Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Flat Dark Theme for Unity/Gnome 3

I care a fair amount about the style and visual nature of my environment, not only from an appreciation of nice things, but also from a utilitarian standpoint. I use Unity and up until today, have been using a theme called Zukitwo, in particular the "brave" version of that theme. I used this as it was reasonably dark and stylish. Today I switched to a darker theme (the windows contents are actually dark), and one that I think I like a bit better, Boje. If you actually kind of like the minimalist thing that Google has been doing with their websites ever since Plus came out, and you would like a dark version of that style for your Unity/Gnome3 desktop, Boje might work well for you.
All you need to do is download the theme, extract it into the ".themes" folder in your homespace. Then you can select it using the Advanced Settings program under the theme option on the side-bar. Set the GTK+ and Window theme to Boje. Once you have done this your computer will, more or less, honor this theme. Technically, this will only apply for GTK apps, but luckily most applications that you encounter are GTK applications. There is one hiccup that I've found, however. Firefox, for whatever reason, uses the system theme to color certain elements of web pages. Specifically, when using Firefox, input forms (e.g. text boxes, radio buttons, drop-down selectors) will have the background color of the system theme and, to make matters worse, tend to have the web sites text color. This means that many sites will have black bars on them which are actually search fields. You can type in them and they do what they are supposed to do, but you cannot see the text and they look ugly, which is more than a little bit annoying. To fix this (at least partially) Firefox allows you to insert overriding CSS style into the pages you visit via a file ~/.mozilla/firefox/yourprofile.default/chrome/userContent.css. If you edit this and insert a few styles that request that Firefox use white backgrounds on text fields this will make pages at least render readably. This is a general problem with dark themes and Firefox and really should be fixed.

What About The Rest Of The World?

There is one issue with all this, while you might enjoy a dark theme, the rest of the world seems to have decided on bright backgrounds (something about thinking they look simple, or clean, or minimal). When you combine that with the fact that probably more than half your time is going to be spent in a browser window, you are going to be staring at and interacting with a lot of brightly themed interfaces anyway. But there is something we can do; we can extend our little hack for Firefox above to all web content and do it for Chrome as well using Stylish. Stylish is an extension for Firefox and Chrome/Chromium that allows users to fiddle with CSS styles (and perhaps more) on web pages that you visit. Think of it as a limited version of GreaseMonkey that is geared towards tweaking the visual style of pages. With Stylish installed you just click a button when you encounter a page that you don't like and find a style that fixes what bugs you. There are over 41,000 user submitted styles out there, but importantly they don't usually work forever (pages constantly change and the Stylish scripts will need to be tweaked). This means that the vast majority of these actually don't work completely. It is a process of trial and error, but it is easy to turn off malfunctioning style scripts. I guess I feel that they are worth the effort as they are exactly the best possible solution to this problem if they work, and sometimes they do. They allow you to do the following:

When all else fails

I find that it is good to have a quick and dirty method to save your eyes if you have a non-GTK app or your Stylish script is broken or things are just generally not working. For this, I use Compiz's "Negative" plugin which you can configure using Compiz Configuration Settings Manager or ccsm. This plugin allows you to invert the video on a per window basis at the press of a key chord. I have bound "Super-n" to this functionality. This is far from ideal. This inverts all video which mean that all of the colors are screwed up when we use it, which makes video and images look like crap. But it is a useful fall-back method.

Update: Firefox can really look the part if you install the "Dark Bright-Aero" theme.


  1. Doesn't it seem like bright themes would burn more energy? All those photons? Maybe we need a "dark screens for conservation" movement.

    1. I work in a research group that studies liquid crystal systems, which are still used in the dominant display technology for, I believe, basically all displays out there today (there is some competition with OLED and Plasma displays here and there, but not enough to really put a dent). When it comes to traditional liquid crystal displays, the back light in the display (which uses most of the power) is always on and it is the job of the LC layer to block light that shouldn't be let through. This means that the bright and dark states on LCD are not really related to power consumption at all (and I believe that this still holds for the new LED backlit LCDs). In fact, depending on the type of LC layer, the display may be bright in the off (no field applied) state, so darker themes might actually take more energy, albeit only slightly.

      It wouldn't make much of a difference for the power consumption for most people, but it might in the future as OLED becomes more popular for things like monitors, phones, and tablets.