Custom file icons, folder icons, and app icons on different operating systems

I recently extended my website downloader, Crystal, so that the projects it creates have a proper icon on macOS, Windows, and Linux. It was a lot more challenging than I expected!

Crystal organizes a group of downloaded web pages into a project, which is a special folder containing a particular arrangement of files:

$ tree xkcd.crystalproj
xkcd.crystalproj      ← project
├── database.sqlite   ← web page metadata
└── revisions
    ├── 1   ← web page #1 content
    ├── 2   ← web page #2 content
    ├── 3   ← web page #3 content
    ├── 4   ← web page #4 content
    └── 5   ← web page #5 content

My goal was to make each of these projects appear as a file, rather than as a folder, and to open in Crystal automatically when it is double-clicked on:

A project
Looks and behaves like a file, but is secretly a folder!

Icons in macOS

On macOS it’s easy to get projects to behave the way I wanted. It’s actually common on macOS for certain types of folders - called bundles - to behave like files. For example apps on macOS are themselves stored as bundles with the .app extension.

To tell macOS that folders ending with .crystalproj are bundles I added the following to Crystal’s Info.plist file, which is included in all macOS applications:

        <string>Crystal Project</string>

The important parts of this Info.plist are:

  • CFBundleTypeExtensions = [‘crystalproj’]
    • Defines the extension used to recognize a project
  • LSTypeIsPackage = true
    • Says that a project is a bundle and therefore should be treated as a file even though it is a folder
  • CFBundleTypeIconFile = “DocIconMac.icns”
    • Defines the name of the .icns icon file to use for a project

Setting the app icon requires similar changes to the Info.plist:



Icons in Windows

On Windows there is no concept of a “bundle”. However it is possible to give a folder a custom icon by putting a specially crafted desktop.ini file inside of it:

$ cat xkcd.crystalproj/desktop.ini
InfoTip=Crystal Project

Diagram showing how to customize a folder's icon on Windows with desktop.ini

It’s even possible to tell Windows to open Crystal when the folder is double-clicked on by setting some registry keys:

Diagram showing how to customize a folder's open action on Windows with registry keys and desktop.ini

Reference explaining how to customize a folder's open action on Windows with registry keys and desktop.ini

However it’s still possible to navigate inside of a such a folder, notably from Open and Save dialogs, so we need another way to open projects in those contexts. My solution was to add a special “opener” file inside of a project folder which could be used to open the enclosing project:

.crystalproj folder containing a .crystalopen opener file

Of course that .crystalopen file itself needs an icon. Again you can set some registry keys to tell Windows about this new file extension and its associated icon:

Diagram showing how to customize a file's icon on Windows with registry keys

And if a .crystalopen file is double-clicked we want it to open Crystal, which can be configured with more registry keys:

Diagram showing how to customize a file's open action on Windows with registry keys

All of these registry keys should be set by the installer for the app.

Icons in Linux

Oh Linux… Icons for files, folders, and apps are displayed by the desktop environment, and multiple such desktop environments exist for Linux. The most common ones (in 2023) seem to be GNOME 3 and KDE, but there’s also xfce, MATE (GNOME 2), and Budgie, among others. Most of these desktop environments strive to implement the Freedesktop Specifications for defining file types & icons, but with varying degrees of compatibility.

According to the Icon Theme Specification, which is one of the Freedesktop Specifications, an application developer should be able to install icons for file types to a special “hicolor” theme which all other themes must eventually inherit from. But there are some problems:

  • GNOME doesn’t seem to implement theme inheritance correctly, so icons installed in the “hicolor” theme aren’t picked up by other themes. So instead of installing there I wrote a script that installed icons to every theme on the user’s system. Nobody on StackOverflow has been able to find a better solution so far.
  • GNOME stores custom icon references for folders in the GIO database but KDE (and the Freedesktop Specification) use .directory files.
  • GNOME has not one but two GIO attributes for storing custom icon references, and not all programs recognize both of them:
    • The metadata::custom-icon-name key references the name of an icon installed to a theme.
      • However the Desktop Icons GNOME Shell Extension, which is responsible for displaying icons on the desktop, does not understand this key!
    • The metadata::custom-icon key references a single icon file.
      • All programs in GNOME seem to understand this kind of key so long as you use an absolute file:// URL rather than an absolute or relative file path.
  • Some programs only recognize PNG icons and other programs only recognize SVG icons, so you must install both PNG and SVG versions of each icon.
    • In particular some programs in KDE only seem to recognize SVG icons even though the Icon Theme Specification implies that support for PNG icons is mandatory.
    • GNOME by contrast seems to prefer PNG icons.
    • If you started with only a raster version of an icon, as I did, you’ll have to vectorize the icon to make it an SVG. I had some success using the Adobe Express PNG to SVG converter tool to make an initial conversion and Inkscape for touching it up.
  • Some programs don’t notice new icons immediately after installing them.
    • KDE’s desktop, Plasma, must be restarted before it notices new icons.
    • KDE’s file manager Dolphin doesn’t seem to notice new icons until it is restarted. Unfortunately I haven’t found a safe way to restart Dolphin without losing information about the windows and tabs it has open.
  • Some programs - notably Open and Save dialogs - aren’t able to scale icons to the size they expect, so you must provide prescaled versions of each icon.
    • Scaling SVG icons isn’t particularly straightforward, but I managed to do so with the rconvert-svg tool.
  • Icons for apps on the desktop don’t show up correctly in GNOME unless you set the metadata::trusted GIO attribute on it.
  • There are probably even more issues in desktop environments other than GNOME 3 and KDE, but I did not test any additional desktop environments.

In short, my experience in getting icons to work in Linux has been a big poorly-documented mess. But after 2 weeks I did succeed!


When creating a desktop application for end users it’s important to get icons for your app and its documents configured correctly to provide a good user experience, but it getting those configurations correct can be challenging.

I’d like to file bugs on several Linux desktop environments so that future Linux application developers don’t have such a hard time getting icons setup, but right now I just don’t have the energy. Hopefully at least this blog post will help other application developers configure icons more quickly.