How to add desktop icons to MacOS

MacBook Air

One thing that I never really understood about MacOS and most Linux desktop environments is “why do they always have to make creating desktop icons such a chore?”
This has been the case with Ubuntu since at least version 10 and with all versions of MacOS. Turns out that creating desktop icon on the Mac is actually a lot easier than doing it on Linux and it entails using Aliases.
If you have some experience with the UNIX command line, you may already know that aliases are a way of defining a more familiar name to some commands. For example, if your system includes ls but not dir, the command
alias dir=ls
will allow you to type dir to invoke ls.

An example of aliasing.
An example of aliasing.

MacOS does include command line aliases, but it goes beyond by also providing desktop aliases, which are the equivalent to Windows’ shortcuts.

Locating your app

The first step in creating a desktop alias it to locate your app. MacOS stores all applications in the folder aptly named Applications. You can open it by clicking on its name on the left bar in Finder.

The Applications folder in Finder.
The Applications folder in Finder.

Create an alias

Once you’ve found the applications you want to create desktop icons for, you will need to right-click it and select Make Alias.

The Make Alias option.
The Make Alias option.

A new icon will appear, named Application name alias. You are asked to rename it, but don’t do it just yet, because you’ll get an error message stating that that name is already taken. Instead, press Enter.

An application icon and its alias side by side.
An application icon and its alias side by side.

The picture above shows an application and its alias. Notice the arrow indicating it’s an alias and not a real application. We could drag and drop the alias icon to the desktop to copy it, but this, will require us to rename the alias once copied and delete the alias within the Applications folder. Instead, it’s faster to use the Terminal to move it using a single command.

Move the alias to the desktop

To move your alias, open the Terminal and type the following command. Replace “application name” with the appropriate name. Note that the terminal is case-sensitive, so Google Chrome and google chrome are two different files, as far as the Terminal is concerned.

mv "/Applications/application name alias" "$USER/Desktop/application name" 


There are a few things to take into account here. First, the double quotes are important if the application name contains white spaces. They tell the Terminal that what comes after space is still part of the path, instead of being a completely different path. Secondly, $HOME must be written in all caps. Lastly, you need not to worry if you run a localized version of MacOS: it’ll work regardless of the language you use.

Now you have a working desktop icon that you can use to launch your application.

About Andrea Luciano Damico 137 Articles
Andrea Luciano Damico is a freelance translator from Italy. Among his interests are linguistics, technology, video games, and generally being a chill guy. He runs Let's and