Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Your Desktop Is Not a Destination

I'm of two minds on the desktop.

If you're really using your computer, your desktop should almost never be visible. Your screen should be covered with information, with whatever data you're working on. I can't imagine why you'd willingly stare at a static background image-- or even a background image covered with a sea of icons. Unless you consider your computer a really expensive digital picture frame, I suppose.

The desktop background, as I see it, is completely superfluous. My desktop "background" right now is plain black. And that doesn't bother me in the least, because none of it is visible. I have browser windows and programs-- the things I'm actually doing -- covering all three monitors. When I'm using a computer, I make it my goal to never see the desktop background. Every time the desktop background is visible, that means I'm making poor use of my monitor pixels. Whenever the desktop background peeks through, I treat it like a reprimand.

I won't lie to you. I don't always achieve my goal. The desktop is sometimes visible when I'm working. But I do try my darndest to cover all my monitors with something useful, and a static desktop background just isn't useful.

Ubuntu 7.10 'Gutsy Gibbon' desktop

OSX 10.5 'Jaguar' desktop

That said, it is fun to have a unique desktop background. Even if you rarely see it. In the above official screenshots from Apple and Canonical, the desktop background images were picked quite intentionally. I've done this myself; when I put together those pictures of the monitor arms, I specifically chose an interesting desktop background to show it off.

Ergotron monitor arms in action

Sometimes you just want to show off, even if it's only for yourself. When I graduated to my first triple monitor configuration, back in 2004, I used this 3200 x 1200 image of the entire first level of Super Mario brothers as my desktop background.

But I felt very, very dirty afterwards. I worry that if we spend too much time obsessing over our desktop backgrounds, we'll start treating our computers like fashion accessories instead of tools. We should be filling our screens with information, not distracting ourselves with pretty frippery.

However, if we do it responsibly, if we keep reminding ourselves that our desktop is not a destination, it's OK to obsess over our desktop backgrounds a little bit. The desktop is like an aesthetically pleasing airport we must occasionally pass through before arriving at our real destinations: a web browser, a word processor, an IDE, a graphics editor, etcetera. You know, the places we really want to go. A good-looking airport gives every traveller a positive feeling about where they're going, so feel free to spruce it up. Just don't go so far that you become one of those weird people who hangs out in airports.

In my original research, I ran across a lot of sites with great wallpaper resources. There's a heavy emphasis on extra-wide wallpapers here, as I run triple monitor configurations at home and at work. If you, too, rock a multi-mon setup under Windows, you'll need a utility to get different background images on each monitor, or to span a single image across all your monitors. I use Ultramon which does this and much more; Display Fusion does less, but it works for this, and it's free.

Personally, I don't care for photographs on my desktop. I prefer abstract backgrounds. This must be an unusual preference, because most desktop background websites are completely dominated by photographs. Still, I found a few sites with good abstract backgrounds, even though I had to sift through a lot of photographs to get to them.

For abstract backgrounds, I had the best luck with Flickr and InterfaceLIFT.

If you spend the next hour searching for the perfect desktop background, don't blame me. I tried to warn you. I'm hoping you don't see that special desktop background of yours too often.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror