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Customization

How To Customize The Look Of OS X Lion

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The engineers at Apple design some incredible machines. Yet for all the beauty of an iMac or MacBook, their ever-increasing popularity may make you feel like your Mac is being lost in a homogenous sea of glass and aluminum. The desire to personalize the outside of our Apple products has led to a huge market for cases and bags. But you bought your MacBook Pro to stare at the screen, not the body with the lid closed. So let's look at a number of ways to tweak the appearance of various visual aspects of your Mac.

The main areas I am going to discuss here are using System Preferences to tweak OS X settings, customizing icons and the dock. Neither of these topics are particularly difficult for novice users, and I think exploring some of these methods have the additional benefit of showing some important skills necessary for using Mac OS X on a more advanced level.

Editor's Note: This article was written specifically with OS X Lion in mind. At this time, some software below, such as Candybar, may not be fully compatible with Mountain Lion. Check the developer's sites closely before installing.


System Preferences

Apple allows you some power right out of the box to change the look and feel of certain aspects of OS X. Let's start with some of the easy options.

The General pane under System Preferences is a good place to start when you begin customizing the look of your Mac.
The General pane under System Preferences is a good place to start when you begin customizing the look of your Mac."

First, open up System Preferences, then click on the very first icon in the top left labeled "General." The first box in this section is labeled Appearance. Here, you can choose any color you'd like, as long as that color is either blue or graphite. What this setting affects are pretty minor things, such as the outline around text input fields and various buttons on alerts or save dialogue boxes.

Changing the
Changing the "Appearance" color affects things like buttons in system messages. The top example here shows the Blue setting, and the bottom shows the Graphite.

Next in General settings, you get a few more options to choose from for the color of highlighted text. Set this to any of the presets or create your own.

Nothing too exciting, right? Well let's talk about an area where you have much more power.


Icons

Just about anything on your computer, be it an individual file, an internal drive, an application, etc., has an icon associated with it. Visual interfaces that we've come to know and love over the past couple of decades use icons as a quicker method of opening something on your computer, rather than forcing you to type out a command.

When you first started up your brand new Mac, there were a bunch of programs that Apple gave you with the operating system. You can change any of these, as well as the icons of many applications you've downloaded.

Whatever your reasons for wanting to change things up, I'm going to show you a couple methods for changing an icon.

You may want to change these because you don't like the way the icon looks. Or maybe having owned an iPhone or iPad has gotten you accustomed to the uniform theme of the rounded square icon, and you wish you could duplicate that experience on your Mac. Whatever your reasons for wanting to change things up, I'm going to show you a couple methods for changing an icon. Let's start with the easiest. For the purposes of this demonstration, we are going to change Mac OS X's calculator icon.

I am a big fan of a graphic designer named David Lanham, and I am going to change the stock icon for the Calculator to one which he designed. Go to The Icon Factory and download the icon set for Mac, (the middle button).

1. Open the downloaded folder, and you'll see a calculator replacement icon. Right-click it and select Copy.

2. Open Finder, select Applications from your right pane. Scroll down and find Calculator.

The icons will appear in your Finder window as empty folders. Select the calculator icon by clicking once to highlight it.
The icons will appear in your Finder window as empty folders. Select the calculator icon by clicking once to highlight it.

3. Right-click on Calculator and select "Get Info"

4. In the window that pops up, there will be a little preview of the stock icon in the upper left. Click it once and a blue shadow will appear behind it.

Click on the stock icon in the top left of the Get Info window.
Click on the stock icon in the top left of the Get Info window.

5. Using your keyboard, hold Command (⌘) and hit the V key.

After selecting the stock icon, paste your new icon over it and the window will show the change.
After selecting the stock icon, paste your new icon over it and the window will show the change.

Your Calculator icon is now changed! This works for most applications and system icons like folders, but not App Store icons, which I'll discuss later.

This is a simple method for manually changing an icon, but there are a couple of problems with it. First, if you plan on customizing much of your system, this can take a long time. Secondly, every time an app updates, your icon will return to its original form. So let's now look at two applications that will help speed up this process.

Lite Icon

We'll begin with a free option, called Lite Icon.

