A Few Notes About Linux Mint 18 Themes

📅 July 18, 2016
breezeThe Linux Mint desktop looks good, but can I customize it?

Yes! One of the best aspects of Linux is its limitless tweaking and customization where the only limit is your own imagination.

In Linux Mint 18, you can easily change the window borders, icons, controls, mouse pointer, and Cinnamon desktop panel from the Themes dialog of System Settings.

By downloading various new themes and icon packs, you can make the Mint desktop look however you want. Do you prefer a gaudy dark-green alien interface? How about a sleek, white, minimalist desktop that screams space-age future? Craving the user interface of days gone by? You can even alter Mint to the point where it looks like any other operating system available and fool unsuspecting users.

Here are a few notes about Linux Mint 18 themes.

Opening Themes

Go to the Theme dialog to adjust the themes. From the Mint Menu, open System Settings, and click the Themes icon under the Appearance category.


Mint Menu  > System Settings > Themes will open the Theme dialog that allows easy theme switching.

Five areas can be changed:

  • Window borders – Change the style of the window borders, not the content inside.
  • Icons – Change the system icons that appear on the desktop, the buttons, and menus.
  • Controls – The elements inside a window, not the window border.
  • Mouse Pointer – The mouse pointer itself.
  • Desktop – The Cinnamon desktop bar.

Themes dialog. The current theme elements are displayed.

To change a theme, click the item and choose from the available items in the popup menu. Changes take effect immediately.

Each element is changed independently from the others, so you can mix and match to your heart’s content in order to create a unique desktop! Yes, you can install several different themes and then choose the parts from each that you like best. For example, you can use the window borders from Theme A and the controls from Theme B to produce a look and feel the neither Theme A or B can produce alone.


Desktop might sound misleading at first. “Desktop” here refers to the Cinnamon panels, since, in this example, Linux Mint 18 Cinnamon is used. Changing the window borders or controls has no effect on the Cinnamon panel. Cinnamon uses its own styling system and uses its own themes.

You can download and install extra Cinnamon themes online by clicking the “Add/remove desktop themes…” link. This only applies to Cinnamon themes. New window borders, icons, controls, and mouse pointers must be downloaded from theme sites and installed manually.


For the longest time, Linux Mint installed with a default theme called Mint-X. Mint-X is still available, but to freshen up the GUI, Linux Mint 18 now ships with a new theme that looks even sleeker called Mint-Y, and it is available in three different versions: Mint-Y (Light theme), Mint-Y-Dark (Dark version), and Mint-Y-Darker (Combines light and dark).


Mint-Y theme. Shown with Vibrancy-Dark-Yellow icons.


Mint-Y-Dark theme.


Mint-Y-Darker theme combines parts of light and dark so it does not appear as dark as the dark theme.





Themes are files (for GTK2 and GTK3) that can be download from various Linux theme sites, such as gnome-look.org. Uncompress the theme file and copy its contents to ~/.themes for user-level themes, or to /usr/share/themes for system-level themes.

User-level themes in ~/.themes can be installed by any user, but only that user may access them. Other users cannot.

System-level themes in /usr/share/themes apply to all users, but you will need superuser privileges to access this directory. If you have the same set of themes in both system-level and user-level directories, then you can delete the duplicates from ~/.themes to save space.

Note the Directory Structure

Most compressed theme files contain the proper structure that Linux Mint will recognize, but not all. The directory structure and file organization must be correct or else the theme will not be available.

Trial and error and familiarity with the structure will help, but, usually, each theme is located in its own, separate directory within the main theme directory.

Failed Themes

If a theme does not install, it is usually because the uncompressed directory structure is incorrect (too many levels deep), or it is incompatible. Some themes simply will not work because they were designed for different GNOME or XFCE systems.

There is no way to know for certain if a theme is compatible or not until you try it. If it does not work, simply delete the theme directory from your system. Themes do not affect your system operation in the way a kernel upgrade would, for example.

Beware of Installing Themes from a .deb Package

You should never, ever be required to install a theme from a .deb file. This means entering a superuser password. Themes work simply by copying the files into ~/.themes. Superuser privileges are not required to make a theme work. Some elaborate themes might offer this feature due to installation options and complexities, but I always install themes manually.

Why? Suspicion. Is this really a theme? I once downloaded a theme, but it was packaged as a .deb, which required superuser privileges to install. As it turns out, the “theme” was not a theme at all, but it was a malicious program that deleted my system using root privileges. It tricked me into thinking it was a theme, so I entered the superuser password, which it gladly accepted. After a few moments of continuous hard drive grinding, I knew something was wrong. Themes should not cause this to happen. Sure enough, the system was deleting system directories and spewing bogus files everywhere. I had to wipe and reinstall Linux. And this was a theme downloaded from a well-known, reputable site. (The “theme” is no longer available for download.)

With themes, icons, and mouse cursors, superuser privileges are not required. Lesson learned.


You can download and install icon packs to change the icons that appear on your desktop.


