8 ways to customize the desktop on the Apple Mac

Does the desktop on your Mac use the default settings for macOS? That’s just boring! Why not brighten up the desktop and organise the items that appear on it with these great tweaks?

Sand… nothing but sand! Are you sick of sand dunes yet? You could be looking at something far more interesting on your desktop and there is no end of alternative images that could be used. The desktop can even show live animated wallpaper images. Desktop icons can be cleaned up and organised and hidden from view, except when you need them. The desktop can be synced with your other Macs and more. Let’s customize it.

1 Customize the Dock

The Dock at the bottom of the screen is part of the desktop and some people prefer it visible while others want it hidden. It is best hidden on small screens like MacBooks, but big screen iMacs have the space to keep it permanently visible if you prefer.

Hide the Dock on the Apple Mac desktop

Ctl+click the vertical line separator at the right side of the Dock and a number of options are displayed. Choose Turn Hiding On/Off to show or hide the Dock and position it at the bottom, left or right side of the desktop.

2 Clean up the desktop

Ctrl+Click the desktop and there are several ways to remove or organize the contents, like Clean Up and Clean Up By. Files, folders and other items can be placed anywhere on the desktop, but this leads to a disorganised mess that makes it hard to find what you want.

Clean up the Apple Mac desktop by rearranging the icons

Clean Up: Imagine there is an invisible grid on the desktop. Select Clean Up and icons are moved to the closest position in the grid. It organizes desktop items into rows and columns. This often helps, but it can still leave the desktop disorganised.

Clean Up By > Name/Kind… This menu is better and it does two things. The first is to sort the desktop items by the selected attribute, such as Name. It moves the icons into columns starting in the top right corner of the desktop. Icons are spaced according to the invisible grid settings.

Sort By > Snap to Grid: In the Sort By menu is a Snap to Grid option and this prevents you from dumping icons anywhere on the desktop and they will always be equally spaced.

3 Customize the desktop view options

Ctrl+click the desktop and select Show View Options. Once again, there are multiple options for customizing the way the desktop looks, or more precisely, the way icons are displayed. Improve the view and layout to get a better desktop.

Apple Mac desktop view settings

Icon size: Use the Icon size slider to set the size of icons. Small icons enable more to fit on the desktop, which is probably a bad thing as it leads to chaos. It’s best to reduce the number of desktop items, not increase them. Large icons combined with the Show icon preview option at the bottom, make it easy to see the contents of files like photos, Pages documents and so on.

Label position: The label position (filename) can be displayed at the bottom or on the right side of the icon on the desktop and the text size can be selected. Small text means long filenames are visible, but larger text is easier to read. Try different text sizes and see which is best for you.

Show item info: This adds extra information to the icon label and images for example, show the pixel dimensions. Enable it if you find it useful, but the downside is that it adds to the desktop clutter by adding extra text that may not be useful.

4 Clean up with Stacks

Stacks is an interesting feature of macOS that combines several icons into one – a sort of stack of icons. Because of the way it stacks icons, there appears to be far fewer icons on the desktop than there really is and consequently, the desktop is simpler, clearer and less cluttered. Use stacks.

Ctrl+click the desktop and select Show View Options. Click Stack By and select how you want to organize desktop icons. The best option is the one that works best for you and different people will find different settings best.

Configure the Stacks feature on the Apple Mac desktop

In the screenshot you can see it has combined four images into one item. Click a stack and the icons are revealed and they spread out so you can see them and click them if you want to open them.

You could Ctrl+click the desktop and select New Folder from the menu and manually drag desktop items to it, but Stacks automates this and saves you the effort.

5 Configure Finder preferences

Choose which items appear on the Apple Mac desktop

The desktop is basically a Finder window and if you go to Finder > Preferences you can choose what items appear on the desktop – internal and external drives, CDs, DVDs, iPods, and connected servers. Tick the checkboxes to choose what to show.

6 Change the desktop picture

If you are still using the standard desktop image bundled with macOS, why not change it for something more interesting? Isn’t it time you tried something new? Go to System Preferences > Desktop & Screen Saver and select the Desktop tab.

Set the desktop wallpaper image on the Apple Mac in System Preferences

There are actually three different desktops provided with macOS Mojave. There are two Dynamic Desktop images that changes throughout the day to mirror the light outdoors. The image is dark at night, gets brighter at dawn and through till mid-day, then darkens towards sunset.

If you would rather have a static desktop image, there are Light (Still) and Dark (Still) images. They don’t change, so you could choose the Dark (Still) image with the dark macOS theme (System Preferences > General) and be dark all day if you wanted.

There is a small, but good collection of static images that can be used for the desktop and you can select your own photos for the desktop too. Just click Photos in the sidebar. You can also download photos from free sources on the web like Pixabay, save them to your Pictures folder and then select them for the desktop background.

7 Use live wallpapers

Apple was not the first to have the idea of changing the desktop wallpaper throughout the day and there are many apps that do a similar job in the Mac App Store. Some change the desktop according to the weather (Living Wallpaper HD & Weather), some show the time (Desktop Clock Live), Some show sharks (Sharks 3D), some show an aquarium (Desktop Aquarium 3D Live Wallpaper).

Apple Mac live desktop wallpaper showing sharks swimming

Open the Mac App Store and search for “live wallpaper” to find these and many more. Some are free and some require payment.

8 Store the desktop in the cloud

If you have more than one Mac, you may find it useful to store the Desktop (and Documents) folder in iCloud. This enables the contents to be synced across your computers. If you need a file, it is there on the desktop no matter which Mac you are using. It simplifies and organises the desktop and makes it standard across your devices.

Setting to store the Apple Mac desktop and documents folder in iCloud

Open System Preferences > iCloud and click the Options button to the right of iCloud Drive. In the next window use the checkbox next to Desktop & Documents folders. There could be a gigabyte or more of files in these two folders, so it could take a few hours to sync on a slow internet connect. Don’t worry about it, just carry on working on your Mac as usual and it will sync in the background.