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Clean up a Mac desktop with Mojave Desktop Stacks & other tricks

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How out of control is your Mac desktop? Can you see the carefully chosen wallpaper image in the background, or is it obscured by files, folders, aliases and DMG files for applications you have downloaded?

Do you drag things onto your desktop so that you can find them, only to lose them amidst a thousand screenshots? Do you happily save everything to your Desktop, once in a while dragging things into a folder which may or may not be called Stuff?

Over the years Apple has come up with various ways to help us keep things organised on our Macs, ways to help us find what we needed, and ways to help us keep our files in order.

For example, you can search for a file using Spotlight. Just press Command + Space and then start typing the name of the file, or a word you know will help you identify the thing you are looking for.

But that doesn’t necessarily leave your desktop any less uncluttered.

Here we’ll talk you through some steps to take to keep your Mac desktop tidy. We’ll also share how to use a new feature in Mojave that will make it even easier to keep your desktop free of clutter.

How to arrange desktop icons

One way to make your desktop look a little more presentable is to arrange the icons. No, it’s not necessary to drag them around yourself, you can press a few keys and they will tidy themselves up.

Here’s how to get your Mac desktop icons rearrange themselves.

  1. Find a free bit of your desktop that isn’t covered by an icon and right click/control click there.
  2. You will see the following options. Clean up Mac desktop options
  3. You could just choose Clean Up, which would quickly shuffle the icons into line, with equally spaced gaps between them.
  4. If you’d like your icons to be organised by name, date, and so on, then click on the option below to see various options. If you’d like all your Folders grouped together, and all your screen shots grouped together, choose Kind. If you would prefer things in name order then choose Name. 
  5. There are even more options under Sort By. Such as Date Last Opened and Date Added, which might help you track down the screenshot you took on Monday.How to sort desktop icons

How to get Mojave Stacks

If you have installed the latest version of MacOS, Mojave (if you haven’t follow our tutorial to install Mojave here) you can use Desktop Stacks, which is a new feature that quickly sorts your different files into piles on your Desktop, freeing up space and making it easier to find things.

Stacks isn’t new to the Mac, it arrived with Mac OS X Leopard back in 2007 and allowed you to drag a folder into the Dock, where, if you clicked on it, you would see the contents of the folder fanned out so you could easily click on the file you wanted.

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In the case of Desktop Stacks, files are grouped together rather than spread across your desktop. In Mojave when you want to tidy up your Desktop in a hurry, all you will need to do is choose Stacks from the Finder View menu. 

With Stacks evoked, your desktop files will be stacked into groups. The default is to stack files by file type. So, your images will be grouped together, as will PDFs, for example. Alternatively you could choose to stack by date, and Apple will also show you stacks for Today and Yesterday, as wall as last 7 days, last 30 days and by month and year.

You can also choose to stack by Tags, which could be useful if you already tag files when you save them. (When you save a file you can assign a Tag that makes it easier to gather all the files you have labeled with the same tag.)

Your folders will be kept separate, and will appear below the stacks.

When you drag a new file onto the desktop it will go straight into the relevant Stack (unless it’s the first of its kind, in which case it will start a new Stack.)

How to use Desktop Stacks

Even with Mojave installed on your Mac the Desktop Stacks feature won’t be on by default, here’s how you can turn on :

  1. Click on the Desktop to make sure that the Finder menu is showing at the top of the screen.
  2. Click on View from the Finder menu bar.
  3. Click on Use Stacks.
  4. Alternatively, right click on the Desktop and choose Use Stacks. How to turn on Stacks in Mojave
  5. By default all the files are organised by Kind, but you can choose to sort your tracks in various different ways, for example, by Date Last Opened, or Date Created.
  6. If you want to see the files in a Stack, just click on a Stack and all the files inside it will appear on the desktop. You’ll be able to drag and drop from the desktop to emails as usual. What's in Desktop Stack
  7. As well as choosing how your Stacks are sorted, you can choose to sort the contents of your Stacks. So you could sort the images within a Stack by date, for example.
  8. If you right click on a Stack you will get access to more options, including the ability to create a new folder from the selection.
  9. If you want to further sort your Stacks, right-click on the Desktop and choose Show View Options. At the top of the list you will see options to Stack by Kind, and then sort by Date Added, for example.
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We also have this article explaining how to get Mojave Dynamic Desktop.

