Visually Organizing in OS X

I’m a very visual person and, due to the nature of the Mac environment, I’m sure there are many like-minded people in the OS X community who share my optical tendencies. We tend to think the wallpaper has to be just right, the icons in the dock and on the desktop have to be organized by category, and we take time to find just the right icon for our removable media.

DId I just hear an ‘amen?’

No matter how OCD you may be about your computing environment, we can all agree on the importance of creating some organizational structure on our computers so we can be more productive. Thanks to the features of our chosen OS (and some free or inexpensive software), there are some very simple ways to maximize our productivity in the most geeky way.

The Sea of Blue

When you go searching for a file, you start looking in folders. If you’re like me, your ‘Documents” folder can just look like a pile of blue folders. Finding that Pages document or PDF you haven’t accessed in a while can mean just looking through a series of alphabetically arranged folders- unless you make certain folder stand out.

Colors in Finder

Colors in Finder

The first thing we can do is as simple as add some color to the list, giving us an easy way to visually pick out certain kinds of files. By just applying a labeling scheme, it’s easy to add a visual highlight to folders or files so that they stand out against the normal sea of blue. It’s as simple as right clicking (or CTRL-Clicking) the folder you want to label. Pick a color you want to use and you’re done. Now the name of the folder has color behind it to help it stand out. You can use this system for any file or folder

Selecting Colors

Selecting Colors

You can take this approach a step further by creating a system-wide naming technique for all those colors. If you open the Finder preferences window (open any Finder window, click on Finder in the menu bar, then click on Preferences)

From here you can change the names of the labels to suit whatever system you are most comfortable. Whether you use colors for categories, importance, delegation, or just to make your finder windows more colorful, you can find the system that works best for you and make it work.

Editing Color Preferences

Editing Color Preferences

Change the Icon

After coloring the folders and files, you may need to go a step further- change their individual icons. There are a slew of ways to do this, and I’ve tinkered with many of them. Let’s focus on the folders first.

One of the quickest ways to change the look of a folder is to just add an image on top of the normal folder icon in OS X. There is an awesome and free app that I use called Telling Folders by OMZ Software

Telling Folders makes it simple to add an image (icon, logo, or anything you want) to your folder list. You simply drag the folder you want to change to the workspace and then drag in the image you want to use (you can use a white border so it looks like a picture or you can go without).

Telling Folders

Telling Folders

In my experience, I’ve been able to drag JPG, PNG, PDF, Photoshop, and Illustrator files and it works perfectly. In my case, I use the logos of my clients on their particular folders, but I’ve also:

  • Put application icons on the folder (VMWare fusion icons for my virtual OS’s or WireTap studio icon for my recordings)
  • Use family members pictures for ‘user’ folders
  • Downloaded various icons online to add a visual cue to various folders-from archived files to reports.

Sometimes, it’s even more helpful to change the icon altogether. There is a world of open icons out there to use (most are free for personal use- always check with the author and designer). I’ve used many from Interface Lift and The Icon Factory that look great and add that extra visual cue to help keep things organized. Both of these sites have some stunning icons you can use, plus you can find any number of other freely available icons by searching online. You’ll want to be sure that you can get the larger icon sizes since OS X supports up to 512×512 pixel artwork.

The easiest way of changing icons is to copy and paste. If you have a folder or file where you want to change the icon, hit COMMAND I (or Right/CTRL click and click on Get Info) to bring up the Get Info window. Now, find an icon that you want to use in it’s place (in the example I’m using, I downloaded “Ive Drives” by Louie Mantia from the Icon Factory site. Use the same technique to bring up the Get Info Window.

Icon Copying

Icon Copying

Now, on the window for the icon you want to start using, click on the icon in the top left– notice it now is highlighted. Hit Command C to copy.

In the other Get Info Window (the one you want to change) click on the icon to highlight it. Now hit CTRL V to paste it and it should now have the new icon. If you ever want to revert back to the old icon, just click to highlight the icon and hit the Delete key and it will go back to the system default.

As easy as that might sound, it doesn’t always work. The icon preview in the top left has to be the preview icon- sometimes you’ll go to use it and find it’s just the default icon for a jpg, png, or whatever file you’re looking for. Fear not- as they say “there’s an app for that!”

