Switching Folder Icons

Written by Chris Weiss (hotiron) in Tips and tricks

I can’t live with the default folder icons that come with Snow Leopard. No way, they are way too plain for me. I need more detail and real glyphs (you know those cool little pictures that tell you what’s in the folder). And to me there is no other single modification that has a bigger impact on the day-to-day aesthetics of my OS X experience. I’m a GUI guy at heart. From my very first days as an OS X user (think Cheetah) I’ve been on a don Quijote-like quest to find and use the perfect system folder icons. Because of this I am constantly switching. Here is a look at some of the greatest folder icons out there and how you can use them to overhaul the look of your file system. This is my attempt at a definitive Apple folder modding guide.
First, you have to pick the system set that is right for you. This is by far the hardest part of the process for me because I am way too picky about my folder icons. For one thing, they need to have all the basic folder types included. If you take a look at what folders CandyBar or IconBox let you change (the above screen shot is from CandyBar) you will see the minimum requirements for completeness in my book. Twenty icons is the entry price. Next, they need to have at least 128, 32, and 16 pixel versions. 256 pixel icons are preferred for me and 512 pixel versions are optional.  In reality 128 is about the largest icon size that I tend to use but a lot of people feel 256 is the minimum size. It’s up to you really. I also like mine to be blue only because the default icons are blue and for some reason this just feels right to me. They also have to be front facing. I know I’m a little weird about my folder icons. This is really just a pet peeve of mine and others will likely disagree with me especially because it rules out a lot of great icon sets. But I like my system folders to be front facing and not on an angle like an isometric or perspective view of the folder. This requirement comes from the fact that I use a lot of shelf-motif Finder backgrounds and the front facing folders seem to “sit” on the shelves better. It is also a holdover from the old pre-Leopard days where in the past default folders were angled. These days front facing folders seem more modern to me. Below is an example of one of the best isometric view system icons sets out there, these are from the epic Hyperion set. This is also a great example of three dimensional folder glyphs, these are just plain spectacular.
And speaking of glyphs, the final criteria is selection. I look for folder icon replacements sets that have a lot more than just the basic twenty system icons. You want to use a set that let’s go beyond Applications, Utilities, Downloads and Public so you can apply custom folders everywhere you have a popular collection of files. I have several folders in Pictures that I go looking for regularly and I like to give them custom folder icons. So I look for a system set of icons that has plenty of interesting and different icons that I can use elsewhere. One of the best examples of this is the extensive CATS icon set by Yoshida Susumu. CATS has the coffee cups and raised fonts you will find with the better sets but it also has interesting and unique folder glyphs like boxes, octopus arms, wanted posters, band-aides, zippers, waterfalls, pirate flags, flasks, printers, markers, sticky notes, and even bunny ears. This gives you all the room you need to customize all of your most popular folders. Below is a peak at the beautiful CATS icon set.
Next, and this can be a controversial subject, are examples of some of the best system icon sets out there. This is by no means a comprehensive list; it’s just a few of my all-time personal favorites. Four of the best front facing blue sets (go ahead and flame me horribly) folder icons are (#1) Agua Leopard by David Lanham, (#2) Maji by Jonas Rask, (#3) CATS3 by Yoshida Susumu, and (#4) Voodoo by Julien Sagot. I’ve used all of these at varying times in the past and I am currently using Voodoo. And four of the greatest non- blue or non- front facing folder icons are (#1) Hyperion by Sebastiaan de With, (#2) Pry by Jonas Rask again, (#3) Agua by David Lanham, and (#4) Aquave by Laurent Baumann. And this is just a sampling of what’s out there free for your modding pleasure. Your best bet is to start right here on iconpaper.org in your search for the perfect folder set. You will find many of the best are tagged and ready for downloading. Another great starting point is the IconFactory. Feel free to comment with your own personal favorite sets but please try hard to post only complete sets and also track down a working download link so we can build a comprehensive list for all to use. Below is an example of the eight set I just have mentioned.
System Sets
Once you have selected the icon set you are going to use, implementing it is simple. You can do this manually, one icon at a time, but this would be incredibly time consuming and the only real way for me is to use an icon application like CandyBar from Panic Inc. or IconBox from ChickenByte and The IconBlock Ltd. Both have a free and functional trial version to download and both are worthy of the admission price many times over. Which one you choose is really just a personal preference as both accomplish this task extremely well. I have been a happy Panic paying customer for many years because of the slick user interface and robust ability to house my hundreds of thousands of icons. But with IconBox 2.0 out and stabilized I am seriously thinking about switching. I have found that IconBox might occasionally balk at a large import task but I love the online features that let you search multiple icon databases and even get a free daily download. After you have download your favorite icon set just unpack the files. If it is a dot-icontainer file type you can just double click it and to automatically load everything into your default icon management application. If they are individual ICNS or Mac icon files (or PNG or ICO files too) you can go the the File –> Import menu option and browse to the icon files or just create a new icon box or collection and then drag the files into your application. You might also want to check out the handy tutorial here on iconpaper.org that shows you how to convert PNGs into ICNS files. Then go to the Change System Icons section and scroll down until you see the Folder Icons drop area. With your new collection or box of icons open you just drag the corresponding icon into the drop area for each of the 20 system icons that Snow Leopard supports. You will need to apply this change, then log out and log back in to see your new icons. I recently gave the Kurve set by BohemiaDrinker a test drive and really loved the look of these unique blue front facing icons. Their edges are not as crisp as I might like but they are original and can be a nice change.  Below is how cool your Finder will can look with a custom set of folder icons installed.
That is about it for customizing your Snow Leopard default system folder icons.  No other single tweak will have a bigger impact on the visual pleasure of your Mac.  Next we will do some more customizing with a few of the all time greatest drive icon sets out there.  Then we’ll tackle your all important sidebar with a few of the greatest 16 pixel and 32 pixel sidebar icons sets.  After that we’ll tackle your dock.  So stay tuned to the Tips & Tricks section here on the iconpaper.org blog.


  1. Mozgovvert says:

    MINIUM 2 is the best I think

  2. Guineapig says:

    I’m using Classy v2 by gurato
    Awesome piece of eyecandy!

  3. Mozgovvert, MINIUM2 by Sascha Hoehne is a very sexy grey/minimal complete set. You can preview and download it here on iconpaper http://www.iconpaper.org/minium2/

  4. Guineapig, Classy v2 by gurato http://naf1971.deviantart.com/art/Classy-v2-alu-grey-175027918 is another great grey/minimal set out there.

  5. Guineapig says:

    Classy v2 is also blue, as you can see ;)
    Anyway, great article!
    Has CATS 3 been released?

  6. Guineapig, I did not see the blue option. Are they PNGs only or ICNS too? Anyway, yes CATS (pre-Leopard style) and CATS3 (Leopard and up) as shown here are available to download from Sensei Yoshida Susumu’s blog starting here http://susumu.seph.ws/wp-content/uploads/icons/ you will find a directory of all his works to download.

  7. Guineapig says:

    That was a port of Classy for Linux :P
    The original post by gurato is here: http://gurato.deviantart.com/art/Classy-V-2-174120157
    and it includes a blue version ;)
    Thanks for CATS 3! I couldn’t find it so far :)

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