The Mac Keyboard Shortcuts You Didn’t Know About

By on June 11th, 2012

Being probably the last designer in the world who’s a PC instead of a Mac (and likes it that way), I had some adjusting to do during my first week at Barrel. I spent some time figuring out why all my windows kept flying off my screen every 3 seconds, how to take screenshots of a browser, and how to bring up a window without minimizing or moving away everything on top of it.

Since my first day, I have gotten a lot better at navigating through a Mac. I’m used to working with keyboard shortcuts on my PC however, which makes getting things done a lot faster and more efficient. While most people know that Ctrl/Cmd + S saves documents or Ctrl/Cmd + F brings up the Find dialog box, there are always those few hidden shortcuts that nobody knows about. Here are some that you will find useful, or just cool.

1. Dictionary on the Fly

Press Ctrl + Cmd + D to see definitions quickly.

When you’re reading on a Mac, sometimes you need to quickly define a word. Instead of getting out a copy of Webster’s Dictionary or looking it up online, you can use this shortcut. In certain applications (browsers, sticky notes), pressing Control + Command + D opens up a dialog box with definitions from the built-in Mac OS X dictionary. If you click ‘more’,  the Mac dictionary opens up in another window with multiple definitions, a thesaurus, and a Wikipedia entry of your selected word.

2. Drag and Drop Text

A one-step technique to saving things you find online.


This is something you definitely can’t do on a PC. If I wanted to take a paragraph out of Chrome and put it into a document, I would have to select it, copy it, open up a text-editing application, paste it, and then save it. Macs let you all this in one step (instead of five).

To quickly save a snippet of text, simply select it and drag it to your desktop. Make sure you click and hold over the selected text for half a second before you start dragging; otherwise, your Mac will think you want to edit the selection and won’t let you drag it. The selected text will appear in a TextEdit file, waiting there until you’re ready to use it. You can also drag the text into an email draft to quickly forward a tip or quote you found to somebody else.

If you like working with stickies instead of TextEdit, select the text you want and press Command + Shift + Y) to make a new sticky note.

3. Switching in the Same Application

I figured out pretty quickly how to switch between different applications, since the keyboard shortcut is essentially the same on a Mac and PC (Cmd/Alt + Tab). However, I still didn’t know how to switch between windows in the same application, so I resorted to either moving the window on top out of the way or choosing between all of my open applications by bringing my cursor to the top left corner of the screen.

Of course, there actually is an easy way of switching in the same application – Command + Tilde ( ~ ). There isn’t a fancy application icon view like when you use Ctrl + Tab, but it saves a ton of time.

If you want to switch between tabs in the same window, press Control + Tab. To quickly jump to a certain tab, use Command + Number of Tab. For example, to get to the third tab from the left, press Command + 3. This only works for up to the 8th tab; Command + 9 instantly jumps to your last tab.

Tip: Cmd + Shift + Tab lets you switch through different applications in reverse direction.

4. Zoom In and Out 

Zoom into an application with Cmd + Plus (+).

There are a couple of ways to zoom in and out on a Mac. To zoom into the active application, press Command + Plus ( + ). To zoom out, it’s Command + Subtract ( – ). To go back to the actual size, press Command + 0. Those are fairly basic commands that translate over from the PC though.

The cool way to zoom that you didn’t know about involves your scroll wheel. If you hold down Control while moving your mouse’s scroll wheel up or down, you not only zoom into the current application, you zoom into your whole screen. You can’t zoom out to a percentage lower than 100% of the actual size, but that actually makes it easy to revert back to 100% after you have zoomed in.

5. Show/Hide Your Dock

Show or hide your dock by pressing Cmd + Opt + D.

If your dock ever gets in the way of your applications (especially if you have a lot going on), you can toggle the visibility by pressing Command + Option + D. The dock will slide off of your screen until you want to see it again. If you want to access something from your dock quickly without completely bringing it back up, it’s still there when you move your cursor to the top left of the screen.

6. Screen Captures

Most veteran Mac users know how to get a screen shot, but there are so many different ways of doing it that screen captures can get confusing anyway. I definitely wouldn’t have guessed how to do it without some help from Barrel members, but even they had to think twice about which exact keys to press.

Here’s a whole list of ways to get a screen shot:

Command + Shift + 3 - Capture a screen to a file (dropped onto your desktop)
Command + Control + Shift + 3 - Capture a screen to your clipboard
Command + Shift + 4 - Select an area to be captured to a file
Command + Control + Shift + 4 - Select an area to be captured to your clipboard
Command + Shift + 4 + Space - Capture a whole window

And there you go! If you want a challenge, try to press these keys using only one hand – it’s an instant hand cramp.

Tip: Zack told me that if you hold down space after you’ve started selecting an area to capture, you can move the selected area around.

7. Invert Screen Colors

Working at Barrel, or any other office, means staring at a computer screen for eight or more hours on most days. Your body – mostly your butt, wrists, and eyes – will start to protest after a while. Taking walks and stretching helps any stiffness you have from sitting so long, but it doesn’t do much for your eyes.

In order to give your eyes a break every once in a while, you can invert all the colors on your screen by using Command + Option + Control + 8. After looking at black text on a white background for a few hours, it’s refreshing to see the opposite: white on black. Designers may be out of luck if they’re working on color palettes, but everybody else will love it!

I wish I could give you a screenshot of the inverted screen, but my Mac won’t let me. Maybe there’s a shortcut I’m missing.

8. Shortcuts You Might Have Known

Part of my PC-to-Mac adjustment phase (not that it’s completely over) consisted of re-learning my favorite keyboard shortcuts that I use on the PC. Here are some great time-saving keyboard shortcuts you might know already, but are incredibly useful things to learn if you don’t.

Command + Option + Esc - Brings up the force quit dialog when something crashes
Command + Q - Quit application
Command + R - Refresh
Command + Delete - Move something to trash

Command + W - Close window
Command + Option + W - Close all windows
Command + H - Hide window
Command + Option + H - Hide other windows

F10 - Show all windows for current application
F12 - Shows dashboard

I hope you’ve found some keyboard shortcuts that will make your life a little easier. Feel free to share some of the shortcuts you love in the comments.

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  1. Nashaad says:

    Click on desktop, i.e. have the default finder app in focus and Command+Shift+Delete lets you delete trash.

  2. h00pak says:

    And command+0 to pull up a program window that you may have minimized to to the dock! I would have saved so many hours and mouse clicks had I known that one…

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