Mac Finder — Understanding the 'Arrange By' Option

Arrange your Finder view to improve access to files in Mac

Item arrangement option in the Mac's Finder
Item Arrangement works with all four of the standard Finder views to give you some additional control over the order in which items display within a Finder view. ​

The Finder comes with a couple of ways to organize your Mac's files. One of these features is the Arrange By option, which can produce surprising results when first encountered. Besides letting you arrange the Finder view by various categories much like what can be done in the List View, it also brings the power of arranging by category to all the other Finder view types.

The Item Arrangement button is located just to the right of the Finder view buttons, which offer the four standard ways of displaying items in a Finder window: by Icon, List, Column, or Cover Flow.

Item Arrangement works with all four of the standard Finder views to give you some additional control over the order in which items display within a Finder view. For instance, the default Icon view displays items in an alphanumeric organization, but you can also drag the item icons around to arrange them as you wish. This is handy for a folder that only contains a few items, but a pain in the rear when a folder has dozens of items to arrange.

Arrange By

Before OS X Lion, many Mac users quickly changed their default Finder view to List view. This gave them the option to control the view's organization, letting them pick from many different ways to organize the view, such as by name, date, size, or kind.

The Arrange By option takes the List view's ability to organize how items are presented, adds some new capabilities, and provides the option to control how items are arranged in any of the Finder views.

Arrange By supports sorting items in a Finder view by:

  • Name - This one needs no explanation.
  • Kind - Items are organized by file type, which is defined by the file extension; for instance, all PDFs will be together, as will all text files, all image files, and so on.
  • Application - Sorting is performed by the default application used for accessing a document.
  • Date Last Opened - Items are organized by the date you last used them.
  • Date Added - Items are organized by the date you added them to a folder.
  • Data Modified - Items are organized by the date you last made a change to them.
  • Date Created - Items are organized by the date you first created a file or folder.
  • Size - Items are sorted by their physical file size.
  • Label - Items that have had labels applied to them will appear first in the sort order.
  • None - As the name implies, no additional sorting beyond the basic Finder view is performed.

So far, Arrange By seems pretty straightforward, but here is where Apple gets creative.

Depending on which Arrange By method you select, the Finder will display the sort results by categories. Categories appear as horizontal stripes in Icon view, or as labeled sections in any of the other Finder views. Each category has a title, such as Folders, Images, PDF Documents, or Spreadsheets.

Icon View

In the Icon view, each category takes up a single horizontal line. When the number of items exceeds what can be displayed in the window, a cover flow view is applied to the individual category, letting you scrub through the category quickly while leaving the other displayed categories alone. In essence, each category can be manipulated independently of the others.

Additionally, when a category has too many items to display in a single horizontal row, there will be a link on the right-hand side of the window to expand the category to show all. Likewise, once expanded, you can collapse the category back down to a single row.

List, Column, and Cover Flow View

In the remaining three finder views, the Arrange By option only creates categories that have labeled sections; there are no additional features, such as the cover flow view by category or the expand/collapse options seen in the Icon view.

Arrange by Direction

At first blush, it seems the Arrange By feature is missing some basic controls, such as the ability to sort up or down (from A-Z or Z-A). In the List view, you can easily choose the direction of the sort order by clicking on the column header you wish to sort by. Each column head includes a chevron that toggles to point up or down each time you click the column head, thus controlling the sort direction.

In the Arrange By button or menu, there is no option to set the sort order to be up or down. This lack of control seems to be present in all Arrange By options except one; that's when arranging by Name in List view. Arrange by Name will use the sort direction currently set in List view.

Arrange by Application

The Arrange by Application option has another somewhat hidden secret. Normally, Arrange by Application uses the default application associated with a document to create the sort order and the category titles.

This default behavior changes when you use the Arrange by Application option on your Mac's Applications folder. When the Applications folder is displayed, and Arrange By Application is selected, Mac App Store categories are used for any application that is available from the Mac App Store.

For instance, in the Applications folder, you will likely see categories such as Productivity, Social Networking, Board Games, and Utilities; all of these categories are seen in the Mac App Store.