Why did my desktop icons disappear on Mac?

There are only two types of Mac users: those who carefully file away every document, image, or video and audio files in a named folder and those who have a desktop with files scattered all over it. If you’re in the latter group, you may have discovered that your desktop icons can disappear on your Mac. One minute they’re there, and then they’re gone. But why does that happen, and what can you do about it? We’ll explain it all.

Why did my desktop icons disappear on my Mac?

The first thing to understand about the desktop on your Mac is that it’s just a folder like any other. Files can be placed there, moved elsewhere, and deleted. And files can be displayed or hidden. There are a number of possible reasons why desktop icons may have disappeared on your Mac. And most of them can be easily fixed.

  1. Settings in the Finder have changed so that external hard drives and servers are no longer visible on the desktop.
  2. Stacks are enabled in the Finder.
  3. Files that were on the desktop have been moved somewhere else, possibly by an app you have installed to keep your desktop tidy.
  4. You previously used the Desktop & Documents feature in iCloud Drive, and when you reverted back to using the local Desktop folder, the icons disappeared.
  5. The preferences files that determine the settings for the Finder and your desktop have become corrupt.

We’ll show you how to fix all of these possible causes.

Malware removal module of CleanMyMacX

It’s possible that even if you didn’t install it deliberately, third-party software on your Mac is causing the desktop icons to disappear. We’re talking about malware. Software that is downloaded without your knowledge or consent and performs harmful actions like stealing your data or doing things on your Mac without your permission — like making desktop icons disappear. The best way to protect yourself against malware is to use an antimalware tool to scan your Mac regularly to check it. We recommend CleanMyMac X’s Malware Removal module. You can use it to check for malware manually or set it to scan in the background. Either way, it compares the files on your Mac against an up-to-date database of malware and alerts you if it finds anything suspicious. You can download CleanMyMac X for free here.

How to fix it when desktop icons disappear on your Mac

  1. Relaunch the Finder:
    Press Option-Command-Escape to display the Force Quit menu or click the Apple menu and choose Force Quit. Select the Finder and click Relaunch.
  2. Restart your Mac.
  3. Check the Finder Settings:
    Click on the Finder icon in the Dock and then on the Finder menu. Choose Settings and then General. Select the box next to each item you want to appear on the desktop
  4. Turn off Stacks:
    In the Finder, click on the View menu and look for ’Use Stacks.’ If it’s selected, deselect it
  5. Check iCloud Drive: 
    Click on iCloud Drive in the Finder sidebar and navigate to the folder called Desktop. Look inside. If your icons are there, drag them onto your Desktop.
  6. Use Terminal to unhide icons:
    Go to Applications > Utilities and double-click Terminal to open it. Type the following command to unhide desktop icons:
    defaults write com.apple.Finder CreateDesktop true; killall Finder
  7. Replace plist files:
    Plist files hold settings information for applications on your Mac, including the Finder. By removing them from the folder where they are normally stored, you force the application to create a new plist file, which puts the application’s settings back to their default. In the Finder, click on the Go menu, then Go to Folder. Type the following path into the text box: ~/Library/Preferences. Press Return. Look for the two files below, drag them into your Documents folder, and restart your Mac:


If that doesn’t fix the problem, you can put the two files back in the Preferences folder.

Booting up your Mac and discovering that desktop icons have disappeared can be scary. Where have the files and drives gone? Will you ever get them back? It’s also inconvenient if you’re used to opening an external drive by double-clicking it on the desktop. The good news is that your data is likely to be safe. The files still exist; they have just moved elsewhere. The desktop is just a folder like any other, and files can be moved to and from it. In addition to that, settings in Finder can change what’s displayed on the desktop. Follow the steps above to identify the cause of the problem and restore the icons to your desktop.

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