Is GNOME Shell Getting an Official Light Theme?

Support for a light theme in GNOME Shell was merged upstream this week — though before anyone panic, I must stress it won’t be shipping as the default option in GNOME 45.

On a vanilla GNOME desktop (as of GNOME 44) the GNOME Shell UI, like the Top Bar, Status Menu, and calendar applet, are dark. And they stay dark regardless of whether light mode or dark mode is set.

This “mixed” default setting is going to remain in GNOME 45 (from what I’ve read) but it seems it will be possible to enable a light GNOME Shell theme using dconf, aka the “hidden settings” tool, and the new prefers-light color scheme preference.

There are no plans (that I know of) to add a GUI button for this in GNOME Control Center’s appearance section. There, the “light” mode option presented will continue to only affect application theme and not the GNOME Shell UI.

For an idea of what a GNOME Shell light theme might look like, here’s a screenshot from GNOME designer Sam Hewitt showing work done to accommodate the change. Note: I’ve cribbed this screenshot from a different (but related) merge request on Gitlab, so it’s not super recent:

Light GNOME Shell theme (credit: Sam Hewitt)

Of course, some of you might be thinking: “those aren’t the only dark elements in GNOME Shell” — and you’re right.

The overview uses a dark backdrop against which workspaces and the application picker appear. The Dash (aka the dock) also uses a dark color. Could those be made light as well, as this itty-bitty ‘full-light’ GIF imagines:

From what I can parse, GNOME will keep these elements dark — for now. It sounds like they’re not strictly “themed” to be dark, but dark by design so that apps/workspaces take focus. Designers sound open-minded about making the overview light though – so we’ll see!

Regardless of what GNOME make their default, theme makers and downstream distros can do what they want. And some of the work to accommodate a light GNOME Shell theme may, conversely, help those who like to “customize” by separating things out.

Still, until I can build GNOME 45, enable the prefers-light preference, and take some screenshots of my own, you’ll need to take everything you see here with a pinch of salt.

What a light GNOME Shell theme will ultimately look like is TBD as this is all in development — GNOME 45 is due for release in September — meaning things can and will change between now and then.