Customise the OS X workspace

Macworld Staff
4 June, 2009
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Quick quiz: Do you still have your Dock at the bottom of your desktop (where OS X puts it by default)? Do you still use only the icons that came with the OS? Most of us use OS X’s stock interface elements, arranged as they were out of the box. But you don’t have to use someone else’s workspace. Here’s how some Mac users have customised the Mac’s visual environment.

Move the Dock. It has always puzzled me that OS X puts the Dock at the bottom of the screen by default. I like my Dock to be visible all the time, but I also want as much vertical screen space as possible for Web pages and other windows. So I chose Apple -> Dock -> Position On Right. But then I also used Terminal to enter the commands defaults write pinning end and (after pressing Return) killall Dock. That anchored the Dock to the lower right corner of the screen, with the Trash on the bottom (where it has been for as long as I’ve been using a Mac, and where it’s an easier target when I’m dragging items to it).—Joe Kissell

Max the Dock. I’ve wholeheartedly embraced the Dock—but I use it very methodically. Only programs I use very regularly—many of them are always running—get permanent spots there. Among other things, this helps me build muscle memory: I know where each app is, so it’s easier to click on or drag items to. On the right-hand side of the Dock, I keep several frequently accessed folders, including an alias of /Volumes (for browsing drives via hierarchical Dock menus) and a folder containing aliases of my most-frequently accessed files. I’ve customised those folders with FolderBrander, so it’s obvious which one is which. Just to the right of those folders, I put folders for in-progress projects—this turns the Dock into a sort of to-do list: I can just look down at the Dock to see what’s due. Finally, I use Quay to enhance the Dock’s List-view pop-up menus.—Dan Frakes

Replace the Dock

Chris Breen uses James Thomson’s DragThing to keep the Desktop uncluttered.

I’ve used James Thomson’s $US29 ($A36) DragThing instead of the Dock for years. I can place my DragThing palettes anywhere I like, and those palettes can have multiple tabs. I can assign keyboard shortcuts to actions such as launching applications and opening folders, remote drives, and frequently used files. I can also quickly switch applications—and hide everything except the new application’s windows—with a single click.

DragThing has helped me keep my desktop organised: I created an Important Files folder in my Documents folder; in it, I put twelve subfolders that can accommodate just about any kind of file I’d normally leave on the desktop—work files and folders, in-progress projects, podcasts, pictures, audio files, and download archives I want to hang on to. I then created a DragThing palette that contains all these folders, and I configured the utility so those folders would open with a single click. At the end of each day, I file all the items I’ve dropped on the desktop into their respective folders. When I need something from one of them, a single click opens it.

Because many of the files I create each day are Macworld-related, I took the additional step of creating an Automator workflow that moves selected files into my Macworld Stuff folder. I saved that workflow as an application and placed it in my DragThing palette for frequently used folders. To quickly file my Macworld work at the end of the day, I select the files I want to put away, and click on the Automator application; then DragThing files the selected items away. Oh, and DragThing lets me put the Trash on the desktop, where it belongs.—Christopher Breen

Augment the Dock. I use Overflow in conjunction with the Dock to manage and launch my applications: I put links to almost all of them in Overflow; only my everyday programs go in the Dock. Within Overflow, I separate applications into ten categories: Office, Writing, Audio, Visual, Web, Movies, Games, Money, Utilities, and Dev & UI. This way, I can get to pretty much any program I need in a couple of clicks.—Darren R. Chandler

Dress up Stacks

Stacks drawer overlays
Gina Trapani uses Yasushi Chida’s drawer overlays to differentiate Stacks icons in the Dock.

I know some Mac users haven’t taken to Stacks, but I really like this feature—I like having fly-out file menus on the Dock. The biggest problem for me is that telling which stack is which can be impossible. That’s why I like the drawer-overlay images that Japanese designer Yasushi Chida created. Download the drawer-icon sets, unzip the archive, and drop the appropriate icon into a folder. Drag and drop that folder onto your Dock to create the stack, and the unique drawer graphic will appear on top.—Gina Trapani

Customise drive icons. When you’ve got your camera’s memory card, a thumb drive, and a FireWire drive mounted on your Mac at the same time, telling them apart isn’t easy—unless they have representative icons. If you want your external drive, for example, to show up as something other than a generic white disk, select it in the Finder and press Command-I to summon its Info pane. Then switch to your browser and find an online image—perhaps an product shot of your drive, or a drive icon from a site such as—and copy it to your Clipboard. Select the drive’s icon in the Info pane and press Command-V to assign your chosen graphic to the drive. Now the drive will appear on your desktop, on the Dock, and in your Finder with its new icon.—Gina Trapani

Maximise Spaces. Before Leopard, I relied heavily on Expose to switch between my open apps. But although Expose makes switching between apps convenient, things can get pretty cluttered pretty fast when a lot of apps are open at once. So when Leopard arrived, I decided to give Spaces a try. I grouped applications into six workspaces:

1. Internet Safari, Firefox, iWeb, and Transmit (FTP Client).

2. Contacts/Calendar/Email Address Book, iCal, and Mail.

3. Productivity Pages, Keynote, and Numbers (I’d put Microsoft Office applications here, too, if they integrated better with Spaces.)

4. Audio WaveBurner, Logic Pro, Compressor, iTunes, Garage Band, MainStage, and Soundtrack Pro.

5. Photos iPhoto and Adobe Photoshop.

6. Video iMovie, iDVD, and HandBrake.

The Finder and iChat appear in every space, so they’re always accessible. I still use Expose to navigate between apps within a space. To switch between spaces, I set it up so that I can press Option-number or Option-arrow key to navigate.—Evan Stumpges

Flexible Spaces. Spaces allows me to not only segregate my applications but also have them launch automatically in specific workspaces. For example, I’ve set it up so Mail and Safari open in one space, productivity apps open in another, and iTunes gets a third space to itself. But I let other applications open in whatever space I’m currently working in. For example, I use BBEdit all the time for writing; if I want to write something down while browsing in Safari, I open BBEdit in Safari’s space. Later, I might be reading NetNewsWire news feeds in another space and want to jot down something else; BBEdit is open over in the first space, so I just move my mouse to the top right corner of the screen (the hotspot I’ve assigned to display all spaces, using the Expose preference pane’s Active Screen Corners section) and drag the BBEdit window to the space I’m in.—Kirk McElhearn

More resources. One of the easiest ways to dress up your Desktop is to download and install custom icon sets. Among the best sources: AppStorm; deviantArt; The Iconfactory; InterfaceLift; and Pixelgirl. And if you’re looking for some inspiration, check out Lifehacker’s awesome Flickr photostream of reader-submitted, thoroughly tricked-out OS X desktops. Most of these screenshots are accompanied by explanations of how the desktops were made.—Dan Miller

Lifehacker customized desktops
Want some ideas for customising your OS X desktop? Check out Lifehacker’s Flickr photostream of reader-submitted desktop hacks.

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