Apple has historically been known - perhaps unfairly - as a company that likes to make decisions for its users. Steve Jobs once famously said that "a lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them." And the company still likes its OS platforms to work in a particular way, rather than allowing users to heavily customise the interface.
However - in macOS at least - it's possible to make some limited cosmetic modifications and personalise the look of your Mac's desktop, and in this article we show how. If you want to go further and substantively personalise the Mac interface you'll need to get into the realm of third-party tools, so we'll look at those too.
Change the wallpaper
It's easy to change the wallpaper on a Mac: just right-click the desktop and select Change Desktop Background, or open System Preferences and select the Desktop & Screen Saver option.
You can set your own image by simply dragging it on to the screen preview rectangle at the top left. (Select Fill Screen, Center or however you want the image to be fitted to the screen space using the dropdown to the right of this rectangle.) And any time you find a picture you like while using Safari, right-click it and select Set Desktop Picture (or Use Image As Desktop Picture in older versions of macOS).
If you want the desktop to change automatically, select a folder from which to draw these images and tick 'Change picture' and select a frequency. We recommend using 'Random order' as well.
Here's a handy hint: you can easily make the wallpaper thumbnail images larger in System Preferences by hovering the mouse cursor over them and using the pinch-expand gesture on your trackpad.
Apple provides some amazing images as part of its screensavers and you can nab them for desktop wallpaper. Click a blank spot on the desktop, then tap Shift + Cmd + G. In the dialog box that appears, paste in /Library/Screen Savers/Default Collections. Select one you like then right-click and Set Desktop Picture.
Customise the interface
Apple allows a very modest set of visual customisation options for your Mac's interface, and you'll find the options by opening System Preferences and clicking the General tab.
The first three dropdowns on this screen let you set the buttons, menus and windows in either blue or graphite; highlights (when selecting text or an icon) in any of nine preset colours, or from anywhere on a colour wheel by selecting Other; and the sidebar icons in Finder as small, medium or large. Yep, it's not a whole lot of choice.
In among the dropdowns, however, you'll see two more tickboxes. There's a dark mode, which turns the dock and the top menu bar and dropdowns black - this looks quite smart, we think. And you can set the top menu bar to automatically hide and reappear when moused over, if you wish.
Also in System Preferences you can mitigate some of the 'flat' look in recent editions of macOS by clicking the Accessibility icon (instead of General), selecting Display at the left, and putting a tick alongside either 'Reduce transparency', which will turn off translucent window backgrounds, or 'Increase contrast', which will add thin black borders to windows and toolbars.
Customise icons & folders
To personalise the size and spacing of desktop icons, right-click in a blank spot and select Show View Options. The options for Icon Size and Grid Spacing should be self-explanatory.
The four different view modes within a Finder window (icon, list, column and CoverFlow) can also be separately personalised via the same technique - right-click in a blank spot of the window and select Show View Options. Icon view alone allows you to change the background to a colour or image of your choice. (And certain standardised folders, such as Recents, are less customisable.)
Every folder can be have its own unique look, or you can configure one folder however you like and then click the Use as Defaults button at the bottom of the window to apply the style to all future Finder windows. Again, certain folder windows will not offer this option.
Upload your own icons
For two decades it's been possible to use your own images to customise a Mac's file or folder icons.
Start by finding a replacement icon. You'll find loads online, such as here, or you can use your own image. If using an icon, choose to view the highest-resolution version in GIF or PNG format and download it to your computer (just drag it from the browser to a Finder window).
Double-click to open the picture or icon using Preview. Select all (Cmd + A, or Edit > Select All) and then copy it (Cmd + C, or Edit > Copy). Close Preview.
Select the file or folder whose icon you want to replace, then tap Alt + Cmd + I (Option + Cmd + I on some keyboards) to bring up the Inspector (info) window.
See the small icon at the very top left of the Inspector window? Click it once, then tap Cmd + V to paste in your new icon (or click Edit > Paste). Note that this won't work on a file or folder alias.
The Inspector window will stick around and show details of other file(s) or folder(s) you select. Just repeat the steps above to paste in new icons for them.
To revert back to the default icon, repeat the steps to view the Inspector window and click the icon within it; but this time tap the Backspace or Delete key.
For more information, see: How to change Mac app icons.
Third-party customisation apps
Sadly, the above is about all you get when it comes to built-in personalisation on Mac. There's no way to 'theme' the Safari browser like you can with Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, for example.
For more control you'll need to look to third-party hacks, such as Flavours 2 (from £3.73/$5). This lets you theme the colour scheme and interface elements used within every program window.
The Dock can be resized and moved to the left and right of the screen using the options in System Preferences, but to alter its look and feel you'll again need to look to third-party apps. cDock (free) features a variety of different looks that can be applied to the Dock in one click, including 'Yosemite 3D', which will restore the old-fashioned 3D Dock that was abandoned in the move to Yosemite.
cDock can also restore colour icons to the Finder sidebar, as in older versions of Mac OS X. HyperDock (€6.95 from here or £9.99/$9.99 from the Mac App Store, although bear in mind that there are slight differences between the two) can also alter the Dock's look and feel, and it adds useful new features, such as window previews.
Be aware that these apps hack system files, although most people report that they work just fine.