You will hear the terms theme, visual style, and skin defined in a number of ways and often used interchangeably. In an attempt to make some sense when these often ambiguous terms are used, we put together a definition for each. Let's start with theme.
What Is a Windows XP Theme?
You can create your own themes using tools provided by Windows XP. The primary tool is the Display Properties dialog box. If you want to include a sound scheme and special mouse pointers with the theme, you also use the Sound and Audio Devices Properties dialog box and the Mouse Properties dialog box.
So, a theme (at least in my mind and for the purpose of this book) contains the following:
Defining a theme, then, one could say that a theme is a collection of GUI elements including a background, icons, mouse pointers, fonts, and a screensaver; a theme can also include nonvisual elements, meaning a sound scheme. Figure 1.16 shows a simple hockey theme created using custom icons and a custom mouse pointer (the mouse pointer is near the Recycle Bin on the right of the desktop).
Figure 1.16. You can create your own Windows XP themes.
Themes are fun to create and can provide a great deal of customization and interest to the Windows GUI. They are not, however, a hugely dramatic change to the Windows interface. That is where the visual stylethe subject of the next sectioncomes into play.
To start creating your own themes, see Chapter 4.
What Is a Windows XP Visual Style?
So, how does a visual style differ from a theme? The visual style defines the actual graphics used by the GUI. For instance, title bars, controls, and even the taskbar are graphical elements of the GUI. Even though both a theme and visual style can contain settings for colors, the visual style actually provides greater possibilities in customizing the overall look of the interface.
So, a visual style is a customized version of the GUI elements themselves, meaning that the actual bitmaps representing GUI items have been edited or replaced. For example, to create a new visual style, one element you might change would be the look of the taskbar or the standard window title bar. You could actually edit the shape, color, and other graphical attributes of the item. This can be done because all the elements that make up the GUI are actually bitmap images.
Now we are talking about dramatic changes to the GUI. Visual styles contain information on how the windows displayed by the GUI, including title bars, controls, and borders, will look. Visual styles can even contain edited versions of the End Session dialog box and animations (such as an animation that shows files being copied from one folder to another).
Visual styles do overlap with themes in that visual styles can contain custom color schemes for the GUI. However, themes do not provide the ability to edit the bitmaps (graphic files) that actually make up the elements of the GUI. You can edit the GUI bitmaps using any graphics software package. You can start with something as simple as Windows Paint, but you will find that more advanced visual styles require a higher-end graphics package, such as Photoshop.
So, to see two basic examples of visual styles, switch between the Windows XP style and the Windows Classic style that are available on the Appearance tab of the Display Properties dialog box (to bring up the dialog box, right-click the desktop and select Properties on the shortcut menu). You will see that the title bars, window borders, and controls on the windows (the Minimize, Maximize, and Close buttons) differ in the two styles.
Your visual styles can be much more dramatic (and artistic) than the two possibilities offered by Microsoft. Figure 1.17 shows a visual style named faux S-toon (created by Paul Boyer). The visual style was downloaded from the winCustomize website and applied to Windows using Windowblinds (we discuss Windowblinds in Chapter 6, "A Closer Look at Skinning Software").
Figure 1.17. Visual styles dramatically change the Windows GUI.
Note the dramatic changes this visual style provides to the taskbar and the application window (running Windows Internet Explorer). A number of visual style editors exist that enable you to create extremely interesting and creative visual styles for Windows. We will be looking at two such tools: TGT Soft's Style XP and StarDock SkinStudio.
What Is a Windows XP Skin?
Now we can tackle the definition of a skin: A skin is a combination of a Windows theme and a visual style. This provides a highly customized and personalized Windows GUI.
Skins can also contain modified boot screens and Windows logon/logoff screens. Typically, skinners also include skinned applications, such as the Windows Media Player, as part of their Windows skin. Figure 1.18 shows a Windows skin that includes a visually blended theme (meaning the background and icons) and visual style (the taskbar and Start menu). The skin also includes a skinned version of the Windows Media Player that is compatible (in terms of the overall design) with the Windows skin itself.
Figure 1.18. Skins include a theme, a visual style, and often skinned applications.
The only real limitation on creating skins, after you've become familiar with a particular skinning software tool and a graphics package such as Photoshop, is your own imagination (with some creativity thrown in). Now that we have discussed the basics of what constitutes a skin, we need to take a closer look at the actual elements that make up the Windows interface, such as the desktop, Start menu, and taskbar. In Chapter 2, we discuss basic modifications to the GUI, including issues related to desktop icons. Chapter 3, "Applying and Downloading Windows Themes," explores the basics of Windows themes.