Beyond the Surface: 15 Years of Desktop Aesthetics


A desktop is a changing record of visual decisions. It speaks to the aesthetics of a particular work-flow and personal space. A desktop exhibits a diagram of your organizational habits and a screenshot of it captures a brief moment of its functional evolution. The image of your desktop becomes an intimate self-portrait and the impulse to decode an unfamiliar desktop is unavoidable.

Xerox Star 8010 Workstation - Image via

In January, Adam Cruces wrapped up his Desktop Views project. Cruces collected 51 images of artists’ desktops including a number of artists he worked with in his earlier project STATE.

Cruces frames Desktop Views with a quote from Alexei Shulgin’s legendary Desktop Is project, created 15 years earlier in 1997, at the dawn of “” The quote, taken from the about page of Shulgin’s project, uses the title Desktop Is as an iterative I Ching-style manifesto about the desktop. Its final lines claim in paradox, “desktop is a question, desktop is the answer.” Cruces’s description of Desktop Views is more straightforward and less poetic. To him the desktop is “the (virtual) space that serves as the foundation of the working environment.” Cruces and Shulgin, however, channel the same curiosity. The two projects are echoes that present voyeuristic peeks into artists’ personal virtual working spaces on public websites.

The Desktop Is site is a deteriorated time capsule. Its nostalgic Apple OS desktop interface links to two folders; one, leads to site information, and the second, to a list of submitted desktop images. Link rot has broken nearly half of the links in Shulgin’s list of submissions and the ones that work are a mix of cryptic handles, like Murph the surf, in contrast to full names - some followed by an email address.

In converse, Cruces’s new iteration, Desktop Views is standardized. It presents a grid of images (a sort of meta desktop) that can be sorted alphabetically by first name or chronologically in the order they were collected and released on the site. Artists’ full names label each desktop thumbnail in the grid. Cruces hosts all the images he has collected, so perhaps this archive of desktop images will remain intact for more complete future reflections. Within the order, the desktop images range from stark defaults to extreme clutter.

Sara Ludy’s desktop, for example, is minimal with a blurred blue smudge of pixels centered on a black background. On the right side, is immediately above vased.gif which might reveal a recently created animated gif. Daniel Keller’s desktop image presents a more complex space. His numerous file icons stand in an equally spaced array – small and unreadable. They vanish into an endless crowded background of solar panels stacked edge-to-edge.

Martin Murphy’s desktop, for example, has a strange background image: a hand wrapped in latex touches a warped smiling face in a pool of purple color. The face stares out of the screen. Icons, floating on the right, are grid-free and vaguely organized. Three external drive mounts show a potential need for more space while a folder announces a “project with Evan” in its name. Perhaps this counts as evidence of collaboration. Amidst bluetooth connections, a dropbox account, and a desirable suite of creative software applications in the dock below, Murphy is present. He listens to Spotify and captured his desktop image with OS X’s Grab application. 

Martin Murphy's desktop from Adam Cruces's Desktop Views

Some visual clues reveal location or language, like Jon Rafman’s Canadian flag in his menu bar. His background image shows two men climbing a floating knot of infinite stairs up and down, down and up. A handgun icon labelled “TODO” floats point-blank at one man’s head. Other desktops are more mysterious. Rafael Rozendal’s blank grey background leaves everything to the imagination – his tiny system activity monitor, maxed out in red and green, is the only leading detail.

While Cruces’s project feels curatorial, Shulgin’s is more ethnographic...