Dealing with a dysfunctional Desktop

It’s amazing how disruptive a single preference setting can prove. Given the lamentable lack of documentation for Finder’s hidden preferences, when someone ends up with a misconfigured preference, tracking it down can be frustrating.

Nick asked me why his Desktop didn’t work properly. When he tried to drag files and folders to it, they appeared in the Finder’s listing of its contents, but not on the Desktop itself, no matter what he set in Finder’s Preferences.

As there’s nowhere that documents all the hidden and ever-changing preference settings you can change using the defaults tool, the normal way to discover whether there’s a setting that might control a feature is to list them all, in this case using a command like
defaults read > ~/Documents/FinderPrefs.text

While that doesn’t tell you what each does, names usually give a clue, but in this case there didn’t seem anything promising. I drew a blank, and suggested that as Nick was intending to upgrade macOS shortly, it might vanish in that process. Of course it didn’t, but he did more extensive searching and came up with the solution.

For many years, some users seem to have preferred to hide whatever is on their Desktop, using a Finder preference named CreateDesktop, and the command
defaults write CreateDesktop false; killall Finder
which creates that new preference and sets it to the custom value. As its default is true, because that’s how most of us like our Desktop to behave, when there’s no explicit setting for CreateDesktop, everything works as expected.

Nick’s solution was therefore to enter into Terminal
defaults write CreateDesktop true; killall Finder
which immediately restored normal Desktop function. He could equally have entered
defaults delete CreateDesktop; killall Finder
which would have returned behaviour to the default.

Of course, there’s now another complication in Ventura: Stage Manager, which has an option in its settings to show or hide items displayed on the Desktop. That doesn’t use the CreateDesktop preference at all, but appears to change the Finder’s behaviour quite differently. When CreateDesktop is set to false, Stage Manager’s setting has no effect at all, opening the way for further confusion among users.


Meanwhile, I’m sure there are users with dysfunctional Desktops insisting that it’s the result of a bug in macOS, which was our first suspicion in this case. Perhaps it would be an incentive for Apple to document these hidden preferences in the knowledge that doing so would reduce calls to Apple Support, and Feedback reports for spurious bugs.

I’m very grateful to Nick for solving his own problem, and for telling me the solution.