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Do You Use It? Proxy Icons Quietly Boost Productivity

Jul 11, 2023Jul 11, 2023

Our first few Do You Use It? polls focused on prominent features that have starred in keynotes, been mentioned on macOS Web pages, and migrated between platforms. We’re switching gears with the results from this next poll, which asked if you use proxy icons. They’re one of my favorite macOS features, and I was fully expecting that even many TidBITS readers wouldn’t use them, if only because of not knowing what they are or what they’re good for. The poll results backed up my expectations, with only 40% of respondents using proxy icons regularly and another 17% using them occasionally. Even the number of respondents was down from previous polls, with just under 500 votes. Allow me to persuade you to give proxy icons a try!

Proxy icons, or as Apple now calls them, “window title icons,” are tiny icons that sit next to the window title in Finder windows and windows from document-focused apps. Dragging the proxy icon to another app or location has the same effect as dragging a standard Finder icon.

Those who weren’t already proxy icon users before macOS 11 Big Sur are forgiven for not noticing them. That’s because Apple chose to hide the proxy icon in Big Sur by default, revealing it only when you moved your pointer over the window title or clicked in that area. It was undoubtedly an attempt to make the Mac interface look simpler, but it came at the cost of discoverability, like so many of Apple’s interface changes.

A defaults write command made it possible to reduce the length of time you had to hover over the window title before the proxy icon appeared, but only in macOS 12 Monterey did Apple acknowledge the overall wrong-headedness of this change and provide an option to keep the proxy icon visible at all times (see “TipBITS: Always Show Window Proxy Icons,” 26 March 2022). Apple inappropriately relegates this setting to System Settings/Preferences > Accessibility > Display > Show Window Title Icons. While there may be an accessibility argument for the visibility of proxy icons, they’re a longstanding functional part of the macOS experience for everyone and shouldn’t be hidden.

The simple answer to that question is anything you can do with standard icons in the Finder. They’re called “proxy” icons for just that reason—they stand in for the real thing. What’s interesting about proxy icons, however, is that their ready accessibility means you can use them in situations where working with a Finder icon wouldn’t be worth the effort. After all, once you ensure that proxy icons are always visible, they’re right in front of you in window title bars, just waiting to be dragged.

Here are some real-world uses that TidBITS readers recommended in our poll:

The modifier keys you can use while dragging a file or folder in the Finder also work with proxy icons. So, when using a Finder location like the desktop as a destination:

There is one action that always works with a standard Finder icon but may not with a proxy icon: dragging to the Trash. Try that with a proxy icon in Pages or TextEdit, and nothing will happen. However, it’s not a universal prohibition—BBEdit allows it, and other apps may as well.

Eagle-eyed users may notice that document proxy icons are sometimes grayed out, as in BBEdit, and such icons may not even be draggable, as in GraphicConverter. That happens when the file has unsaved changes. Not all apps honor this historical interface convention (which is pretty subtle, I’ll admit), and apps like Pages that use Apple’s newer approach to title bar controls instead append “Edited” to the window title. Either way, save the file before dragging its proxy icon to ensure your changes are incorporated.

Several people noted that proxy icons don’t work in Excel. However, as the discussion progressed, it turned out that the problem was not with Excel but with all Office documents stored in OneDrive. It’s unclear why Microsoft disables proxy icons for Office documents in OneDrive, given that they work fine for other types of documents in OneDrive and for Office documents in Dropbox, Google Drive, and iCloud Drive.

Mail used to sport proxy icons that you could drag to the Finder to create an alias to that message. Although Mail messages no longer have proxy icons, you can drag from anywhere in the header of a message to create a mailbox (.eml) file of the message.

Finally, some people spoke up in favor of the directory menu that pops up when you Command-click the window title. This menu is associated with the proxy icon only by proximity, but it’s helpful for checking the enclosing folder to see if the file is stored in the proper place or is the correct copy. Similarly, in apps like Pages that adopt Apple’s new title bar interface, mousing over the window title reveals a down-pointing arrow that, when clicked, brings up a popover with fields for renaming the file, managing tags, and checking the folder location.

If you haven’t previously used proxy icons, I hope this look at one of the Mac’s unsung features has given you ideas for speeding up your workflows. Those of us who are accustomed to employing proxy icons in our everyday Mac usage would be distraught to lose such a productivity-enhancing capability. And if you’re already a fan of proxy icons, I hope you learned something new, like the trick of Command-dragging an icon into a Terminal window to change to that directory.