Whether it’s a landscape you shot on a trip, your toddler captured mid-grin, or that whooshy abstract that came with your operating system, the picture on your screen should really serve the ergonomics of sight. Does it make desktop items easy to find and the content of applications easy to read? Is it helping your eyes relax, or at least not straining them any further? As a unit of meaning, is it the right kind of jolt for your mind?
Consider the image as a field of colors, patterns, and shapes. That’s what your eyes and brain have to process whenever your desktop is revealed or a portion of it is visible along with your open applications. If this background is less “rest area” and more “visual assault”—it might be a good idea to switch to an uncomplicated, low-contrast image with a minimum of noise and a neutral color scheme. My college professor Donna Arnink used to tell us, we are “limited-capacity processors.” If the desktop is busy, the brain is that much slower at working on other stuff.
But don’t think I am suggesting you swap out your sweetheart’s dazzling smile for a rectangle of grey. While subject-free graphics do make unobtrusive backgrounds (think of wallpaper on actual walls), they can also be cold and impersonal. Aim for soothing, not boring. Relax the eyes and energize the mind. Enjoy that flutter of love (toward a person) or pride (in a photo) or appreciation (for a clever semiotic puzzle of some kind). In Saussurean terms—give your signifier a special signified.
Figure-and-ground images like portraits and nature macros can be made to have plenty of simple ground and a subject that doesn’t peek out from behind open items. Try cropping, flipping, or desaturating to turn these into comfortable backdrops for your work. Landscapes and still lifes, in turn, lend themselves to displaying an actual subject in a way that is free of a single focal point, soothing, and meaningful all at once. Be choosy and don’t hesitate to carve into an image for the crop you deserve.
If you happen to be a graphic designer or photographer, at risk for the perils of the contrast effect, your desktop should be essentially color-free. If, however, you can handle a hue, sticking to greens and blues is always a good idea (for the same reason that we tend to relax better in rooms painted to resemble clear skies, verdant landscapes, and expanses of water).
As one who is hypersensitive to the distracting, enervating properties of visual clutter, I am both a good test subject in these matters and the author of some uniquely sterile non-abstract photographs. If you’d like to see some that combine a little break for the eyes with a treat for the limbic system, get in touch.