Ditch the Dock and Other Visual Clutter

by Chris Howard Aug 07, 2006

A lot of people can’t work with a messy desk. Personally I go through cycles. When I’m really struggling and feeling swamped, it’s usually because my desk is swamped too. Cleaning it up can be very therapeutic.

Computer desktops and users can suffer the same problem. And it’s not just the desktop, but everything you see on the screen: icons, windows, toolbars, Dock, pictures and so on. When you have to concentrate, these provide a lot of visual clutter and distraction. I wrote about Scrivener a few weeks ago and as I write I’m using it and have black text on an off-white screen and nothing else. I’m over visual clutter. It’s like loud music you don’t like when you’re trying to think.

The problem with a lot of this visual clutter is it’s designed to be what? Eye catching. And that it is. It happens subconsciously and if you don’t believe it’s going on, get hold of Scrivener or WriteRoom and try them in full screen. It really makes a difference. (Although I don’t like their default color schemes – find them a bit hard to look at.)

Eye catching
People in advertising and graphic design know all the tricks about drawing your eye to a certain spot on the page, and they know how to make your eye travel a path around the page. A poorly designed page that confuses the eye becomes tiring and annoying. Icon and interface designers attempt to design icons that are both pleasing and appealing to the eye. Eye catching.

So what is happening on our cluttered computer screens? They are full of eye catching icons and so on, subconsciously pulling our eyes every which way. No wonder so many people get eye strain from using computers.

And then, all of a sudden, I’d had enough. Time to lose the clutter.

The Dock goes first
One piece of clutter that was really annoying me was the Dock. Yes it’s a thing of beauty, full of gorgeous icons… gorgeous eye catching icons. Icons that often have little “Look at me” prompts, such as new mail or newsfeed counts.

Yes, I’ve tried the “Hide” option but it annoys me when the Dock pops up everytime my mouse brushes the bottom of the screen.

What’s the Dock for anyway? It tells you when you’ve got mail, it tells you what apps are running and gives a quick way to launch your favorite apps. It is designed to distract you.

So I searched the ‘net and found Chaotic Software’s Dock Disabler was just what I wanted. A few minutes later I had no Dock and its visual assault.

Next I ran sterCleanDesk to get rid of the desktop clutter. The sterCleanDesk download link is dead but I’ve put a copy on my site, QwertyRash.

In Finder’s preferences I disabled display of anything on the desktop. And in applications I started hiding toolbars – except Safari. Safari’s toolbars aren’t visually assaulting. There’s a silver button in the top right of many application’s windows for easily hiding toolbars.

Everything was looking quite promising until I started discovered the impact of disabling the Dock. Here’s the list of what doesn’t work when you disable the Dock:
- Minimize applications
- Dashboard
- Set desktop picture
– Command-tab application switching
- Exposé

Unfortunately, I did need Dashboard and application switching. The command-tab application switcher has the advantage that it shows you message counts for Mail and other apps, and of course, is very effective at application switching.

Further hunting turned up Sideburn’s DockBlock which is a menubar app that includes a list of running applications, reconnects the Exposé keys (albeit, slow response) and has a simplistic command-tab application switcher. But it still didn’t give me the Dashboard back.

Life without the Dock. Plan ‘B’
Okay, I decided I’d have to re-enable the Dock but just hide it out of the way where I wouldn’t bump it into life too often. Therefore, I turned on auto-hide, shrunk it as small as it would go and moved it to the right of screen. Afterwards I moved it to the left as I have dual screens so it’s way out of the way over there.

Next was to find a suitable Dock substitute that would reside in the menubar. Again there are a few options: SwitchBlade; Application Switcher Menu (ASM);DockBlock and more. But I discovered I already had one that did the job just fine, in ClawMenu (formally PiquantMenu)

With command-tab still active and ClawMenu’s active applications menu I am quite happy with my application switching options. Application switching with command-tab is very simple. Press command-tab, wave your mouse over the application to switch to and release. No click required.

One other little application I’ve been playing with which is a clever way of reducing visual distraction of background applications is Doodim. It dims or blacks out the background applications which goes a long way to helping your eyes focus on the foreground app.

Another habit to get into to reduce screen clutter is pressing command-option-H. This hides all the background applications. ASM has the option to do this automatically when switching applications which I like, but sometimes you don’t want it to happen all the time.

Overflow, my favorite application launcher, is also running all the time, so I can simply switch to it to launch apps.

