Mac OS X: Grabbing Icons from Your Mac Using Preview

I constantly need high-quality versions of program icons. They help me not just when I’m writing tips here, but also when I’m sending my tech-challenged friend (let’s call him Ernie) directions on how to navigate around his Mac. It’s pretty easy to extract them, pop the suckers into Preview, and then manipulate them any way you want from there. As a Super-Mega Bonus Tip™, I might even be persuaded to talk about a feature in Preview that you probably don’t know about. You’ll just have to come in to see, won’t you? We can deal with “Ernie” later.

There are several ways to begin, so let’s give ‘em a try. The easiest is to just Command-click one of the programs in the Dock, as doing that shows the application in the Finder rather than just opening it. You can also search for the name of your application in Spotlight and then Command-click on the result, which does the exact same thing. If you don’t like those ways, though, you can always right-click the program’s Dock icon and choose Options > Show in Finder. Hey, it’s the long way around, but who am I to judge? At least it wouldn’t take as long as searching through your Applications folder.

The next piece of our weird puzzle is to copy your selection to your clipboard, so either hit the typical Command-C keyboard shortcut (make sure the correct application is highlighted in blue!) or right-click on the program and choose “Copy [name of application].”

OK, so it’s on your clipboard. Now what? Let’s move along to the Preview portion of our fun and games. So open Preview and either hit Command-N or choose the menu item File > New from Clipboard.

Then the icons for your application appear in all their glory (and in different sizes, so you can pick what works best for you).

Extracting one size of the icon is simple, too. Just click on your preferred size so that it’s highlighted, and then hit Command-C or choose Edit > Copy. If you repeat the File > New from Clipboard command, you’ll have a brand-new document with only your solo icon in it. You can then use Preview to export it into another format or annotate it any way you need to.

As an aside, this “New from Clipboard” function is quite handy—I use it all of the time. You need to edit an image from the Web or from an e-mail and don’t want to go to the trouble of saving it out first? Easy as pie. Just right-click on the picture and choose “Copy,” and then follow the directions above for opening it in Preview. 

So the next time your “Ernie” contacts you and needs to know which program to use to access his e-mail, you’ll be able to help. It’s much easier to point people exactly toward what you mean using images rather than saying “Click on the blue postage stamp with the bird on it.” Unless you’re billing for your time, that is. In that case, feel free to write it all out. Type slowly, too.