Working on the Desktop

You can’t really expect any computer to keep its- own files tidy. If you’re always rearranging all of the items on your hard disk then you really should read this document. However, before considering the files themselves you should think about the way such items can be viewed in the Finder.


Most items used in the Classic Mac OS are represented as icons. The most common files seen in the Finder are identified as an application program or document and are shown with a distinctive icon. If your files don’t appear to have the correct icons you may need to rebuild the Desktop on your hard disk drive: just select Special ➡ Restart and hold down -Option during the startup process. Alternatively, you can fix this with a utility such as Tech Tool Lite (Micromat Inc).

If a problem icons only occur with a few applications you can correct the problem as follows. First select the file of the appropriate application and choose File ➡ Get Info or press -I. Now click on the icon in the window, select Copy, then Paste and then Cut. This forces the Finder to produce an entirely new desktop record (and therefore icon) for the file.

Most icons displayed by the Finder also appear in the Open and Save dialogues provided within applications, although some programs filter out any inappropriate documents. Other icons are invisible to the Finder and don’t appear in dialogues, except those provided inside a utility application.

Icon Names

The Classic Mac OS lets you rename items as required, although renaming a standard application isn’t usually a sensible thing to do. Typically, there’s a delay between after clicking on a filename and when you can actually edit the name, this delay being set by the Keyboard Repeat settings in the Keyboard control panel. If you want to quickly edit a name, just select the icon and press Return.

Having renamed an item you can press Return or perform another task to confirm your entry. If you make a mistake before pressing Return you can select Edit ➡ Undo or press -Z. You can also use Edit ➡ Copy, Paste or Cut (or the -C, -V and -X shortcuts) whilst editing a name, as you would in any other application.


By default, the Finder shows files in a folder using the standard View ➡ as Icons option. This normally fills the screen with large icons that are difficult to organise. Worse still, using View ➡ Clean Up can cause items with long filenames to fly outside the visible window area. Similar problems are also be encountered if you select View ➡ View Options and pick the small icon in the Icon Size area.

Selecting View ➡ as List is usually a good option, since this lets you see more files within a small space. And if you select View ➡ View Options you can customise the view of the current window. You can also sort the files according to Name, Date Modified, Size, Kind and so on by clicking on the appropriate column header. Also, you can reverse the order of the list by clicking on the near the top right-hand corner of the window. Best of all, you can adjust the widths and relative positions of the columns. When as List is selected, clicking anywhere on a line, except on a folder’s triangle, selects the item on that line.

In Mac OS 8.x or higher you can drag a folder to the bottom of the screen to create a popup tabbed folder. Simply click on this tab and the folder’s window will open. If you want the folder to return to a normal view just drag the window further up the screen.

Setting Views

Most of the time you’ll have to set up View Options for each of your windows. Fortunately, any new folder always has the same view as its parent folder. In addition, all windows with Set to Standard Views selected can be changed at once by selecting View ➡ Preferences, opening the Views tab and modifying the settings.

The View Options dialogue for as List views includes the following settings:-

Use relative dates

Allows dates to be shown as Today, and so on. This is useful and should be left selected.

Calculate folder sizes

This option forces the Finder to show the size of folders. However, this is a very slow process that adds up the sizes of individual files in the folder. So, unless you like slow listings, leave this deselected. Anyway, to find the size of a folder you can just highlight it and select Get Info.

Show Columns

You should deselect some of the columns if you’re short of window space.

Icon Size

The middle-sized icon, also used when using as Arranged and by Small Icon, is very convenient. The smallest icons give fast and compact listings, but are generic, making it impossible to fully identify each kind of file. The largest icons are so huge that even a tiny list fills the entire screen.

Standard Folders

Having decided how to view your files you’ll need to organise them on the hard disk. After installation of the Mac OS and its applications the contents of your disk drive should look something like this:-

Older versions of the system also provide extra folders at the top level, namely Apple Extras, Installer Logs, Internet, Mac OS Read Me Files and Utilities.

