways I’m glad they will be including it in the control center that’s much cleaner. Allan is a good guy I respect his design work. It just hurts he made that generalization about other themes.

  • Jrodd

    “Degrades the user experience – most alternative themes are relatively
    poor quality. We don’t have the resources to make a good set of
    high-quality themes”

    Look in the mirror! man! Your default theme is poor quality. Thats why nearly everyone by defualt changes it! Ubunut, Mint , Sabayon,  ETC.

    There are a lot of great themes out there that are of higher quality! you just have to find them. ussually anything scored better then 59% on Gnomelook is good.

    Some high quality themes that are better then your default one include:

    I can guarantee these themes are stable and work great.
    Sorry not to be mean but that was a rude bias remark to make Sir. I respect you but wow.

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  • Gilles

    Hi, please, where is the source for Allan Day mockups ?

    • alex285

      Gnome Live or Gnome Design Team Github

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