Getting started

This guide is more of a review of the decisions that went into my Prompt String 1 (PS1). Your mileage may vary, but remember to have fun and create the PS1 you want to see in the world.

I really really really spend a lot of time in a terminal. I got hooked all the way back in my MS-DOS days with the idea that I could write a set of instructions and have the machine act them out repeatedly for me. The fact that so much can be automated in a shell with an incredibly small amount of code is one of my favorite aspects of using it. There’s also the added benefit of intent, or friction depending on what you’re doing, that using only a keyboard facilitates when working in high-risk environments. Mice and touch are nice modernities of contemporary computer life, but it’s nice to feel like you’re back in the 80s and 90s logged into a computer somewhere else. It’s also really great to seamlessly continue working the same way you’re used to working when you have to context-switch onto another machine.

I’m going to walk you through my terminal setup and how it came to fruition. It’s something I modify consistently whenever I introduce a new workflow or metric into what I do every day. Sometimes they’re cosmetic like adding font icons everywhere and other times they’re foundational like when I wrote a time-tracking tool to move away from a NodeJS implementation because I thought it was too slow for my taste.

Use a framework, so you don’t have to think of everything

I use oh-my-zsh because it’s dope. But there are other frameworks out there for other shells as well. The idea here is for the shell framework to help you not have to think about some basic things that can get displayed on the PS1 prompt. It’s also super common for shell frameworks to come with themes that you can leverage instead of customizing the PS1 completely on your own. This is important because the PS1 prompt can be really difficult to modify and can cause you to give up. You should take all the help in the world and find a good thing that works for you to put in your terminal after you tweak it a bit. I believe in you.

Pick a good theme, scheme, and font

PS1 theme

The theme I use is real, a modified version of pure, for ZSH. I really like how pure is simple and fast. I modified it to go against everything that pure stands for and cluttered the ever-living pixels out of my PS1 using my own custom font. I’m a visual person and I like having little iconography everywhere I go especially since I never leave the terminal.

Color scheme

This part was really important for me. I use Hopscotch. It’s a color scheme based on an iOS app which is for teaching kids how to code. I chose it because I wanted to remind myself that I want to teach my children how to code. It’s also purple and I love the color purple. And if my kids ultimately decide that programming isn’t a thing they’re interested in then at least I have my purple color scheme and it’s the thought that counts anyway.

Hopscotch in my terminal

I have switched between light and dark styles, but eventually settled on just using dark styles to make things less complicated. It’s still bright, but it does discourage me to work in direct sunlight. If you’re outside in the sun with a computer it shouldn’t be to work on it, but to treat it like today’s NYC 1980s boombox. Put that thing on your shoulder and drop the beat.

There’s this great Textmate Theme Editor that you can use to inform which theme you’d like to chose. You can also download the file there and use them in a lot of popular editors or use it as a foundation to edit the source of a theme for your favorite text editor.

Hopscotch theme editor


I like the open-source M+ font a lot because of how much the lowercase g in the M+ M Type-2 family looks like my hand-written lowercase g.

it's a really nice g, isn't it?

It’s also open-source. I like the fact that I can store the compiled font somewhere and not worry about losing access to the font or worry about licensing. I also use the font on my site for all my code excerpts on this site. I think it looks great.

Working with NerdFonts Patcher

Once I discovered the NerdFonts patcher, I immediately patched my own M+ 2m font to use in iTerm. iTerms supports two different fonts for ASCII and non-ASCII text so those icons will look great next to your favorite font.

iTerm preference for text support

I used this and ran all the bits. It was a load of work, so maybe just pick something that’s already patched. I didn’t. I didn’t because the particular font family I use wasn’t officially supported. I’m very particular so I patched a version of the font I use and modified iTerm to leverage both fonts depending on what it was rendering. It’s great since I can set the width of the characters separately for each font.

Treat your PS1 like Jon Ivy treats the Touch Bar

I like to make sure I have as much information on display at any given time. It’s a good place to let out your creative side out and it helps to understand typographic emphasis. And with my patched version of my favorite font with icons, I customized every last pixel on my PS1 prompt.

Terminal prompt example

Below are some excerpts from my modified pure theme, real.

prompt_pure_job_count() {
  local job_count=$(jobs | wc -l | xargs)
  if (( $job_count > 0 ))
    echo -n " "

I like to know if I have any background jobs running without having to run jobs. What better way to represent that than with an old floppy disk. Remember that feeling of having a floppy in disk in your computer and hearing that rattling sound when the computer was reading from it? This function brings me back to those days.

prompt_pure_git_diary() {
    command git rev-parse --is-inside-work-tree &>/dev/null || return
    command git log -1 &>/dev/null || return

    for day in $(seq 14 -1 0); do
        git log --before="${day} days" --after="$[${day}+1] days" --format=oneline |
        wc -l
    done | spark

I like to keep diaries even if they’re absurd or visual. Git keeps a really good record of activity so I figured, why not show what the activity for a particular branch is using spark charts.

prompt_pure_precmd() {
    # ... shortened for brevity

    local prompt_pure_preprompt='\n%F{yellow}`prompt_pure_cmd_exec_time`%f%F{cyan}  %F{magenta}`prompt_pure_job_count`%F{242}%~ $vcs_info_msg_0_ %F{242}`prompt_pure_git_diary`%f %F{yellow}`prompt_pure_git_dirty`%f $prompt_pure_username %f'
    print -P $prompt_pure_preprompt

    # check async if there is anything to pull
    (( ${PURE_GIT_PULL:-1} )) && {
        # check if we're in a git repo
        command git rev-parse --is-inside-work-tree &>/dev/null &&
        # check check if there is anything to pull
        command git fetch &>/dev/null &&
        # check if there is an upstream configured for this branch
        command git rev-parse --abbrev-ref @'{u}' &>/dev/null &&
        (( $(command git rev-list --right-only --count HEAD...@'{u}' 2>/dev/null) > 0 )) &&
        # some crazy ansi magic to inject the symbol into the previous line
        print -Pn "\e7\e[A\e[1G\e[`prompt_pure_string_length $prompt_pure_preprompt`C%F{cyan}%f\e8"
    } &!


The precmd function here is what prints out the little manilla folder and cloud icons when there are remote changes in a git repository.

prompt_pure_setup() {
    # ... shortened for brevity

    zstyle ':vcs_info:*' enable git
    zstyle ':vcs_info:git*' formats "%F{green}%F{242} %b"
    zstyle ':vcs_info:git*' actionformats "%F{green}%F{242} %b %F{green} %F{242} %a"

    # prompt turns red if the previous command didn't exit with 0

    prompt_okay="%F{green}  "
    prompt_not_okay="%F{red}  "
    PROMPT='%(?.${prompt_okay}.${prompt_not_okay})%f %F{242} %f '


Here I output some git related icons, and okay / not_okay iconography based on the exit status of the last command than ran.


I hope you enjoyed reading this and that it helps inspire you to modify your command prompt. Take your tools seriously and take the time to customize them. It’s very difficult to try and keep all the context in your head when something as highly conceptual as a terminal. Iconography and specific output can be super helpful when working in a terminal, so take the time to add what you want to know your PS1 prompt. At the bare-minimum, you should be able to look at your PS1 prompt and know where you are, what you’re doing, and possibly what just happened.