Breeze icon pack + Mint-Y-Dark window borders + Mint-Y controls.


Oxygen icon theme.


AwOken White + Simple window borders + Mint-Y-Dark controls.

The themes and icons must be available on your system before your system can use them. Just download and extract them to the proper directories (mentioned below).

Wait Time with Many Icons and Themes

If you have a large number of themes and icons installed, then there will be a noticeable delay when opening the Themes dialog. More icons/themes means more wait time to change the theme, so the best practice is to keep the themes and icons you like the best and delete the rest.

Changing a theme is easy. Just click the theme you want and your system changes to show the new look.

“Where Are the Icons Installed?”

Icons are installed to ~/.icons or /usr/share/icons depending if you want user-level or system-level access.

“Where Are the Mouse Cursors Installed?”

Mouse cursors are treated like icons, so install them in ~./icons or /usr/share/icons. You can download new mouse cursor themes to change the look of that one item everyone probably spends hours looking at.

“Where Are the Cinnamon Themes Installed?”

Install them in ~/.themes or /usr/share/themes just like GTK themes.

“I changed the icon theme, but some icons are missing or look ugly. Why?”

Some icon sets might not be complete, meaning they do not replace every icon on the system. When this happens, Linux Mint “fills in the blanks” by using the default GNOME icons, which can look ugly next to a sleek icon pack.

Icon sets that replace all icons and look good across the entire system are usually 50-80MB in size, so file size should help you determine how many icons will be altered. Some icon packs only replace a few folders, so other areas, like the Mint Menu, will use the ugly GNOME icons.

“My theme looks good during everyday use, but when I perform an administrative task that requires a superuser password, the GUI does not use my theme. Why?”

Superuser GUIs grab themes from /usr/share/themes. If a theme does not exist there, then superuser-invoked GUIs will use a basic, default theme even though standard user-invoked GUIs will look pretty. Copy your sleek theme from ~/.themes to /usr/share/themes (requires superuser privileges because it affects the whole system). You should see the need theme take effect upon reopening the superuser GUIs.

Theme Location Summary

  • GTK2/3 (window borders and controls), Cinnamon desktop themes
    • ~/.themes           (user-level)
    • /usr/share/themes   (system-level)
  • Icons, Mouse pointers
    • ~/.themes           (user-level)
    • /usr/share/icons    (system-level)

Where Can I Download New Themes and Icons?

The official repository does contain extra themes and icons, so these are okay to install using superuser privileges. However, you probably want the latest custom themes made by individuals. Two sites to get started are,

Should I use GTK2 or GTK3?

These are different, and GTK3 is the latest with differing versions. I have had better success with GTK2 than with GTK3, but, at times, GTK2 would not theme completely. This is a matter of trial and error. Many times (most of the time, actually), a theme you install will not look as pretty on your desktop as it does in the web site screenshots. No all theme designers produce themes at the same level of proficiency, use the same GTK version, nor do they always package them in the same, compatible format. Play with them, read the individual theme instructions, and you should be okay.

How can I get a transparent window border?

You need to install another window engine. There are several new engines available in the official repositories, and some themes require them. Emerald is what you want. It produces transparent window borders that look beautiful in addition to endless customizations and tweaks you can make yourself.


The Compiz window decorator Emerald allows you to create transparent window borders. This picture is from a screenshot of the Frank Theme available on gnome-look.org. This theme is shown running on Linux Mint. The window border here is transparent, but you can adjust transparency and add background blur if you like. Linux Mint 18 by itself does not produce transparent window borders.


Light and dark divergence iv theme from deviantart.com. Transparent borders are shown with more opacity.

Years ago, Emerald was available from the repository and simple to install and use. Sadly, Emerald has been neglected over the years, but you can still install and use it. You might need to compile it yourself in some cases.

Once you have Emerald up and running, you have opened a new level of desktop tweaking. You will need to use Emerald itself to change the Window borders and you might need to edit a few configuration files and install Compiz for fancy graphical effects.

Emerald is a subject of its own that goes beyond the scope of this article, but it is definitely worth the time to install if you want to pack as much eyecandy onto your desktop as possible. Emerald + Compiz + Desktop Cube/Wobbly Windows is usually what attracts non-Linux users into giving Linux a try.

I have successfully installed Emerald + Compiz in past versions of Xubuntu and Linux Mint, and it does work with a few glitches.

The Compiz wiki has a page to get you start with Emerald, so have a look if you are interested. The Emerald Theme Manager is added to System Settings from which you can edit Emerald themes.


This brief article only touches the basics of what is possible with Linux customization, but it should be enough for you to spends hours upon hours using just the default Linux Mint 18 installation.

Combined with additional applets, desklets, dockbars, Compiz effects, and flashy desktop information, such as Conky, you can turn your default Linux desktop into a blinking, animated, distracting mess resembling a space ship’s control panel easily mistaken for a large banner ad. So, use discretion, and remember that less is more.

Tweaking is one of Linux’s strong points, so be creative and have fun!





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