How to get Stacks in older versions of MacOS

If you don’t fancy installing Mojave, you can create an effect something like Stacks by using Smart Folders.

Here’s how to create a smart folder:

  1. Open the Finder.
  2. Click on File > New Smart Folder in the menu bar.
  3. A Finder window will appear with some additional options. You can choose for the folder to be compiled based on all the contents of your Mac (in which case choose This Mac), or just your Desktop (in which case choose Desktop). For the sake of this attempt to recreate Desktop Stacks, we will click on “Desktop”.
  4. Now to choose the file types you wish to search for. Click on the plus button on the right.
  5. Here you can choose Kind, Last Opened Date, Last Modified Date, Created Date, Name, and Contents. If you want to create a folder of images, for example, Choose Kind.
  6. Now you can choose what kind of file you want to be included in this Smart Folder. Your options include, Any, Application, Archive, Document, Executable, Folder, Image, Movie, Music, PDF, Presentation, Text, and Other. Choose Image, to create a Smart Folder of all the images on your Desktop.
  7. If you’d like to be more specific about the sort of image, e.g. just stick to JPEG, then click on the dropdown beside All and choose JPEG.
  8. You will see all the images located on your Desktop in the Finder window. You could stop here, but there are a few more options open to you. If you click on the + again, for example, you can create another set of rules for the folder, for example, you could specify that only images last opened within the 10 days should appear.
  9. Once you are happy with your Smart Folder, click on Save.
  10. Now you need to choose a name for your Smart Folder, and tell your Mac where to save it.

Your Smart Folder will now appear on you Desktop. Unfortunately this won’t automatically tidy up your desktop in the way that Desktop Stacks will, but it means that if you drag everything scattered around your desktop into a Stuff folder, the Smart Images folder will still include all the images on your Desktop.

(Note that these Smart Folders don’t move the images, they just create a sort of alias to the image in its actual location).

How to make Desktop icons smaller (or larger)

There are also View Options that you might like to use to make your desktop look a little less crowded – you can do this in any version of the Mac operating system.

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If you right click on the desktop and choose Show View Options you will see various options including a slider so that you can change icon size – ideal if you are rapidly running out of space on your desktop – reducing the size of the icons may allow you to squeeze more in. Equally, if necessary you could make the icons bigger so that you could easily see them. 

  1. Right click and choose Show View Options.
  2. Drag the slider below Icon Size

Make icons small

You can also change the size of the grid in the background, so that folders and files are closer together – which might be another way to cram more onto your Desktop. If you imagine that there are lots of squares with each icon fitting inside one, changing the grid size means that each square is smaller, and the icons can be closer.

  1. Right click and choose Show View Options.
  2. Drag the slider below Grid Spacing.

How to stop things cluttering up your desktop

However, if that sounds like too much hassle, you could change some setting so that everything doesn’t automatically end up on your desktop.

One of the worse culprits for filling up your desktop is screenshots. If you want to stop screenshots automatically saving on your desktop you can create a folder just for screenshots, we explain how to do that here: How to change where Mac screenshots are saved.

How to organise your desktop

The tricks above might help you make your desktop look a little less messy, but it won’t necessarily keep things tidy.

The best way to stop your Desktop from getting too cluttered is to try and do a little bit of desktop housework from time to time. A few folders on your desktop – beyond the staple Stuff folder – would be a good place to start. Perhaps one for Family, one for Work, one for Vacation Plans, and one for everything else. Then once a week just drag and drop items into the corresponding folder.

If you have Desktop Stacks set up you can easily drag all your images and drop them into an Image folder, for example.

How to find things on your desktop

Even with a hundred items on your desktop, you could still find the thing you are looking for – if you know its name.

To jump to the folder you titled Work, for example, click on your Desktop and then press W. This will highlight the first folder or file with a name that starts with a W. Press W again if the first result isn’t what you are looking for.



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