How to arrange and sort files in OS X El Capitan’s Finder

Learn about the different ways the Finder arranges files and when you can access these options.

finder icon

The Finder in OS X El Capitan has four ways to view your files: icon view, list view, column view, and Cover Flow view. But it also gives you many ways to arrange files within those views. There are options such as Arrange By, Sort By, and Clean Up By in the Finder’s various menus. Unfortunately, it’s not obvious what each of these options means.

The three sorting tools do have three distinct functions: Arrange By lets you organize files into groups. The Sort By option lets you choose how your files are sorted (by name, date, etc.). And Clean Up By lets you tidy up messy windows or your Desktop. But the three options aren’t always available in all Finder views. Sometimes you can combine them; sometimes you can’t. There are multiple ways of invoking them. In other words, they aren’t Apple’s smoothest bit of interface design. But here’s a rough guide to the way they work.

Icon View

These organizing features are easiest to explain and demonstrate in Icon view; many of the features that work in Icon view also work in the other three. Even if you never use that view, switch over to it in Finder for a minute so you can follow along. To switch a Finder window to Icon view, choose View > as Icons, or press Command-1.

Start by Control-clicking (or right-clicking) in an open space in the Finder window. In the resulting contextual menu, you’ll see three options: Clean Up, Clean Up By, and Arrange By. (You’ll only see all these options if you haven’t set a Sort By option in the View Options palette; I’ll get to that later.) Let’s start with Arrange By.

From the Arrange By submenu, you can opt to arrange files and folders by Name, Kind, Application, Date Last Opened, Date Added, Date Modified, Date Created, Size, Tags, or None. Arranging by name simply sorts the files and folders in alphabetical order by name. None does just what it says. But if you select one of the other options, the Finder breaks its window into sections and organizes the files and folders into those sections.

arrange by

The Arrange By menu.

If you select Kind, for example, you get groups for different kinds of files: Folders, Images, Spreadsheets, Documents, and so on. Select Size, and your icons will divide into sections for size ranges—100MB to 10GB, 1MB to 100MB, and more. If you don’t have any files or folders that would fit into a given group, that section won’t appear at all. Within each group, files are displayed in a single horizontal row; if you have too many items in a group, you scroll horizontally and more will appear.

files arranged by

Here’s what files look like in a Finder window were Arrange By Kind is selected.

Once you’ve organized files into groups with Arrange By, hold down the Option key and Control-click in the Finder window again. The Arrange By option in the contextual menu changes to Sort By. That lets you sort files within groups. So, for example, if you’ve arranged files by Kind, you can use Sort By to array them within each group by name. The Sort By menu doesn’t offer all of the same options as Arrange By; you can’t sort by Application. If you arrange by None, you can still use Sort By to arrange the window as a whole.

The contextual menu isn’t the only way to invoke Arrange By and Sort By. You can also: select View > Arrange By; click on the Arrange By button in the Finder toolbar (if it’s there); select Arrange By from the Action menu in that toolbar (again, if that button is visible); or open the View Options palette (which itself can be done in several ways, the easiest of which is pressing Command-J). In many of those cases, the Option-key trick still works, changing Arrange By to Sort By.

Some folders have special Arrange By and Sort By criteria. For example, in the Applications folder you can arrange apps by Application Category (Productivity, Games, Social Networking, etc.). These categories are inherited from the Mac App Store; if you have apps from some other source, they’ll all be lumped in Other.

If you arrange icons by Name or None, you also get a Clean Up By option in the context menu (and elsewhere). This sorts your icons by whatever criteria you wish (Name, Kind, Date Modified, Date Created, Size, or Label), but you can then move the icons around within the view; when you Arrange By, you can’t move the icons. Clean Up By is also a one-time action; if you add new files to that folder, their icons won’t follow your Clean Up By arrangement. If you choose Arrange By, new files you add to that folder will be automatically placed into the appropriate group. The simple Clean Up option just moves file icons into a grid, with no organization. This can be especially useful on your Desktop, if you save a lot of files there, and haven’t set an Arrange By option.

List, Column, and Cover Flow

view options

The View Options palette.

As in Icon view, you can use Arrange By to sort files and folders into groups in List and Column views. But those groups are more compact and easier to use than they are in Icon view, especially when you’re viewing a lot of files. Files appear in vertical columns, not horizontal rows, so there’s no side-scrolling required. However, if a list or column extends below the bottom of the window, you can’t use the contextual menu to access Arrange By or Sort By (because there’s no empty screen space); you’ll have to use one of the (many) other options.

Arrange By Kind can be especially useful in List and Column views, because it displays folders at the top, making for easy navigation up and down a directory tree. As in Icon view, you can combine Arrange By and Sort By.

In either of these views, you can Control-click on the column headers: that lets you choose which headers will display. By default, you get Name, Date Modified, Size, and Kind, but you can add others, or remove all but Name. Because items in these views are presented in perfectly vertical lists, there is no Clean Up By option in either of them.

Cover Flow view is a hybrid: at the top of a window you see files and their contents, and below is a List view. The options for this view are similar to those in List view: you can use Arrange By or Sort By the same ways.

Putting it all together

When you’ve organized files just the way you want them in a window in, say, Icon view, you can tell OS X to always use those options any other time you use that view. After you’ve set your options, open the View Options palette and click on Use as Defaults at the bottom. (You can’t do this in column view.) The settings in your current window should then be applied in all windows opened in Icon view. (You can undo this by pressing the Option key in View Options: that changes Use as Defaults to Restore to Defaults.) However, in my testing, such defaults weren’t always applied; I know others have had the same experience.

You can also choose a specific view for certain folders. To do this, open a folder, choose the view you want, then, in the View Options palette, check Always Open in __ View. Again, this works most of the time, but not always. And the settings you apply to one folder don’t carry over to others.

As you can see, organizing files and folders in OS X can be confusing. The best advice is to find a look you like and stick with it as much as possible; the more you try to customize each and every view, the more likely your changes will go awry. But if you do take the time to experiment, you may find these organizing features make finding and managing files easier than ever.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared as a tutorial for OS X Lion. It has been updated to address the Finder in OS X El Capitan.

This story, "How to arrange and sort files in OS X El Capitan’s Finder" was originally published by Macworld.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon