Plasma desktop customization guide - How to for newbies

Updated: July 1, 2021

A few weeks back, one of my readers contacted me and asked me if I could do an article, newbie style, explaining the steps I take in customizing the vanilla Plasma desktop to my liking. And I thought, why not indeed. Although I've done this exercise many times before, in various shapes and forms, I've never explicitly went through it in one go, as a complete, sequential piece.

Well, today, I shall rectify that. But let us set the expectations ere you continue any further. One, you should go through my Linux section and read a dozen odd guides on various Plasma tools and features. Perhaps start with my Plasma is the best piece, and then continue yonder. Two, this is MY customization, so if you don't like the Dedoimedo Haute Couture, then stop, in the name of love. Three, Plasma doesn't really need any tweaking. But it's a flexible desktop, and it lets you do whatever you like, thus everything I'm going to show you today can be accomplished with zero command line and zero third-party tools. Begin, we must.

Teaser

Customize theme

Various distributions will ship with this or that theme. Typically, it will be either Breeze or Breeze Dark. Launch Settings > Appearance. Here, without clicking on any of the sub-categories in the sidebar, you can set the Global Theme. More recent editions of Plasma also include the Breeze Twilight theme, which mixes some elements of Breeze with Breeze Dark. Namely, the panel and the menu will be dark, but the application theming will be light.

Global theme

If you're not happy with this arrangement, then you can also do your own cocktail. Once you set the Global Theme, click on Plasma Style. Now, you can choose a different look for your desktop and menu.

Style

Similarly, you can tweak the Appearance of the windows and applications, including both native (Plasma) applications and GTK applications (bottom right corner). Here, I've included screenshots both from Plasma 5.21 and the older Plasma 5.12 LTS, which show the difference between the two desktop editions. In both cases, you can select the right (Breeze) theme for GTK applications, to ensure a consistent look.

App style

App style, GTK

App style, 5.12 LTS

Colors

Another frequent change in my Plasma journey is the font color. I find the non-pure-black font color used in the absolute vast majority of Linux distributions to be sub-optimal, which is why I make sure to change the color. Plasma is the only Linux desktop that lets you do this on the fly using the Settings GUI. Click on Colors in the sidebar. Now, hover the mouse over the current theme (e.g.: Breeze), and click the pen-like icon to edit it. This will open a sub-menu with a list of different window elements and their selected colors. P.S. All of this is outlined in detail in my Brooze tutorial. To wit.

Colors, default

Edit colors

You want to change these three elements: View Text, Window Text and Button Text. Click on the color bar on the right side, and then, when the color chooser window opens, type in the hexa value #000000 instead of the default #232629 value. Apply the changes, and then Save as the new color palette. I typically choose the name Brooze. Finally, Apply to make it the active color theme, and you will see the text color change immediately, without any need to restart applications, log out of your sessions or anything like that.

Choose color

Save color as

Select new color scheme

Menu, task manager and show desktop

The next item on the menu [sic] is the choice of the desktop panel configuration. Plasma offers multiple versions of the menu, task manager and the Show desktop widget called Alternatives, intended to accommodate different tastes and usage models. Right click on any one of these elements, and then select Alternatives. You will see the available options. For instance, for your shortcuts and running applications, you could show a window list, a task manager (combo of shortcut icons and names), or just icons, which also double as shortcuts for pinned programs. Similarly, the Show desktop widget can either scatter windows into the four corners of the screen or minimize them all to the task manager. And you get the idea.

Task Manager, alternatives

Desktop widget

Panel behavior and size

The Plasma desktop panel - the bar located by default at the bottom of the screen and containing the menu, the task manager and the system tray - can be edited as you please. Right-click > Edit Panel. Now, you can change its height, add or remove widgets, add spacers, and rearrange elements as you see fit. When it comes to height, there will usually be two constraints dictating your choice - personal taste and display scaling.

Panel height

Plasma HD display scaling

If you're using a relatively small device (say a 14-inch laptop), and have an HD display (maybe even 4K), with 1:1 pixel scaling, some elements may be just too small to view or click on comfortably. To that end, you may want to increase them.

Again, among the many different Linux desktop environments, Plasma is the only one that does proper fractional scaling, and does it well. You can use 6.25% scaling increments, which gives far more freedom than say 125% or 150% as is typically the case (where available). The scaling factor will determine the size of the elements drawn on your screen. This correlates to the vertical size you want to see for the panel. Go to System Settings > Display and Monitor > Display Configuration.

HD scaling

Single-click or double-click

Some Plasma-clad distributions opt for single-click actions, whereas others offer double-click. In the past, there was less consistency but more logic in how Plasma managed this (mouse vs Dolphin behavior). More recently, this functionality has been moved under Workspace Behavior, which doesn't sound very intuitive.

While I've always argued that mouse clicks should be listed under Mouse & Touchpad options, if you need to make the necessary adjustment, this is where you do it. To get the double-click behavior, toggle Clicking files or folders from Opens them to Selects them. BTW, Plasma 5.22 now shows this as a common task when you open System Settings, so it should be easier to find and change.

Mouse clicks

Configure desktop wallpaper

This should be a trivial one, I think. Right-click on the desktop > Configure Desktop and Wallpaper.

Wallpaper change

Some fine screenshots

And there we go. Beauty in the making and such:

Desktop 1

Desktop 2

Desktop 3

Conclusion

This be it. The end of this article. Hopefully, my tutorial provides you both with the actual technical steps as well as the reasoning for why and how I tweak the Plasma desktop environment. It comes down to pure and simple productivity. Efficiency. Larger elements are easier to grab or click. Higher contrast reduces eye strain and simplifies visual identification. A good color palette gives you the right background to work without unnecessary distractions (in the real sense of the word).

Best of all, Plasma lets you make all these changes natively, without any fussing. Of course, you can do far more. You can install tons of new widgets, you can grab fresh decorations - using Discover - and then even make Plasma look like other desktop environments, or even other operating systems. At this point, your imagination and your patience become the limiting factors. Well, there we go. If you've got any similar requests, don't be a stranger. And we're done.

Cheers.

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