Systems prior to Mac OS X have an Applications folder instead of the Applications (Mac OS 9) folder. The latter name avoids any complications with the Applications folder that’s used on machines that can also run Mac OS X.

These folders divide up the information on your drive as follows:-

Applications (Mac OS 9)

Generally speaking, all of your application programs and their associated support files should go here. If preferred, you can subdivide it in other folders as described below. Special software, such as disk or file repair programs, should be placed in the Utilities folder which is normally inside this folder.


As the name implies, this is where you should keep most of the files that you create yourself. You can then subdivide the folder into other folders to help you find material about specific topics.

System Folder

Contains numerous, many of which are essential for your computer, although it also holds items that are only necessary for specific applications. If any of these files are missing you may find that one or more of your applications will fail.

Apple Extras

Contains various additional pieces of software, many of which you may not use. However, if you have unusual applications or special needs this folder might just have what you require.

Installer Logs

Contains text files that describe where an installer application has put the files that it added to your drive. If you find similar installer log files on your desktop or at the ‘top level’ of your drive you can move them into this folder for safe keeping. These logs can be very useful, especially when an installer adds or replaces a file in your System Folder which then cause problems.


Similar to the Applications (Mac OS 9) folder, but containing items used for the Internet.

Mac OS Read Me Files

Contains information about the Mac OS, supplied by Apple. You don’t have to keep it here but in a panic it’s easier to find. It’s also a good location for keeping extra information about your computer.


Contains problem-solving applications, including Disk First Aid and Drive Setup.

Organising a Folder

You should try to organise each Mac folder in the same way as a real folder. So don’t put too many layers of subfolders within any one folder. If you have too many subfolders you’ll spend all day clicking up and down or navigating through endless levels in your Apple menu.

As an example, you could split the Applications (Mac OS 9) folder into categories, such as:-

Most of these folders are named according to the function of their contents, which avoids the need to change names whenever you change your applications. To avoid subfolders you may need to move several applications and other files into a common folder.

By adding a prefix to any folder’s name you can change its position in the list. The following prefixes, in order of precedence, will move an item nearer to the top:-

Option-space Space ! " # $ % ​& ' ( ) * + , - . ​/

whilst the following will force an item towards the bottom:-

† ° ¢ £ § • ¶ ® © Ø ​∞ ¥ ¡ ¬ √≈ ∆ « » … ​– — ÷ ◊ € ‹ › ‡

Navigation and Control

Opening applications and documents is easy but moving around your folders, a process known as navigation, can be tricky, especially if you’ve forgotten where an item is kept. Fortunately, the Mac OS includes many features to help you do the job. As well as the invaluable Sherlock application there’s Recent Applications, Recent Documents and Recent Servers under the Apple menu.

The Recent Documents feature is particularly useful. Unfortunately, files associated with particular applications may fail to appear in the menu. This happens when the application itself uses non-standard window definition (WDEF) resources, leaving the Finder in some doubt about the file’s parent application. Apple took the safe option with their software, causing the Finder to simply leave such documents out of the menu. Alternative utilities, including OtherMenu (James W Walker), which can share the Apple menu’s ‘recent’ folders, don’t seem to suffer from this problem.


An alias is a special file that points to a ‘parent’ file. To create an alias, select a file and choose Make Alias under the File menu, or press -M. Alternatively, select the file, press -Option and then drag to the required location for the alias.

Aliases can perform numerous tricks. For example, if you regularly use a file that’s on CD-ROM you can create an alias of the file and put it on the desktop or in a convenient folder. When you want to get to this file you can simply open the alias and you’ll be prompted to insert the CD-ROM.

You can also make an alias of any of the ‘keychain’ files that reside inside the Keychain folder, which you can find inside the Preferences folder, inside the System Folder. When you open such an alias you’re presented with a dialogue that lets you unlock the keychain if it’s already locked or the Keychain Access control panel if it’s not.

