Whether it’s a landscape you shot on a trip, your toddler captured mid-grin or a 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. After all, 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 relatively neutral colors and a minimum of noise. As 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 taking in anything else.
But don’t think I am suggesting you swap out your sweetheart 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 and desaturating to get these to behave as comfortable backdrops for your work. Landscapes and still lifes, in turn, lend themselves to displaying an actual subject in a way that can be edgless, soothing and meaningful all at once. Be choosy and don’t hesitate to carve into an image for the crop you deserve.
Note that if you happen to be a graphic designer or photographer, at risk for the perils of simultaneous contrast, 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 qualities of visual clutter, I am both a good test subject in these matters and the author of some uniquely sterile non-abstract photographs. I’ve selected the ones that best combine a little break for the eyes with a treat for the limbic system. Help yourself... unless of course whatever you have up has got to stay.
All images by Natalia Osiatynska, formatted for the 15" retina screen and roughly suitable for any horizontal display. Personal use as computer wallpaper only please—all other rights reserved and all other uses subject to prior author approval.