When you launch Lite Icon, you'll be presented with a window that shows your system icons, (things like hard drives, folders, etc.). Lite Icon simply requires you to drag your desired icon onto the icon you want to change and hit apply. Any image that is in the proper format (which you'll find has an extension of ".icns") can be placed on top of a stock icon.

The Lite Icon window is simple and easy to use. Just cut and paste like you learned in the above method.
The Lite Icon window is simple and easy to use. Just cut and paste like you learned in the above method.

Lite Icon is a great tool for changing just about any icon you want to work with, but if you have a ton of applications that frequently update, you'll find yourself repeating your work much more than you'd like. If you want to fully customize your system, you may want to consider investing in an app from Panic software.

Candybar

Candybar does what Lite Icon does, only it speeds up your work thanks to something called iContainers. These are groups of icons that you can download and have specific apps and system icons that each custom icon is automatically assigned to. When you download an iContainer, Candybar recognizes what app each new icon is designed to replace, and does the work for you.

Tip: CandyBar was recently made free and handed over to The Iconfactory. Check here for more information.

1. Download Candybar from the Panic website.

2. Open your downloads folder, and move the app into your Applications folder.

3. We are going to use Iconfactory for some icons again. This time let's go with David Lanham's Somatic icons which he designed for the OS X system icons. This time download the full set via iContainer (the left button).

Select the iContainer format when downloading.
Select the iContainer format when downloading.

4. Open the downloaded file in your downloads folder. Open the .dmg and you'll see the iContainer. If, for some reason, clicking on it opens up another app like Lite Icon, you'll need to right click on the iContainer file and select Open With > Candybar.

5. Candybar will open up and show you a preview of the icons inside. In the upper right, you'll see a button that says "Use These Icons". Click it, and after hitting "Apply", enter in your administrator password. Voila! All your system icons are now customized.

Select
Select "Use These Icons" and Candybar automatically applies them to all the assigned applications, folders, and other system icons.

If you would prefer to only use some of the icons in an iContainer (or any icons you find that don't come in iContainers in the first place), the process is similar to Lite Icon. Download some icon files, then in Candybar, select File > Import > Icons. They will appear at the bottom of the window, and you can drag the individual custom icons up onto the stock icons which you'll find at the top of the window.

In order to save time in the future, you'll want to create your own, custom iContainers.

In order to save time in the future, you'll want to create your own, custom iContainers. This way when apps update and you lose your changes, you can just open up your iContainer and apply the changes rather than having to go through every app and manually fix everything.

Creating Custom iContainers

1. Begin by creating new collection. This will help us organize everything. Click the + button in the lower left corner of the window. A New Collection is now created and visible in the left pane. Give it a unique name.

2. Drag all the icon files that you want to use. If you want to add more later, you can do that.

3. Make sure that you have selected whatever types of icons you want to customize. The top right of the window, under where it says "Change," gives you four options: System, Applications, Dock, and Volume. For this example, lets work with Applications.

4. Click and drag the custom icon in the lower half of the window (where we are keeping all of our icons) up onto the application that you want it to replace. That blue glow will appear showing that you have changed the default icon.

The Get Info window is where you'll need to select the application that you want your custom icon to pair to permanently.
The Get Info window is where you'll need to select the application that you want your custom icon to pair to permanently.

5. Right-click on the icon in your collection (the lower half of the window), and select "Get Info." On the bottom of the popup, there is a sub-area called CandyBar. Click to expand it. Under "Application Identifier," you'll need to select the application that you want to assign this icon to. This way, when the app is updated and your changes are lost, you won't have to manually drag anything again. In my example, I used David Lanham's custom icon for 1Password.

Repeat the above steps for all your apps that you want to customize. Then, with the collection selected, go to File > Save As iContainer (make sure you select "All Collection Icons" in the settings of the save prompt). Now, when a bunch of apps update and you need to update the custom icons you assigned, just open that iContainer and click "Use These Icons."

