Change the Sidebar Icon and Font Size in Many of the Mac Apps

Control sidebar size in mail, finder, itunes, and other Mac apps

An Apple Mac

 Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Have you been wondering how to change the font size or icon size in the Apple Mail sidebar? How about the Finder sidebar; are its icons too small or too large?

Fortunately, if you find the font and icon size in the Mail or Finder sidebars a little too large, it's easy to change it to one that's a better fit for you.

Apple consolidated the size controls for the Mail and Finder sidebars in OS X Lion and later into a single location. This makes it easier to change the size, but it means you're limited to a single choice for multiple applications.

While changing the size is simple, you now need to have both the Mail and Finder windows open, so you can see the effect of the changes you make. There's a good chance that when the Finder sidebar's text is big enough, the Mail sidebar's text is too big. This may seem odd at first since the two apps are using the same text and icon sizes, but the difference comes in the number of items you have in each app's sidebar.

For example, perhaps in Mail, you have more than 40 items in the sidebar, and you want them to be visible in Mail windows without scrolling. For the Finder sidebar, the number of items that you need to have displayed at once is much smaller.

This means you want to adjust the text and icon size in Mail to be just right and hope the Finder sidebar looks decent enough to use.

iTunes Sidebar

If you thought having Mail and the Finder's sidebar globally controlled was perhaps not the best user interface idea Apple has come up with, wait until you read this. With the release of OS X Yosemite, Apple added the iTunes sidebar size control to the same system preference that controls Mail's sidebar and the Finder's sidebar.

Photos, Notes, and Disk Utility

If that seems like a strange combination, well, then, wait; there's more. With the advent of OS X El Capitan, the Photos sidebar, Notes sidebar, and Disk Utility sidebar were added to the same system preference for controlling the size of the icons and fonts used in the sidebar.

Is This the Right User Interface for Controlling Sidebar Sizes?

Probably not; as mentioned above, it would seem a common enough problem that the Finder sidebar and the Mail sidebar would need different sizes for the icons and fonts. Once you start adding more apps to a global sidebar size control, the problem becomes even more exacerbated.

The other startling problem is how Apple is deciding which apps should have their sidebar controlled globally in the System Preferences. It seems at first glance to be pretty haphazard. The original consolidation came with OS X Lion, and only affected Mail and the Finder. The rest occurred when specific apps were updated to new versions, such as iTunes with OS X Yosemite, and Disk Utility with OS X El Capitan.

The point is that there seems to be no logic in which Apple apps get the sidebar size treatment. There are plenty of Apple apps that use a sidebar and haven't seen their size control moved to the global system preferences.

It's possible the reason some apps are seeing the global sidebar control and others aren't comes down not to a plan with any thought behind it, but an accident of development. Apple developers may have created a common object that manipulated the sidebar icon and font size, and this object was shared originally in the Finder and Mail apps. Later, when Apple developers were updating iTunes, using the same sidebar control object allowed them to quickly build the iTunes sidebar.

The same thing occurred once again in OS X El Capitan when new versions of Disk Utility and other apps were created. If the new app needed a sidebar, the already created sidebar object was used. And since the sidebar object had its font and icon size controlled by a global setting, then all of the apps that used this programming object also gained the same global control of the sidebar size.

This is, of course, speculation, but let's hope Apple realizes that not all app sidebars need to be the same size. In the meantime, here's how to control the sidebar icon and font size in Mail, Finder, iTunes, Photos, Notes, and Disk Utility.

Changing the Sidebar's Font and Icon Size

  1. Launch System Preferences by clicking the System Preferences icon in the Dock, selecting the System Preferences item from the Apple menu, or opening Launchpad and selecting the System Preferences icon.

  2. Select the General preference pane from the System Preferences window.

  3. Use the drop-down menu next to the Sidebar icon size item to set the size to Small, Medium, or Large.

  4. This drop-down menu controls the icon and font size for the sidebar in Mail, Finder, iTunes, Photos, Notes, and Disk Utility. The default size is Medium.

  5. Examine each app's window to see if the new size of the sidebar text and icons is acceptable.

  6. When you've made your final selection, close System Preferences.

If you find the global control of various apps' sidebar size a problem, or if you think it's a great idea and should be extended to more Apple apps, you can let Apple know using the Apple Product Feedback form. Select OS X, located in the list of OS X Apps, as the feedback form to use.