During my years of supporting Windows users, I’ve noticed that even though the Start menu provides an excellent place to keep application shortcuts, many people prefer to store the application shortcuts as icons on the desktop—this is true even in Windows XP, with its new and improved Start menu. Of course, having the icons appear on the desktop can make launching applications a snap. However, I’ve often encountered desktops that are so cluttered with icons that it’s quite difficult for the user to locate the one icon that they’re looking for. And that definitely reduces productivity.

In these situations, my first instinct is to play up the virtues of the Start menu and encourage people to use it as the main application-launching platform rather than the desktop. However, I’ve discovered that once people become addicted using icons on the desktop, it’s difficult to break that habit.

The idea of placing icons on the desktop is not a new one. In fact, back in the days of Windows 3.x, the main application-launching platform, Program Manager, was basically a bunch of icons on the desktop. While Program Manager had its drawbacks, it did provide a very nice organizational structure, called Program Groups, for organizing icons, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A
Even with all its faults, Program Manager did provide you with a nice desktop-based organizational structure.

With this in mind, I set out to find a way to combine the structure provided by Program Groups with the openness of the current Windows desktop to create a better icon management system for those people who seem to hate the Start menu. The result is a technique I call virtual program groups.

Essentially, the virtual program groups technique is an organizational system in which you use a graphics application to create a wallpaper image that displays grouping structure on the desktop. You can then arrange icons on the desktop according to the grouping structure displayed on the wallpaper.

I’ll show you how to create virtual program groups and use them to organize icons on the desktop. You can then teach this technique to the people you support, who in turn will benefit from a more organized approach to launching their applications.

The planning stage
The first step in implementing the virtual program groups technique is to plan the desktop layout. To begin, you’ll want to remove any existing wallpaper and set the background to a solid color. Next, you’ll simply drag the icons around on the desktop and arrange them into categories. As you do so, write down some names that you can assign to each of the categories.

Once you’ve settled on a layout, you’ll need to align the icons horizontally and vertically according to the desktop’s internal spacing grid. If you’re using Windows 9x/Me/2K, right-click the desktop and choose the Line Up Icons command. If you’re using Windows XP, right-click the desktop, open the Arrange Icons By submenu, and make sure that the Align To Grid option is enabled. Then select the Refresh command. Check out this sidebar to learn more about adjusting the desktop’s internal spacing grid.

On my example system, I had 25 icons on the desktop, which I was able to arrange into six logical categories, each containing four desktop icons, as shown in Figure B. Due to its unique properties, I decided to leave the Recycle Bin on its own.

Figure B
On this example system, I arranged 24 desktop icons into six logical categories containing four icons each.

After arranging the desktop icons, I came up with the following six names to use as the titles for my virtual program groups:

  • ·        File Management
  • ·        Databases
  • ·        Microsoft Office
  • ·        Internet Access
  • ·        Multimedia
  • ·        Utilities

Paring down the number of icons

As you can see, having a smaller and even number of icons on the desktop makes it very easy to come up with neatly arranged logical categories. Of course, having a larger number of icons can make arranging the icons into categories a bit more difficult. Therefore, I suggest that you take a look at reducing the number of icons on your desktop to those that you use most frequently. You can then rely on the Start menu to launch those applications you use less frequently.

Creating a template
Once you’ve organized the icons on your desktop, you’ll need to create a template for your virtual program groups wallpaper. You’ll begin by taking a screen shot of your desktop and pasting the image into your graphics program. You’ll then use this image as the foundation on which to create the template. While you can use any graphics program you want, Windows’ native Paint program will do just fine.

To take a screen shot of your desktop, close all open applications and press the [Print Screen] key to place an image of your desktop on the clipboard. Next, launch Paint, maximize the window, and then press [Ctrl]V to paste the image of your desktop in Paint’s workspace. Before you begin editing the image, I suggest that you save the image file twice—once as a backup and once as a working template. You’ll then edit the working template and keep the backup in case you mess up and want to start all over.

Now, select an appropriate color, choose the Rectangle or Rounded Rectangle tool, and then frame the first group of icons. Then, use the Text tool to add a title to the top of the group, as shown in Figure C. You’ll then repeat these steps for each of your icon groups.

Figure C
You can use either the Rectangle or Rounded Rectangle tool to frame your virtual program groups.

Once you’ve created your virtual program groups, you need to remove the shortcut icons and the Taskbar from the image. To do so, select and use the Pick Color tool to add the background color of your image to Paint’s color box. Next, select the Eraser tool and carefully erase the icons and the Taskbar from the image. When you finish, your image will contain only your virtual program group frames, as shown in Figure D. At this point, save the image file.

Figure D
Once you erase the icons and the Taskbar, you’ll end up with an image that contains only your virtual program group frames.

Enabling the virtual program groups 
Now that you’ve created your template, enabling the virtual program groups technique is a snap. To do so from within Paint, pull down the File menu and select the Set As Wallpaper (Centered) command. Then, close Paint. When you do, your desktop will look like the one shown in Figure E.

Figure E
Once you set the image as wallpaper, your virtual program groups are enabled.

Saving the desktop icons’ positions
As you know, the icons on your desktop are volatile. In other words, you can move your icons wherever you want on the desktop. This also means that Windows can move the icons. For example, if you right-click the desktop and select any of the commands on the Arrange Icons (By) submenu, Windows will move the icons out of their virtual program groups:

  • ·        By Name
  • ·        By Type
  • ·        By Size
  • ·        By Date
  • ·        Auto Arrange

When this happens, you have to manually move the icons back into their virtual program groups.

You can avoid this manual procedure with the help of a little shareware utility called IconSaver from Core Project. IconSaver is shareware and costs $5 to register.

As its name implies, IconSaver will memorize the positions of all the icons on your desktop and allow you to easily restore them to their original position if they get moved. Once you install IconSaver, you’ll see its icon in the system tray.

All you need to do is right-click the IconSaver icon and select the Save Icons command. Then, if the icons are accidentally moved, you just right-click the IconSaver icon and select the Restore Icons command. When you do, all the icons will be returned to their previous positions.

An optional touch
There’s one more thing that you can do to make your virtual program groups look more like Program Manager, and that is to remove the arrow from the shortcut icons. Fortunately, you can do so with the Windows XP PowerToy TweakUI, which you can download from the Microsoft PowerToys for Windows XP Web page on the Microsoft site.

Once you download and install TweakUI, launch it and access the Explorer | Shortcut page. Here, you can configure the Shortcut Overlay setting to adjust the way the arrow appears on shortcut icons, as shown in Figure F. As you can see, you can choose a regular arrow, a near-invisible arrow, no arrow, or a custom overlay.

Figure F
The Shortcut page in TweakUI allows you to adjust the Shortcut Overlay in order to remove the arrow from the icons.

To remove the arrow completely, select the None option. Then, click OK. When you do, the arrow will be removed from all the shortcut icons on the desktop. You may also notice that this procedure rearranges your icon layout. If that happens, you can simply right-click the IconSaver icon and select the Restore Icons command to restore the icons to their previous positions.

As you can see in Figure G, the virtual program groups are much cleaner looking with the arrows removed from the shortcut icons.

Figure G
Without the arrows, the virtual program groups are much cleaner looking.