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Customizing the OS X Menu Bar

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The Mac OS X menu bar is a great tool for increasing your productivity, but left unchecked it just ends up a big mess. There may be icons up there for unidentified applications or icons you’d like to get rid of if you just knew how. Worse yet may be the OS X system icons, some of which you never use but can’t seem to remove without a herculean effort on your part.

In this tutorial, we’ll go through the process of customizing and removing third-party and Mac OS X system menu bar icons, look at how to replace application and system menu bar icons with your own and try out a couple of third-party applications for managing your menu bar. If you don’t like the Apple menu icon, we’ll even take a swing at hiding that, too.


What You'll Need

  • Replacement menu bar icons (You can create these yourself or find them via an internet search.)
  • Bartender (Surtees Studios, $15)
  • Broomstick (Zibity, Free)
  • GeekTool (Tynsoe, Free)

All of these are optional, and the tools you end up using will depend on what you want to do with your menu bar. There are several changes you can make without any extra applications, but to make the most of your menu bar, you may want to look beyond what comes standard on your Mac.


Change the Fast User Switching Icon

There may be an icon that looks like a silhouette of a tiny person in your menu bar, or your name may be up there instead. That’s the Fast User Switching menu, and it allows you to switch among users without having to log in or out. You may want to change from the icon to your name or vice versa; maybe you just want to remove the Fast User Switching menu altogether.

Open up OS X’s Login Options in System Preferences (System Preferences > Users & Groups > Login Options). You’ll need to click the lock icon to access Login Options and authenticate with your password.

Edit or remove the Fast User Switching menu
Edit or remove the Fast User Switching menu.

Deselect the Show fast user switching menu option to remove it entirely from your menu bar. If you’d like to keep the fast user switching menu active, use the dropdown to change how it is displayed, whether your full name, short name, or just the fast user switching icon is displayed.


Customize How the Date and Time Are Displayed

You have some limited control over how the clock appears in your menu bar. Click the time in your menu bar, choose Open Time & Date Preferences, and then select Clock. Remove the clock from your menu bar entirely by deselecting Show date and time in the menu bar. If you do keep the time where it is, you can choose whether to display the time with seconds, use a 24-hour clock, show AM/PM, and more.

Change how the time is displayed in the menu bar
Change how the time is displayed in the menu bar.

Your clock doesn’t have to look like the OS X standard. Click the time in your menu bar and again choose Open Time & Date Preferences, but this time select Open Language & Text... You can also find these options at System Preferences > Language & Text > Region. Choose one of the presets from the Region dropdown to change how the numbers on your computer are presented. There’s not a lot you can do to customize your date and time in the menu bar from here, but you don't have to go with the default for where you happen to be living, and you can change how the AM/PM indicators are displayed.

Use your Region settings to change how your time is displayed in the menu bar
Use your Region settings to change how your time is displayed in the menu bar.

Change How Your Battery's Power Is Displayed

If you're working from an Apple notebook, like a Macbook Pro or Macbook Air, you likely want to keep the Battery Status icon in your menu bar. Without any indication as to how low your charge is getting or a signal to plug in to a power source, it's easy to walk off a cliff and accidentally send your Mac to sleep when you're in the middle of a project.

Just because you want your battery's icon visible doesn't mean that you also need to know the exact percentage your battery is charged. To removed the battery percentage from your menu bar, click the Battery Status icon and deselect Show Percentage.

Deselect Show Percentage to get rid of the percentage full next to your battery
Deselect Show Percentage to get rid of the percentage full next to your battery.

If you do want to get rid of that battery icon, click Open Energy Saver Preferences and deselect Show battery status in menu bar. (You can also get to your batter and power adapter settings via System Preferences > Energy Saver.)


Remove Mac Icons

Any OS X icons in your menu bar can be moved around with Command+Drag. That means if you hold down the Command key while clicking on an icon, you can drag it anywhere you want on the menu bar.

You can drag Mac OS X system items and icons by holding down Command
You can drag Mac OS X system items and icons by holding down Command.

