Make over your Mac – 10 transformative settings

Make over your Mac – 10 transformative settings
Mac Tip #490, 15 June 2011

The overall look and feel of a computer that you’re working on is actually very important. The effects may be subtle but they actually have quite a significant impact on how you work.

Use the settings in the Appearance pane to customise your Mac. Work and play more effectively and with more enjoyment. Here’s the lowdown.

Appearance is one of the System Preferences

The Appearance pane in System Preferences.

The Appearance pane in System Preferences.

To open the Appearance pane go to System Preferences under the Apple menu and click on the first item in the top row: Appearance.

The Appearance pane has 4 sections:

  1. Appearance and Highlight Colors
  2. Scrolling options
  3. Recent Items
  4. Font Smoothing

Your choices in each section make a subtle, or more obvious, difference to how your Mac looks and behaves. There are no right or wrong choices: it’s all up to you and how you like things to look and work.

Appearance and Highlight Colours

My selected Appearance color is Graphite so the selected menu item is grey.

My selected Appearance color is Graphite so the selected menu item is grey.


The Appearance selector affects buttons, menus and windows. It only gives you a choice of Blue or Graphite.

The appearance colour choice is fairly subtle.

To see the effect select something from the Menubar. As you move down over the various listed items the highlight colour will be Blue or Graphite, depending which you selected in the Appearance pane.

Also look at the screenshot and notice how the Search field in System Preferences is outlined in Blue. If you select Graphite from the dropdown menu that outline is grey.

You may also see the difference if you go to login to a website. Put your cursor in the Name field or the Password field, and you’ll see that field is outlined in either Blue or Graphite, depending on your choice.

Highlight color
Selected text highlighted in yellow.

Selected text highlighted in yellow. (Actually, I prefer Blue.)

The highlight colour affects how text looks when you select it.

Choose any colour you like for the highlights. Try changing it to something like red or yellow and then select some text in your web browser, your word processor, your email, or anywhere you like. You will clearly see the difference.

Scrolling options

Place the scrollbar arrows

Do you click on the arrows in the scrollbar to move up or down a page? You might find it convenient to have both arrows close together rather than one at each end of the scrollbar.

Place the arrows Together, or At top and bottom.

I like them together as I don’t have to move so far to reach the ‘other’ one.

Click in the scrollbar to scroll

Another way to scroll is to click in the scrollbar, to one side or other of the ‘thumb’.

Choose whether to Jump to the next page or to Jump to the spot that's clicked.

The first option’s handy for paging through a document — one page at a time.

The second option’s great if you’re good at guessing where you’ll end up in the document.

Use smooth scrolling

To be utterly honest, no matter what I do I can’t see any difference in anything whether I check or uncheck this option. I wondered if it was perhaps more useful on slower machines.

One friend, Bruce Hoult, a long-time Mac user, said this:

Try the pageUp/pageDn keys on a long document. It’s the difference between jumping all at once or scrolling.

It’s an obvious difference for me on both the original MBA @1.6 GHz and my home made quad Core i7 @3.6 GHz both on 10.6.7.

I’m interested to hear from you in the comments what difference smooth scrolling makes for you.

Double click minimise

Long, long ago we used to double-click a window’s title bar to get the window out of the way. These days we have the orange Minimise button.

Still, if you’d like to be able to double click on the title bar to minimise a window select that checkbox in the Appearance pane.

Recent Items

Look under the Apple menu and you’ll see a Recent Items submenu, divided into Applications, Documents, and Servers.

In the Appearance pane you can specify how many of each kind of thing you want to have showing up. Choose any number (in tens) between none and 50.

I love having quick access to recent documents, but quite honestly, most software I use has its own ‘recent’ menu for documents.

For any software I want to start up I use the very wonderful Launchbar. See Mac Tip #490 Launchbar saves your fingers from the walking.

Font Smoothing

Font smoothing experiments.

Font smoothing experiments.

The final section of the Appearance pane allows you to customise how fonts appear on your screen. This will be different for everyone as it depends on things such as the type and resolution of your monitor.

The best thing to do is to try setting Turn off font smoothing for font sizes to 4. Check a few documents, and then set it to 12 and look at the same documents again.

For example, I noticed on one of my banking webpages that the text looked fine with font smoothing set on 4 but absolutely awful and unreadable with it set on 12.

The screenshot shows that at 4 the font is normal and readable, but at 12 it’s spidery and awkward to read.

Font smoothing changes didn’t affect all my webpages though, as there are a lot of factors involved in how fonts look on your screen.

Experiment with different sizes and see what works best for you. I ended up with mine set on 4.

Harmonise your working space

None of these settings is going to make an earth-shattering difference to how you work and play on your Mac. You may save a few seconds here and there with better-placed scrollbar arrows, or with how clicks in the scrollbar work.

But just as turning your favourite armchair slightly, or driving to work a slightly different way can affect your mood, so these small tweaks are worth looking at.

In particular, choose carefully the Highlight and Appearance colors as they can make a real difference to how you feel about things.

Credit where it’s due

This Tip was written by Miraz Jordan,, and is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. If you’re reading this on a site that isn’t please check if the site adhered to the simple terms of the licence — credit MacTips, not for commercial use. (Sorry folks, but at least one website has been republishing these Tips without the attribution required by the licence. This notice should help alert visitors to that site that this content is being used in an unauthorised way.)

We’d love to hear about how tweaking the Appearance pane settings has affected how you use or feel about your Mac. Tell us at in the Comments. Could you write a guest MacTip? If so, contact Miraz.

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