Making Mission Control and Spaces Work for You

The MacBook Air is all the rage these days and with its small form factor awesomeness comes its small screen. This can be a blessing and a curse, especially for someone that uses a bunch of apps and may be used to using them side-by-side on larger screens. Luckily, with the new advancements of OS X Lion’s virtual type of desktops (which Apple calls Spaces and has integrated into Mission Control), you can create a pretty standard way to view and use your apps. Not to mention organize them so they aren’t all over the place (I’m looking at you, Safari).

1. Create some spaces

There is a couple of ways to do this. If you haven’t turned off Lion’s gestures, simply swipe up on your trackpad with three or four fingers. If you don’t have a trackpad or have gestures turned off, then simply click Mission Control in your dock or Applications folder.

Once there, put your mouse all the way up to the right and you will see a ‘plus’ sign appear. Click on it to add a space. You can add up to 16.

2. Assign apps

Now that you have some spaces created you can start assigning apps to each space. Say you want to assign Safari to space (desktop) 4. Go to a Safari window, click and drag the window’s title bar to the left or right edge of your screen to move it to another Space. Or, get into Mission Control mode (swipe up with 3 or 4 fingers or click on the app) and drag the window to whichever space you want it in.

Once you have the app in the space that you want to assign it to, go to your Dock, control-click on the app, choose “Options”. Under “Assign To” choose “This desktop.” Now, anytime you open another windows or instance of the app, it will open it on the desktop that you selected. Talk about being a high-strung Mac, dude.

This can be pretty darn handy when you want to group some apps. Case-in-point is when I want to use BBEdit and Marked in the same window. I just assign them to the same desktop and I’m done.

What about full screen mode?

I personally love full screen mode in Lion and use it like crazy on three main apps: OmniFocus, iCal, and Sparrow. But, anything else where I am comfortable with more than one app in the window, I assign to a desktop (like BBEdit and Marked, or Safari, Tweetdeck, and Reeder).


You are going to set this up and be so happy that you can swipe left and right between all of your apps as well as be comforted with the fact that all of your apps’ windows will be in one place. That is until you start to see the quirkiness of Mission Control.

You will notice that if you make some apps a full screen mode app it will “dislodge” it from its space and create a totally separate space with the name of the app, even if you assigned it to a space. This will then leave you with the Space that it was assigned to in front of it in Mission Control view.

Another weird one. When you pull up your dock and click on an app that is assigned to a Space, rather than just moving you all the way to that Space, Mission Control will move that Space directly to the right or the left of the Space that you are in and then move you to it. This basically screws up the order of your Spaces (meaning that you nice, Desktop 1, 2, 3, 4 order can easily turn into Desktop 1, 4, 2, 3). This sort of behavior also happens to Spaces that are full screen apps.

Sounds confusing, huh? Yeah, it is. But you can turn this type of behavior off by going to Settings, Mission Control, and unchecking “Automatically rearrange spaces on most recent use”. This will allow you to arrange your space anyway you want and then they will be “locked” in that order.

In conclusion

It’s easy to assign apps to Spaces (desktops) in Lion which will make your small 13“ or 11” screen not seem too limiting. Also, the ability to keep track of those pesky Safari windows is always an added bonus.