Even better, if there’s an icon you want to get rid of entirely, you can just drag it off of the menu bar and it will disappear for good. For instance, if you use an application launcher like Alfred or Quicksilver, you can get rid of the omnipresent Spotlight icon. Remember, though, you can only drag and remove OS X icons this way; it won’t work on third-party applications.


Replace Menu Bar Application Icons

Third-Party Applications

Some applications allow you to choose among a selection of menu bar icons, but with most applications, you’re stuck with what you've got. Unless you know how to change those icons yourself.

For the majority of third-party applications, you can replace menu bar icons (or icon sets) if you know where to look. Find the application in the Applications folder and right-click on it. Select Show Package Contents. The application's menu bar icon(s) can be found at Applications > [APPLICATION NAME] > Contents > Resources.

Right-click on the application and choose Show Package Contents
Right-click on the application and choose Show Package Contents.

You can create new menu bar icons using the defaults you find in the Resources folder as templates in an image editor. If you have downloaded replacement menu bar icons, you can simply copy the new icons into the application's Resources folder.

Tip: You can't use just any Mac-compatible icons in the menu bar, so if you're replacing your icons with a set downloaded from the the internet, make sure they are menu bar-specific.

Find the menu bar icons in the applications Resources folder
Find the menu bar icons in the application's Resources folder.

Any new icons must have the same names as the icons they are replacing, or your menu bar icon won’t function properly. It’s a good idea to create backups of the original icons before copying your new icons to the Resources folder, just in case anything goes wrong or you want to get the originals back. Remember that when you update any applications with edited menu bar icons, those icons will revert to the default, so keep copies of both your original and new menu bar icons.

Mac OS X System Items

It’s more or less the same process to change the Mac OS X system menu bar icons, but they can be a little trickier to get to. They aren’t obvious in your Applications folder like third-party apps, and you’ll have to do a bit of digging to get to everything.

Luckily, just about all of them can be found in the same place, more or less. Navigate to Hard Disk > System > Library > CoreServices > Menu Extras. Don’t try getting into your Library folder by holding down Command while clicking the Go menu in Finder, because you’ll end up in the wrong Library folder; you need to go through the System folder first.

Most of the system menu items will be in the Menu Extras folder
Most of the system menu items will be in the Menu Extras folder.

Locate the MENU file you need. Just as before in the Applications folder, right-click and choose Show Package Contents. You’ll find the icons you’re looking for at [MENUITEM.menu] > Contents > Resources. Again, it’s a good idea to create a backup of the Mac OS X default menu bar icons.

Not all of the OS X menu bar items are located in the Menu Extras folder, though. The Spotlight icon can be found at Hard Disk > System > Library > CoreServices > Search.bundle; as before, right-click, choose Show Package Contents, and locate the Resources folder. The Airport menu bar icons are located at Hard Disk > System > Library > PrivateFrameworks > CoreWLANKit.framework > Resources, as of OS X Lion.


Use Bartender to Manage Your Menu Bar

Bartender is a third-party application that will create a second, hidden menu bar. Bartender can either control a menu bar item in the Bartender bar, or it can completely hide the menu bar item. You can access any of your Bartender menu bar items by clicking on the Bartender icon in your menu bar.

Click on the Bartender icon and select Preferences
Click on the Bartender icon and select Preferences.

To add an item to the Bartender bar, click on the Bartender menu bar icon and select the Preferences cog icon. In your Bartender preferences, each of your menu bar items will be included in an alphabetized list. Select the one you want to add to the Bartender bar, and choose how you want it to be displayed in the dropdown.

Decide how the icon will be displayed
Decide how the icon will be displayed.

If the menu bar icon is used to display application updates, set its behavior here as well. Bartender can display the icon briefly in the OS X menu bar before moving it back to the Bartender bar.

There tend to be fewer options for OS X system icons, but you can still move them to the Bartender bar or hide them completely.

Hide an OS X system icon or move it to the Bartender bar
Hide an OS X system icon or move it to the Bartender bar.

