Personalize Your Mac by Changing Desktop Icons

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Personalize Your Mac by Changing Desktop Icons

Custom Mac desktop icons
Changing the default icons of your drives is a great first step to personalizing your Mac desktop. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

Your Mac's desktop is a lot like your home; it needs to be personalized to make it seem like it's your place. Changing desktop icons is one of the easiest ways to bring a touch of you to your Mac's desktop, and it's as easy as a few mouse clicks.

Where to Get Icons for Your Mac

If you're going to personalize your desktop, you're going to need some new icons. That means either copying existing icons or creating your own. In this guide, we're going to look at copying icons from one of the many icon collections you can download and use on your Mac.

The easiest way to find Mac icons is to search on the phrase 'Mac icons' in your favorite search engine. This will return numerous sites that have icon collections for the Mac. Two of the sites I often visit are The Iconfactory and Deviantart. Since I'm familiar with those sites, let's use them as an example of how to change an icon on your Mac's desktop.

Even better, the two sites above offer icons in different formats, requiring you to use slightly different ways to install the icons on your Mac.

The Iconfactory supplies its icons in the form of empty folders that have the icon already applied to them. You can easily copy the icons to other folders and drives, using the steps we'll outline in a little bit.

Deviantart, on the other hand, usually supplies icons in Mac’s native ICNS file format, which requires a slightly different way to make use of them.

Download the Icon Sets

We're going to use two of the freeware icon sets, one from The Iconfactory, which we'll use to replace the boring default drive icons the Mac uses, and the other from Deviantart, which we'll use to replace some of Mac’s folder icons. First up is the Doctor Who icon set. As part of this set, there's an icon of the TARDIS. As any Doctor Who fan knows, the TARDIS is the time travel vehicle the Doctor uses to get about in. It will make a great drive icon for your Time Machine drive. Get it? TARDIS, Time Machine!

The second icon set we'll use is Folder Icons Pack by deleket, available from Deviantart, which contains about 50 icons you can use for various folders on your desktop.

You can find the two icon sets by clicking on their names below. I’ve also included two additional icon sets, in case the example sets don’t quite meet your needs.

Doctor Who

Folder Icons Pack by deleket

Refresh Snow Leopard

Studio Ghibli

The links above will take you to a page that describes the icons. You can download the icons to your Mac by clicking the Apple icon under the pictures of the icons in the set (Iconfactory), or by clicking the Download link to the right of the of the icon images (Deviantart).

Each icon set will download as a disk image (.dmg) file, which will automatically be converted to a folder once the download is complete. You'll find the two icon folders in the Downloads folder (or your default folder for downloads, if you save them somewhere else), with the following names:

  • Doctor Who Mac
  • folder_icons_pack_by_deleket
  • Refresh Snow Leopard Mac
  • Studio Ghibli Mac

To learn how to use the icon sets to change either a folder icon or a drive icon on your desktop, read on.

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Changing Your Mac's Folder Icons

Get Info windows used to change icons.
The thumbnail view of the current icon for the selected folder is shown in the upper left corner of the Get Info window. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

To change your Mac's Finder folder or drive icons, all you need to do is copy the new icon you wish to use, and paste it or drag it onto the old one. The process is simple, but there are two methods you can use, depending on the format of the source icon you chose.

We're going to start by changing the icon used for one of your Mac’s drives.

Select the icon you want to use as your new drive icon. We're going to use the Doctor Who icon set we downloaded on the previous page.

Copying the New Icon

Inside the Icons folder, you'll find 8 folders, each with a unique icon and a folder name associated with it. If you examine the 8 folders, you'll find they're empty folders, with no sub-content.

What each folder does have, however, is an assigned icon. That's the icon you see when you view the folder in the Finder.

To copy the icon from a folder, follow these instructions.

  1. Open the Doctor Who Mac folder, located in your Downloads folder.
  2. Open the Icons folder.
  3. Right-click the 'The TARDIS' folder, and select Get Info from the pop-up menu.
  4. In the Get Info window that opens, you'll see a thumbnail view of the folder's icon in the top left-hand corner of the window.
  5. Click the thumbnail icon once to select it.
  6. Press command + c or select 'Copy' from the Edit menu.
  7. The icon has now been copied to your Mac's clipboard.
  8. Close the Get Info window.

Changing Your Mac Drive's Icon

  1. On the desktop, right-click the drive whose icon you wish to change.
  2. From the pop-up menu, select Get Info.
  3. In the Get Info window that opens, you'll see a thumbnail view of the drive's current icon in the top left-hand corner of the window.
  4. Click the thumbnail icon once to select it.
  5. Press command + v or select 'Paste' from the Edit menu.
  6. The icon you copied to the clipboard earlier will be pasted onto the selected hard drive's icon as its new icon.
  7. Close the Get Info window.
  8. Your hard drive will now be displaying its new icon.

That's all there is to changing Desktop and drive icons. Next up, changing a folder icon using an icon with a .icns file format.

ICNS Icon Formats

The Apple Icon Image format supports a wide variety of icon types, from small 16x16 pixel icons to 1024x1024 icons used with Retina-equipped Macs. ICNS files are a handy way to store and distribute Mac icons, but their one downside is that the method of copying an icon from the ICNS file to a folder or drive is slightly different, and not as well-known.

To demonstrate how to use ICNS-formatted icons with your Mac, we'll use a free icon pack from Deviantart that's supplied in the ICNS format to change the icon of a folder on your Mac.

Change a Mac’s Folder Icon

To get started, select an icon you want to use from the Folder Icons Set you downloaded from page one of this article.

Drag and Drop ICNS Icons

Inside the folder_icons_set_by_deleket folder that you downloaded, you'll find three different folders, named ICO, Mac, and PNG. These represent three common formats use for icons. We're interested in the ones located inside the Mac folder.

Inside the Mac folder, you'll find 50 different icons, each a .icns file.

For this example, I’m going to use the Generic Green.icns icon to replace the generic Mac folder icon that is used on a folder named Images that houses photos I use exclusively for the About: Macs site. I selected the simple green folder icon because it will stand out in the parent folder that houses the Images folder, as well as all of the articles that are used on my About website.

You, of course, can pick any of the icons in the collection to use on any of your own Mac folders.

Changing a Mac’s Folder Icon With an ICNS Icon

Right-click the folder whose icon you wish to change, and then select Get Info from the pop-up menu.

In the Get Info window that opens, you'll see a thumbnail view of the folder's current icon in the top left-hand corner of the window. Keep the Get Info window open.

In the folder_icons_pack_by_deleket, open the Mac folder.

Pick an icon you wish to use; in my case, it’s the one named Generic Green.icns.

Drag the selected icon to the open Get Info window, and drop the icon on the icon thumbnail in the top left corner. When the new icon is dragged on top of the current thumbnail, a green plus sign will appear. When you see the green plus sign, release the mouse or trackpad button.

The new icon will take the place of the old one.

That’s it; you now know the two methods of changing icons on your Mac: the copy/paste method for icons already attached to files, folders, and drives, and the drag-and-drop method for icons in the .icns format.

OK, get to work, and have fun modifying your Mac’s look to better suit your style.