How to Install Themes in Ubuntu Linux

Brief: This beginner’s guide shows you how to install themes in Ubuntu. The tutorial covers the installation of icon themes, GTK themes and GNOME Shell themes.

Ubuntu looks good but it can be tweaked to look better. One of the reasons why I like using Linux is the flexibility of customization. Changing themes gives the system an entirely new look and feel. And the best thing is that there are tons of good themes for Ubuntu and other Linux at your disposal. You can play with them as you like.

Install new themes in Ubuntu

In this tutorial, I’ll show you various type of theme customization, ways to install them. Of course, I’ll discuss how to change the themes in Ubuntu.

Let’s start with the type of theme elements.

Know the difference between icon themes vs GTK themes vs GNOME Shell themes

This is the default look of Ubuntu 17.10:

Ubuntu 17.10 default look
Ubuntu 17.10 default look

And if I change all three theme elements, the same may look like this:

Ubuntu 17.10 theme change
After changing icon, GTK3 and GNOME Shell theme

Icons: Icons are pretty straightforward. Changing the icon theme will change the looks of the icons of applications. You should opt for an icon theme that has support for a wide range of applications else you might see some icons remain unchanged and look out of the place. You can refer to this article to find the best icon themes for Ubuntu.

GTK theme: GTK is a framework used for building the graphical user interface of an application. Basically, it determines how an application interface will look like (if it is a GTK application). At present, Ubuntu uses GTK3 so you should download GTK3 themes.

GNOME Shell theme: Changing the GNOME Shell theme will change the Shell elements such as the top panel, activity overview, desktop notification etc.

Some theme packages provide all three types of theme elements to give you a uniform experience. On the other hand, you’ll also find a standalone icon or GTK or Shell themes. Of course, you can combine them to give your Ubuntu system an attractive look.

Now that you are familiar with the terms, let’s proceed to install themes in Ubuntu 18.04, 18.10 and 16.04.

How to install themes in Ubuntu

Just for information, I’ll use the term ‘themes’ for all three i.e. icons, GTK and GNOME Shell themes, unless individually specified.

I have also made a video about installing themes in Ubuntu 18.04 which is valid for 20.04 and higher versions as well. You can watch the video to see the things in action. Do subscribe to our YouTube channel for more Ubuntu tutorials.

There are three main ways you can install themes in Ubuntu:

1. Using PPA to install themes

My favorite way of installing themes is to use a PPA. This way you get the themes updated automatically. All you have to do is to use three lines of code, one by one.

Let’s take Pop OS theme for example. This is a beautiful theme package developed by System76 for its own Pop OS Linux distribution. You can install the theme package using the command below:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:system76/pop
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install pop-theme

This will install Pop OS icon, GTK3 and GNOME Shell theme. You don’t have to do anything else. You now have the new themes available in your system. All you need to do is to change it. We’ll see how to change themes in Ubuntu slightly later in this article. Let’s move on to other ways of installing themes.

2. Using .deb packages to install themes

Some theme developers provide .deb executable for their theme. All you need to do is to download the .deb package and double click on it to install the theme like any other software. Take Masalla icon theme for example. You can download the .deb files from SourceForge.

Once downloaded, just double-click on it to install the theme.

3. Using archive files to install themes

This is perhaps the most common way of providing themes. If you go to GNOME Looks website in search of themes, you’ll find that themes come in zip or tar archive form. Don’t worry, installing themes this way is also not a big deal.

Let’s download Ant GTK theme from the link below. You’ll have to go to the Files section. If you see more than one file, it’s because this theme has some variants. These variants are similar but varied a little in terms of looks. For example, there could be a dark variant of a theme.

Once you have downloaded it, you’ll have to do one extra stuff here.

Go to your Home directory and press Ctrl+H to show hidden files and folders. If you see .themes and .icons folders, you are good. If not, create new folders named .themes and .icons.

You can use the command below if you want:

mkdir ~/.themes
mkdir ~/.icons

Now remember that when you download the archived version of GTK or GNOME Shell theme, extract it and copy the extracted folder to .themes folder in your home directory. If you download an archived version of icon theme, extract it and copy the extracted folder to .icons folder in your home directory.

To summarize:

  • .themes – for GTK and GNOME Shell themes
  • .icons – for icon themes

Well, you have just learned how to install themes in Ubuntu 17.10. It’s time to see how to change the themes here.

How to change themes in Ubuntu [GNOME desktop]

You’ll have to use GNOME Tweaks tool for this purpose. It is available in the software center. Just search for it and install it.

If you prefer terminal, you can use the command below to install GNOME Tweaks:

sudo apt install gnome-tweaks

Once installed, just search for it and start it:

GNOME Tweaks tool in Ubuntu 17.10

When you start Tweaks, you’ll see the options to change the icon, GTK3 and Shell theme under the Appearance section. GTK theme is changed from the “Applications” option.

How to change themes in Ubuntu


You might see a triangle over the GNOME Shell option that won’t allow you to change the GNOME Shell theme.

Enable GNOME Shell change

This is because some functionalities to GNOME Shell are locked by default. They can be changed using GNOME Shell Extensions. While there are numerous GNOME Shell Extensions available, the most reliable way is to use GNOME Shell Extensions included in Ubuntu’s repository. This consists of 8-10 useful extensions, including the one that will allow you to change the GNOME Shell theme.

To install, you’ll have to use the terminal here. There is no other way:

sudo apt install gnome-shell-extensions

At this point, I don’t remember if you need to log out or reboot your system. If you go under the Extensions option in GNOME Tweaks and don’t see a bunch of extensions there, you should log out and log back in.

Change GNOME Shell theme in Ubuntu 17.1

What you need to do here is to enable the ‘User themes’ GNOME Shell extension. After that, restart GNOME Tweaks application. Now, you’ll see that the triangle has gone and you can change the GNOME Shell.

How to change themes in Ubuntu 16.04 [Unity desktop]

You can install Unity Tweak tool from Ubuntu Software Center.

Alternatively, you can also use the terminal and install it with the following command:

sudo apt-get install unity-tweak-tool

Once you have installed the theme or extracted the content in ~/.themes directory, start Unity Tweak Tool. Go to Unity Dash and search for Unity Tweak tool:

Unity Tweak Tool in Ubuntu 13.10

You’ll find the Theme option in the Appearance section.

Ubuntu Unity Tweak Tool

Once you have selected the Themes option, you will find all the themes present in the system here. Just click on the one you like. It will be changed instantly.

If you want, you can choose to change the icons only from the Icon tab. I prefer to keep the default icons supplied with the theme.

Install themes in Ubuntu Unity

Here’s the complete video of theme installation steps in Ubuntu 16.04:

Do you often change themes in Ubuntu?

Well, that would be all you need to do in order to install themes in Ubuntu. If you ask me, I almost never keep the default theme. It’s not that the default Ubuntu theme is not good-looking. It’s just that I am used to of having better-looking themes. How about you?

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