Screen decor

Users are rebelling against utilitarian gray and personalizing their desktops with everything from gamelan to William Morris motifs.


Patrizia DiLucchio
May 19, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Chances are you spend too much time sitting in front of a computer. And let's face it, your desktop is bleak. Functional, yes; fun, no. While just about every other mass-market product's appeal revolves around its design, computer interfaces remain intimidatingly utilitarian -- a throwback to a time when the Internet had not yet achieved its gold-rush entertainment value and computer culture wasn't sexy.

But a growing community of computer users, weary of standard-issue windows and icons, is taking matters into its own hands.

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"Who wants to look at a desktop with gray, blah, same-old windows, when you can change it at the drop of a hat to suit your mood?" asks Janet Parris, a retired teacher from North Carolina who has designed more than 100 landscapes using Kaleidoscope, a popular shareware utility for the Macintosh. Her various designs will transform a desktop into a "winter wonderland" of snowflakes and sleighs, or adorn it with roses, bunnies or Byzantine ornamentation. There are rebels on the Windows front as well, designing alternative desktops using new interface design utilities like eFX and Stardock's WindowBlinds.

How big is this community of desktop decorators? Kaleidoscope co-author Arlo Rose reports millions of downloads from 21 sites in English, French, Italian, German and Japanese; he puts the number of amateur designers developing modules for Kaleidoscope at around 2,000. Since an updated version of WindowBlinds was released in February, Stardock CEO Brad Wardell estimates it's attracted 500,000 new users; he says "tens of thousands" of PC artists are working to create new desktop looks.

Why decorate your computer desktop? Well, why decorate your home? A bare mattress and a dangling bulb might meet basic shelter needs -- but what about aesthetic pleasures? "We want a little bit of our own personality to be reflected in the things we use daily," notes Kaleidoscope designer Patricia Erigero. And, just as pets are said to grow to resemble their owners, so can computers. A mouse click can transform your desktop into a William Morris tribute, a Goth graveyard, a Balinese temple -- or maybe a working simulacrum of your late, lamented Apple Lisa operating system.

"Each theme says a lot about its creator and who they are," says eFX developer Chad Boya. "It's almost like you don't have to introduce yourself to someone who has created a theme. Just by looking at their work you instantly become connected to them and so it's real easy to get to know each other."

Interestingly, both Kaleidoscope and WindowBlinds evolved outside the operating system mainstream.

Wardell, who distributes WindowBlinds, is a longtime supporter of IBM's OS/2. "When I first got into computers in a big way, I fell in love with the OS/2 2.0," he admits a little sheepishly. To pay his way through college he taught himself to program for OS/2 -- and created the game Galactic Civilizations. Though he now uses Windows NT, he says, "I run an OS/2 2.0 skin because it makes my computer look the way it did back then." (A "skin" is an alternative graphical interface to a program that can turn a plain-jane desktop or app, like ICQPlus, into a visual treat, like this Oasis of Sound.)

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But it's not just OS/2 devotion that prompted Wardell's interest in providing alternative desktop styles for the Windows crowd: "I work differently than Microsoft wants me to," Wardell says. Using WindowBlinds, he can not only change the look of a window, but also add buttons with new functionalities.

At Mac-oriented Kaleidoscope, Arlo Rose doesn't give Windows that much credit. "With a Mac, [desktop redecorators] are looking to make their lives more interesting," he observes dryly. "With PCs, they're trying to fix the inherent flaws in the Windows OS -- from both a design and a usability point of view." It's true that the Mac has long distinguished itself with its stylish looks and a variety of customizable utilities, all designed to personalize the experience of staring into a screen. In fact, it was the Mac crowd that enabled Berkeley Systems to turn something as explicitly playful as the After Dark screensaver into a business.

The first time they saw Kaleidoscope, Lloyd Wood and Leo Breebaart -- both graduate students in Europe -- saw obvious parallels with After Dark, another distribution channel for computer-centric art. Wood set up The Kaleidoscope Way in December 1996 to organize information about different desktop designs and to make it easier for their creators to connect. Shortly thereafter, Breebaart set up the first Kaleidoscope mailing list.

"We built a community of people who began to share tips about scheme design, writing documentation, collaborating on schemes, producing utilities and so on," recalls Wood. "These days, Web and mailing list communities are commonplace for everything ... We were just slightly ahead of the curve, and Kaleidoscope benefited as a result."

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Today, the Kaleidoscope Archive contains thousands of Mac desktops from more than 650 authors; the most popular designs have been downloaded close to 100,000 times. There is a noticeable split in the community between purists experimenting with the usability of an interface under all possible conditions and schemers who see visual motifs as the virtual equivalent of rubber stamps. "Any religion suffers schisms," says Wood. "Kaleidoscope is little different." While Kaleidoscope devotees are everywhere, some of the most tuned-in fans may be in Japan, where Mac100% magazine devotes a centerfold spread to the "schemes of the month."

It's only been within the last year that the PC desktop has caught up with Kaleidoscope. Though custom wallpaper, screensavers, pointers and theme managers like Microsoft Plus have been fixtures on the Windows landscape for years, the growing interest in Linux, in part, has inspired the Windows GUI renaissance. "Landscaping" is just another manifestation of the desire for choice and control over one's computing environment.

"I have been interested in art since I was a child," says Boyda, the eFX developer. "Then I got into computers and programming. Computers are beige, desktops are simple and gray, utterly boring. It's no surprise that so many people fear computers. I wanted to change this, make my desktop gorgeous and enjoyable. Lots of people like me spend hours and hours in front of a computer. Why should we have to stare at boring gray windows? Does your house look like that? No. You make it comfortable for you, design and fill it with things you enjoy and express who and what you are."

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Boyda and his partner Damian Hodgkiss developed eFX, which allows you to change window borders either by designing your own skin or by downloading one from the Web. "A skin is a set of graphics and templates that are used on a certain application, " Boyda explains. "They are 'mapped' or 'skinned' over the interface of the application, such as the border and buttons. Our bodies are wrapped and covered by skin, giving us our 'look.' Well, it's now the same with customized applications. Like tattoos." Literally thousands of skins are available at sites like Boyda's Skinz.Org and Customize.org. And there a host of "skinnable" apps -- like NeoPlanet and WinAmp, which have made their interface source code available to skin designers.

"I envision a day in the near future where software is not only sold by its ability to complete a task, but also the way it looks and attracts the consumer," Boyda says.

In the meantime, he and his fellow skin artists are enjoying themselves and their community. "Every day I hang out with friends I have met through the skinning community," adds Boyda, who meets up with these new pals both online and off. "We chat about ideas, colors, help each other learn new skin formats." Erigero, the Kaleidoscope designer and historical architecture consultant, who lives far from the Silicon Valley epicenter of computer culture, has had a similarly enriching experience. "I have yet to meet another schemer face-to-face," she says, "but I have corresponded with a number of them now and we do share thoughts and feelings about a wide range of topics. We've exchanged photos of kids and pets."

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You may think of remodeling as a lonely job that will leave you without a kitchen for months and cost you thousands of dollars. But you can redecorate your computer desktop for the price of a $25 shareware license, and come away with a whole new set of friends. Martha Stewart, eat your heart out.


Patrizia DiLucchio

Patrizia DiLucchio is a writer who lives in Monterey, Calif.

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