Customizing Emacs's modeline

Home About Gallery Links

As disciples of Emacs we are constantly working to build an ecosystem of elisp which supports our editing styles. As we enable various major and minor modes, Emacs tries to do its best to give us reminders of which modes are enabled for the current buffer. I firmly believe that a UI should work hard provide as much relevant information as possible without distracting from the user's focus. The UI should also be as intuitive as possible, allowing the user to self-discover additional functionality as they learn the system.

Emacs is definitely not intuitive, but once a user is accustomed to the environment, it really wins when it comes to self-discovery of extra features. Out of the box however, there is a significant amount of visual noise. Inspired by Emacs, naked, I stripped down my interface. Two things that bothered me in following "Emacs, naked": the wide fringe and no mode-line. On the other end of the spectrum is Spacemacs and powerline. These provide as much information as possible. Of course there's also diminish, which allows you to tell emacs which minor modes to show and and not. The trouble with diminish is that it never played well with my .emacs when Emacs is run as a daemon (I know there are workarounds, but they bothered me).

After some serious contemplation about which pieces of information in the mode-line were most important to me, I set about trimming it down to size.

Table 1: Comparison of default to customized UIs
emacs-default-ui_small.png emacs-customized-ui_small.png
Default UI Customized UI

If you want my mode-line without any further understanding stick this in your .emacs:

(setq-default mode-line-format
      (list
       " " mode-line-modified
       " %[" mode-line-buffer-identification "%] %l %6 "
       mode-line-misc-info
       mode-line-end-spaces))
(setq global-mode-string '((t jabber-activity-mode-string)
                          "" display-time-string appt-mode-string))

Since the mode-line is so fundamental to emacs, we have to set the format string slightly different than other variables. This is achieved through setq-default. The documentation does a pretty good job of describing what the various options are, but it was not clear to me how to achieve the interactivity of the default mode-line.

In my minimal setup, the car of the list is " ", which is a string. This tells emacs to process the rest of the list and concatenate the results into a string to be displayed in the mode-line. The next element of this list is mode-line-modified, which when eval'ed gives the modification state of the mode-line, but also provides the ability to use the mouse to toggle the states. The next string prints a "[" for each recursive editing level entered. Next mode-line-buffer-identification gives the buffer name, and the ability to left and right click to cycle through the buffers. Then I close the number of recursive edits with "%]". The last bit of information I find useful is the line number. If you prefer the original line information, the function to add is mode-line-position, this is too verbose for me, and I rarely need to look at the column, so I've replaced this with the "%l" directive which gives me the raw line number. The next bit: "%6" gives 6 spaces before any other functions add to the mode line.

The next piece, mode-line-misc-info, includes the variable global-mode-string which is a catch-all for transient notifications. The two that are relevant to me are: jabber-activity-mode-string which displays who has sent me an unread message on jabber, and display-time-string and appt-mode-string which display information when I have upcoming appointments in my agenda.

Once you understand the bits and pieces of elisp that make up the mode-line-format variable, you can tweak them to include just the bits that are useful to you. This allows the UI to provide the minimal amount of information needed for the user to get his or her work done expeditiously.

If you have any comments, you can tweet me @dbjergaard.