If you want to access all of your Bartender-controlled menu bar icons in the OS X menu bar, click the Bartender icon and then the Preferences icon, and select Show All Menu Bar Items. Everything in your Bartender bar will be zipped up to the menu bar. To get everything back into the Bartender bar--or to have Bartender reclaim an icon after an application alert relaunch--click the Preferences icon in the Bartender menu again, but this time select Control Menu Bar Items.

There are lots of neat things you can do with Bartender, like choose from a range of icons to represent Bartender in your menu bar or set your own, right from the application preferences. You can also hide Bartender altogether and only bring it to the front with a hotkey shortcut.

My favorite feature of Bartender, besides the fact that it hides my menu bar icon addiction, is that it lets me easily move around and reorder my menu bar icons. Holding down Command while dragging icons around works great if you only need to move around system icons, but with Bartender running, any menu bar icons, including those belonging to third-party applications, can be moved around. Using Bartender eliminates the ability to drag system icons off of the menu bar entirely, though, but you can always just exit Bartender if you really need to do that, and relaunch it when you’re done.


Use Broomstick to Manage Your Menu Bar

If you’re looking for an alternative to Bartender, Broomstick is a good one to try. Broomstick is free and comes with some of the basic functions of Bartender, and while it can’t stand up to the laundry list of features that comes with Bartender, it may be enough for your needs.

When you open Broomstick, you’ll be presented with a menu of actions Broomstick can perform. Whatever changes you make with Broomstick are saved when you quit the app.

Broomsticks menu lays out all of its options
Broomstick's menu lays out all of its options.

Hide an App will remove its icon entirely from your menu bar, and Show an App will restore the icon. The dilemma is that Broomstick isn’t compatible with all applications and can only control the few you see in the Hide and Show lists. If the application isn’t in the list, you can submit a request that it be added with the next update, but until then, you’re out of luck.

Hide icons with Broomstick but only for certain applications
Hide icons with Broomstick, but only for certain applications.

The Customise Order of Menubar Icons option allows you to reorder your third-party application menu bar icons without being able to drag them around. Instead, you must list them in order for Broomstick, which will then reorder them in your menu bar. It can be a laborious process if you have a ton of icons in your menu bar like I do, but it gets the job done.

List all of your applications in the order youd like them to appear in your menu bar
List all of your applications in the order you'd like them to appear in your menu bar.

One Last Thing...

I’ve got a bonus for you. It doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the actual menu bar, but this modification does sit up there with your menu items. Sure, it’s not really about changing the menu bar, but I like you, and this is a neat customization to hide the Apple icon, so I wanted to let you in on the secret.

Were making a camouflage image to cover the Apple icon and you can get it in any color you want
We're making a camouflage image to cover the Apple icon, and you can get it in any color you want.

You’ll need GeekTool installed and have a suitable image. I recommend one of the Red Ribbon Color Mods available for download at DeviantArt, but there are lots of others available there and elsewhere, easily found with a search for “red ribbon” or “corner ribbon.”

With the GeekTool window open, drag a new image geeklet to your desktop. Browse to your image file’s location by clicking Set local path... Select Keep on Top, so that your image will hover over the menu bar.

Set the image’s position to the upper left of the geeklet; this won’t move your image to the top of the display, but it will make it easier to set your geeklet image’s final position later. You’ll also want to designate a nice long refresh rate so your Mac isn’t constantly using resources to reload the image.

Set the local path for your image in your GeekTool geeklet
Set the local path for your image in your GeekTool geeklet.

Once you’ve got your geeklet set up, move it into position over the Apple menu icon. The best position for your image will depend on your display settings. You can also place the top of your image above your menu bar if the bottom seems to hang down too far into your application windows. Just grab the geeklet and drag it upwards.


Final Thoughts

We’ve looked at several ways to customize your menu bar and manage menu bar icon clutter. Not only did we make good use of built-in options, including those in System Preferences, but we also looked to some great third-party applications to help execute the perfect menu bar. We even finished it off with a ribbon!

Do you have any menu bar tips or tricks you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments!

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