How to Assign Custom Icons to Desktop Files & Folders in OS X

Way back in the early 80s, when the Mac was first introduced, and because the graphical user interface was such a novelty, users and developers started to work on ways to customize certain interface elements.

Long before the word "apps" meant anything, many public domain and shareware programs allowed us to modify various graphical interface elements in the Finder.  I recall changing the trashcan to a flushing toilet or to a munching Cookie Monster.

We had talking moose, flying toasters, menus in psychedelic colors, folder icons replaced with Star Wars characters, menu item and icon text laid out in tacky fonts like the one called San Francisco, and much more. We all went into sensory overload at our desktops, right?

In retrospect, it was pretty amusing that adults in the professional workplace, universities and science labs were into this stuff. And to think that I partook in this madness. But even more amazing that I used up company resources to teach fellow employees how to engage in this mindless activity!

I suppose there's still some of this going on, but I haven't seen any lately. Have you?

As for Apple, they've always preferred to keep things simple. Very little in the way of customization was offered. However, today there is one little bone that Apple throws us.  Actually, it's a holdover from the early days: customizable icons.

As a Mac owner, you can do this customization quite easily. Let me show you how.

The Get Info panel for a folder on the desktop.

With the desire to assign an custom icon to a folder on the desktop, the Get Info panel is first opened, revealing the Icon Well.

It's all done via the venerable Get Info panel found under the File menu in Finder. You select a desktop object – a file, a folder, even a disk.  Then you open the object's Get Info panel which provides all sorts of interesting information and properties pertaining to the selected object. It's important to note that all these objects have default icons as defined by OS X.

Now, try the following:

1. From the desktop, select a file, folder or drive whose icon you wish to change.

2. Go to File > Get Info. At the top of the Get Info panel you will see an image of the object's icon.  I call this area the Icon Well. Whatever graphic or image is placed in that icon well becomes the object's new icon.

3. Click on the current icon in the icon well. You will see that it's selectable. Once selected, it's a simple matter of replacing the icon with another graphic or image. Copying from an image source and pasting into this destination icon well will set your object's new icon.

The process of copying an image open in Preview and pasting it into the Image Well of the destination object's Get Info panel.

I have successfully customized this folder to portray the likeness of my personal confessor.

So, what can you copy and paste into this icon well? Answer: any image you want. You can take screen captures, then copy and paste them into the destination object's icon well. Come to think of it, you needn't necessarily copy and paste; another method is to drag-and-drop an image file (.gif, .jpg or .png) into the destination icon well. You should take care that the image file is not too large even though the Finder will adjust the picture accordingly.

On my non-retina MacBook Pro, a square 512 x 512 pixel space is allocated to these icons. I prefer opening the source image in an image editor, cropping it constrained to the above square measurement. I then save the image to the desktop, and finally drag-and-drop it into the Get Info icon well for the destination object.

Here's something else you can do: Perhaps you would like to "borrow" and existing icon to use it for your destination object. Good news; you can use the Get Info icon well to copy an existing icon as the source, then paste it into the destination icon well of another object's Get Info panel.

One thing to remember is that these icon changes are not permanent. They're simply cosmetic. You can restore the original icon by selecting the desktop object, going into its Get Info panel, clicking on the icon well to select the icon, and pressing the Delete key. Up pops the original default icon.

Whether or not you like cartoon characters or portraits of your favorite people adorning your desktop files, folders and drives… a little personalization is always fun.