A blue glow will appear around icons that you have customized. If you wish to revert back to the original icon, just click and drag the icon away from its box, then release. Then hit
A blue glow will appear around icons that you have customized. If you wish to revert back to the original icon, just click and drag the icon away from its box, then release. Then hit "Apply"

When you hit "Apply," Candybar will reset Finder so that the icons will take effect. Now, I've found that some systems are a little stubborn at this step. The folks at Panic recommend resetting your system if it doesn't look like your icons have taken effect. Before you do that, though, I recommend using the Terminal to reset the Finder again. Here are the steps for that process, (which, again, you only need to try if some icons haven't changed after hitting "Apply."

Relaunching Finder with Terminal

1. Open Finder. Select Applications > Utilities > Terminal

2. Type killall Finder (note the capital "F" in Finder) and hit enter.

Type the above command in and press enter to reset Finder.
Type the above command in and press enter to reset Finder.

This will reset Finder an extra time. If those stubborn icons haven't changed, go ahead and try restarting your computer.

Super Stubborn Icons

Some icons are particularly stubborn. These usually don't want to change because they are "dynamic," meaning they change in appearance depending on what the app is doing. A good example of this is iCal, (or Calendar in Mountain Lion), which changes every day to display the day of the month. I haven't had very good luck getting the iCal icon to change, even though some folks in forums around the internet claim to have figured out the solution.

Aside from iCal, other stubborn apps do have a solution that I can say works:

1. Find the application in the Applications folder.

2. Right-click it, and select Show Package Contents.

3. Double-click Resources. Inside this folder is where the app stores various bits of graphics. If you search around you'll find at least one (probably more) files that end in .icns.

4. Take your custom icon, and change the name to the exact same name as the file you see in the Resources folder. You will need to repeat this step for each of the icons you see that end in .icns if you want the icon to remain customized no matter what it tries to change into. Note that OS X will warn you about changing a file's extension. Go ahead and dismiss the warnings.

5. Make a backup of the original .icns files by right-clicking each one and selecting copy, then paste each one into a new folder you create on the desktop.

6. Now drag the new files in to the Resources folder. Again, OS X will warn you that there are already files with that name in the folder. We understand that, and want to replace those, so click replace.

That's it. Your system may not register the change right away, so re-launch whatever app you were dealing with. If it is still not registering, try the aforementioned Terminal trick.

The Dock

With the release of Lion's Launchpad function, as well as third-party application launchers like Alfred and Quicksilver growing in popularity, there is less of a need to fill up your dock with your favorite apps. Nevertheless, the Dock remains a mainstay of the OS X interface, and if you are going to have it filling up the bottom of your screen's real estate, you might as well have it look good. The standard glass-style has never been my favorite, but fortunately CandyBar also lets you change the dock.

Open up Candybar again and look at the left column. Next to the Somatic system icon set, you'll see "DOCK" listed. That means that this iContainer comes with a custom dock that we can use. Unfortunately, Candybar doesn't make the process of using these docks very intuitive.

DOCK means that there are available docks in this iContainer.
DOCK means that there are available docks in this iContainer.

1. Select the Somatic system icon set by click on it in the left hand column.

2. At the bottom of the window, select the small dock icon, just to the left of the search box.

The button to show the iContainers available docks is hidden at the bottom of the window.
The button to show the iContainers available docks is hidden at the bottom of the window.

3. Some iContainers come with multiple options for the dock. Here we see only one. Click the button at the right labeled Use This Dock.

You get a preview of the docks available in the iContainer at the bottom of the window. You can also download individual docks separately.
You get a preview of the docks available in the iContainer at the bottom of the window. You can also download individual docks separately.

Conclusion

With Lion, Apple has continued a trend of making it harder to customize various aspects of OS X's appearance. Older versions of OS X allowed for more tweaks, but their strategy for maintaining stability has increasingly meant locking down the OS.

The rise of the Mac App Store spells further problems for anyone hoping to tweak their system, because apps sold through the store do not allow any changes to be made to the resources folder. Candybar gives you a little lock icon over applications that you've downloaded via the MAS, letting you know that you can't make changes. If you try to change the icon via the advanced method I outlined above by manually changing the icon files, the app will break and won't open.

Though Mountain Lion has locked down some functionality, such as customizing your dock, some of the methods I discussed here will continue to work. If you want to change up icons in the future, see if the developer of your favorite apps offer users the option to download non-MAS versions via their websites.

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