It didn’t take long to discover in iChat I’d miss responses. (Sorry Hadley and Chris – I wasn’t ignoring you!) I’d relied on the bouncing icon of the Dock to tell me when someone responded. With mail I relied on the new mail count changing.

Growl to the rescue. Growl is a long time favorite app which I’ve now configured to notify me when I get new email, and when someone responds in a chat session. To do this, I installed the GrowlMail extension, and the Chax iChat extension. Chax comes with a raft of other features, such as auto-reconnect on disconnection, and is well worth a look whether you’ve got Growl or not.

I’ve found a few advantages of ditching the Dock. Besides the removal of the visual distraction of the Dock, my next favorite benefit is that I’ve gained an extra half-inch of real estate across the bottom of my screen. This is significant on a laptop with its smaller vertical height. Plus I’ve learned a few key strokes to improve producticvity.

There are disadvantages. A sense of disconnectedness can be disconcerting. The feeling that you might be missing something. You can get over that insecurity. Especially with Growl.

Some people will suggest that Growl is distracting with its notifications. That it is. The difference is they aren’t there all the time and you can control which ones display.

The Application menu
It would be nice if Apple reinstated the old Applications menu which showed active applications.  Make it a fully-featured Dock alternative too. Make it optional though and likewise give the Dock a permanently hidden feature, but without losing Exposé, Dashboard and so on.

Come one Steve, can you just squeeze this into Leopard?

All clean
So there you go. A nice clean distraction-limited desktop. The image with this article shows my lovely distraction free screen. It works for me and you might want to give it a try too because you just might find it works for you too.

And if anyone has any tips of their own for reducing screen clutter, let us know.

Some of the applications mentioned here have been previously reviewed on Apple Matters. Here are links to those reviews:





  • I personally LOVE the dock. I think it’s beautiful, and I run it on the right side because it feels more natural to go to then the bottom.

    stephencolon had this to say on Aug 07, 2006 Posts: 15
  • Your article is clipped off at the end.

    You have your second monitor to the left of your main screen? How odd. Are you left handed? I’ve tried that and it just doesn’t work for me, I have to have the second monitor to the right of my Powerbook.

    planetmike had this to say on Aug 07, 2006 Posts: 23
  • Hmm. Apparently reducing visual clutter leads to abrogated articles. Your Mac is talking to you, man. It’s saying, “Don’t deprive me of all my GUI goodness!” You know, like “let iCab smile”? Maybe that’ll teach you not to block the dock, yo!

    Aurora77 had this to say on Aug 07, 2006 Posts: 35
  • I don’t have any real problem with the Dock, although I’d really love a way to set it to double-click instead of single-click launching of applications.  Any way to do this?

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Aug 07, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • Fixed! (Inadvertent) part 2 is now there. No idea what happened. Maybe you’re right Aurora. smile

    planetmike: My monitor is on the left mainly because of confined space. On a different desk I had it above which was way cool.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Aug 07, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • I found this article useful.  I also dislike the dock’s distraction and limits of monitor space on my Macbook.  However, I do need the expose’ and command-tab app switching features also.

    I use Path Finder (http://www.cocoatech.com/) instead of the Finder which I find burns through my CPU for no reason when no other apps are running.  Path Finder is great and quite customizable. 

    I also use Quicksilver (http://quicksilver.blacktree.com/) and have a few great keyboard shortcuts designated for everything I really need.  I have disabled Spotlight and soley use Quicksilver and Path Finder.

    Now why can’t I just make the dock go away without using the other functions that go along with it?

    Theoretically I could use Path Finder’s menubar drop down to switch apps instead of command-tab, but it involves mousing.

    Any ideas?

    dcgray had this to say on Oct 05, 2007 Posts: 1
  • Thanks for the tips.  I like keeping my workspace as streamlined as possible.  As an artist, my left hand is always hovering over the keyboard to access tools, menus, apps while my right has the wacom pen ready to paint, tweak, and adjust any menu that I spring open with a quick command.

    I still don’t know of a shortcut key to quickly hide all applications and have only the Finder active.  Kind of like the “Windows+D” for desktop on a PC.  Any tips on that?

    I’m going through the sites of your suggested software.  Thanks again.  It’s good to know I’m not the only one who likes to get straight to the point when it comes to OS navigation.

    digitalpops had this to say on Nov 07, 2007 Posts: 1
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