Opening Items

The Mac OS plenty of software for most users. However, if you want to open a specific item by pressing a particular key combination on the keyboard you’ll need a macro utility, such as KeyQuencer or QuicKeys. In general, to open any item you must do one of the following:-

Double-click the icon

This works fine, as long as you’re already in the Finder and the required icon isn’t hidden behind something else. An alias can give more convenient access, particularly if it’s kept on the desktop. However, leaving too many items in this area can be very messy.

Select the icon and press -O

This has the same effect as double-clicking the item.

Open the item from within an ‘Open’ dialogue

Modern applications provide folder navigation via the dialogue’s Favorites menu. However, if you want this feature in older applications you’ll need extra software, such as ActionFiles. Alternatively, you can set up a macro utility to select specified folders by using designated key combinations. Depending on the application, the dialogue may show greyed-out items that can’t actually be opened by the application, sometimes including invisible files.

Select the icon from the Apple menu

This gives fast access, whatever application is in use. However, finding an application isn’t easy if its own folder contains numerous other files. To avoid this problem you can create a folder in the Apple Menu Items folder, inside the System Folder, and fill it with aliases of your favourite items. You can also create special folders at this location to arrange the aliases into convenient groupings.

Click a button in an application launcher

This suffers from the same problem as clicking on an icon, although more powerful utilities such as PowerBar Pro let you to organise applications in a more sensible manner. Lesser options include the use of Apple’s Launcher application. Failing this, you can create a special folder containing aliases of favourite applications or other items and select View ➡ as Buttons.

Press a special key combination

This option, requiring a macro application, is an excellent way to reach files and folders, providing you can remember each key combination. It’s best to consider the keys to be used when naming files or folders. For example, you could use Ctrl-W to run AppleWorks or Ctrl-Option-F to open the File Tools folder. Some macro utilities, such as KeyQuencer, allow you to always use the same key combination to get to a folder, whether you’re in the Finder or inside a standard file dialogue box.

General Hints

The Apple Menu

The Apple Menu Items Folder, inside your System Folder, contains the items that appear under the Apple menu. Apart from special items supplied by Apple, it should only be filled with folders or aliases of files and folders. You can put any number of items in the folder and you can get to these items at any time, whatever application is in use.

You might like to put aliases of all your favourite applications in the folder. Or you can include an alias of your startup drive, giving you instant access to everything on the disk, including the contents of the Trash and the files on the desktop, located inside the usually invisible Desktop Folder.

In addition, you can use an alias of the Clipboard file, which resides in the System Folder, to let you see what you last cut or copied. You can also add renamed copies of the Note Pad File or Scrapbook File, also in the System Folder, and use these for storing extra information.

Normally, the contents of a folder can be examined using the hierarchical operation of the Apple menu. If you want to stop this from happening, simply prefix the folder name by a - (hyphen).

Application Switching

The application menu at the top-right of your screen can be ‘torn off’ to create the Application Switcher. You can then switch to an application by clicking on a button. You can also cycle between applications by pressing -Tab or -Shift-Tab.

By employing a special application such as Dock Manager or by using AppleScript you can change the appearance of the Application Switcher or choose your own key combination for switching applications. For example, you could use -⇢ to cycle forwards through applications and -⇠ to move back. If you have a macro utility you can extend this further by using -⇡ to switch to the Finder and -⇣ to return from the Finder to the last-used application.

Window Switching

Most modern applications include a Window menu that lets you move between the windows that the application has open. Oddly enough, this isn’t provided in older versions of the Finder, where it would be most useful, although shareware utilities can add such a feature, sometimes allowing you use a keyboard combination to cycle through the windows. You could also set up a macro utility to provide window switching, using a combination such as -Option-⇢ to move forwards through the windows and -Option-⇠ to move back.

©Ray White 2004.