Jaan Tollander de Balsch

Computer Science & Applied Mathematics

Customizing Unity for Productivity

This blog post covers customizations that I have found useful for the overall feel and usage of the Unity desktop environment (default on Ubuntu 16.04). I cover how to set up useful features such as workspaces, hiding the launcher, changing to a custom theme as well as modifying the date and time format of the clock and changing default user folder paths.

Unity Tweak Tool

To start off we need to install Unity Tweak Tool, a settings manager for the Unity desktop.

sudo apt-get install unity-tweak-tool

Unity Tweak Tool is required for changing settings that can’t be set from the default Ubuntu settings menu and would otherwise require the use of the command line.

Launcher and Dash

Unity launcher is the sidebar on the left side in the desktop. I recommend hiding the launcher to increase the usable screen size and reduce distraction. Auto-hide the launcher by navigating to Unity Tweak Tool > Launcher and toggling Auto-hide on.

Instead of having to click icons on the launcher you should press the super key (windows key in most keyboards) to open dash and type the name of the program select it and press enter. This is faster and saves cognitive energy.


Workspaces are virtual desktops that can reduce clutter and make the desktop easier to navigate. Workspaces can be enabled by navigating to Unity Tweak Tool > Workspace Settings and toggling the workspace switcher on. You can adjust the number of horizontal and vertical workspaces available to suit your needs.


Unity allows the use custom themes. You should leverage this option to set up a theme that you find pleasant to look at when working on the computer.

I prefer darker themes over lighter themes. Darker themes reduce visual stress when working on the computer and look better than lighter ones. Following a suggestion in ask Ubuntu article Dark GTK theme for Ubuntu 16.04, I switched to a theme called Arc-theme. Install this theme using commands:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:noobslab/themes
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install arc-theme

The new theme can be changed by navigating to Unity Tweak Tool > Theme and selecting Arc-dark.


My wallpaper
My wallpaper

I use minimalistic dark wallpaper to match the Arc-dark theme. Good wallpaper makes your desktop look cool and dark wallpapers reduce the amount of light emitted by an empty screen. The easiest way to set up a new wallpaper is to right click it to select Set as Wallpaper. Wallpapers are saved to a directory at Pictures/Wallpapers.

Date and Time Format

dconf Editor
dconf Editor

The date and time format of the clock in Ubuntu panel can be set to have a custom format. I use the format of YYYY-MM-DD H:M. In order to configure the time format, you need to first install dconf Editor.

sudo apt-get dconf-editor

After installation navigate to dconf Editor > com > canonical > indicator > datetime. In this menu toggle time-format to custom and set the value inside custom-time-format to the format you want.

These instructions are based on the article How to Customize Time & Date Format in Ubuntu Panel.

Default User Folders

Custom location for default user folders
Custom location for default user folders

Anyone with a computer setup with a separate SSD disk and mass storage might want to change the paths of their default user folders such as Documents/, Downloads/, Music/, Pictures and Videos to the mass storage location instead of the SSD. This saves space on the SSD. These paths can be changed by modifying configuration file located at ~/.config/user-dirs.dirs.

Modified paths for default user folders
Modified paths for default user folders

Open the file using a text editor of your choice, for example, Gedit.

gedit ~/.config/user-dirs.dirs

Then replace the default path with the path of your custom location. I originally found this instruction from the article Change default user folders path.