Pic2Icon is a free app that will give your image an icon preview. For instance, lets say you have a folder image that you want to use as an icon and when you check the Get Info window- there is no icon preview for that image. Open up Pic2Icon and drag that image into the window- in less that a second, it’s done. Now when you check the Get Info window, you’ll find that you now have an preview that you can copy and paste onto your file, folder, or drive that you want to use.



The icon it creates is 128 x 128, so it is not ideal, but if you’re working with the icons set to that size or smaller, the icons look great!

The Drives

So we’ve got our folders and files labelled, colored, and re-iconified; now what? Well, what about all those USB drives you keep plugging in. Ever forget which one you’ve got plugged in? Where, we can use some of the same techniques here as well. You can color your drive label, and you can change the drive icon using the awesome Candybar app from Panic Software. Candybar will let you change more than just your drive icons- it’s a great program!

However, I really like another freebie for changing the drive icons. SetIcon from digital pardoe makes it so easy to change your drive icons- and the developer has some awesome icons for those of you using Western Digital external drives (the icon in the figure I have used is from the same site).

Setting an Icon

Setting an Icon

After you download Set Icon, run it and you’ll see a simple window which includes some very nice labels to assist you. Simply pick the drive that has the icon you want to change, then drag your new icon into the image well- click the “Set Icon” button, type in your password for OS X, and the finder reboots- you’re done! (One item I’ve noticed that users should be made aware of- be certain that the Set Icon window is the active window when dragging the icon in- if it’s not, the new icon is not applied. To be sure, click on the Set Icon window just before dragging your image into the well).


Really, this is just the beginning of what you can do to organize your life on your mac in a very visual way. It’s important not to get too wrapped in just increasing the eye candy for the sake of a prettier desktop environment, but more about developing a system through which visual clues can help greatly improve your productivity and enjoyment of using your computer.

What methods do you use to visually organize your data?


Add Yours
  • I like this a lot! I’ve found that changing the icons alltogether help me identify things much quicker and easier… not to mention it makes your mac more personal, ya know? Thanks for the tips!

  • I’m not particularly visual, I’ve changed my desktop and that’s about it. I did find that including pictures in address book cards meant I see faces of people in Mail, iChat, and Adium and Growl and that helped me. Also it helps in Quicksilver, when bringing up a contact and seeing a face as confirmation, particularly when you know a lot of Mikes or Johns. I never send things to the wrong one.

  • You can easily add an icon to a disk by just Cmd+C the icon and pasting it over the icon on the Get Info dialog of the disk.

  • your peeking wallpaper looks amazing, are you distributing it? may I please have a copy???

    • I can’t remember where I got that wallpaper… Most of the wallpapers I use I get from Interfacelift… it’s called “shine”. I’d put it up but I don’t want to impinge on the author. If I can find out where I found it, I’ll post it up.

  • You are using Colorflow icons !

    • Yes- the colorflow icons are awesome!

  • Thanks for the tips.
    By the way, what did you use for the last image, I mean – how did you create the comments over the “set icon” image there?

    • The comments on that last Set Icon image are actually part of the app (you can turn them on, but it’s a very nice feature)… I can’t take credit for that.

  • Great post Barry. Can you please tell me what Wallpaper you are using?

    Its really cool! You can also upload it on some site like and post the link in the comments if you don’t mind. Thanks.

  • To the wallpaper questions- I want to give credit where credit is due, but I can’t find where I found it. If someone knows, please post it here. In the meantime, you can download 2 different versions:

    • Okay – I think I recognise those wallpapers – are they the ones by Jonas Rask in his Maelstrom set?

      • Thanks for finding them!! It really bothered me that I could not remember where I’d found that wallpaper!

  • Amen! I do most of these things, and that’s part of what makes using the Mac such a pleasurable experience — as opposed to the Windows machine I have to use at work. Thanks for the links.

  • Good post!

    One addition: the versiontracker link for Pic2Icon doesn’t seem to be good any more—the download link on the versiontracker page leads to a kind of generic site where clicking on mac icons yielded an ad page for insurance etc.
    This page has a download link that still works:

  • I would like to see a iTunes sort of way to organize your files in a folder structure. The ability to add tags/”genre”/kind. Group files into a project without moving them together (if thats your wish). Et cetera..