An Explanation Of The Windows 10 Folder/File System

How To Create A Shortcut Icon Link

Before showing you how to create a Shortcut Icon you first need to know what an Icon actually is - In Windows 10 icons are used to open files, open folders and launch (execute/run) programs and their tasks. So if you have text file called Letter.txt with a Notepad icon attached to it for example, double clicking on that Notepad icon will launch (execute/run) the program called Notepad (Notepad.exe) which in turn will open the text file called Letter.txt, read the text within it and then display that text in its display area (main window pane). So in this case the icon was needed in order to tell Windows 10 which program to launch (execute/run) in order to display the file's text.

If the Notepad program was already open and you used its OPEN File Requester to manually open the Letter.txt text file the icon would not be needed. Put simply; An icon is just used to tell Windows 10 where the actual text file (raw/typed data) is located (i.e. on the computer, on a flash drive, on a dvd, etc) and what program should be used to open it (i.e. Notepad.exe).

A standard icon is basically an image file in its own right, that has a file name extension of .ico, which in normal circumstances you never get to see. You normally only see the image (.ico) file when it has already been attached to a program (executable/code file), folder or file. This is because an image (.ico) file is normally designed/created by a programmer or Windows 10, but not by you.

In the case of a programmer; When they have designed the image, using Icon Editor software, they then save that image as an .ico file before then attaching it to a program (executable/code file) using their Code Editor/Compiler. In the case of Windows 10; Microsoft has already pre-designed and pre-programmed Windows 10 with a set of standard image (.ico) files that are automatically created/used when need be. For example: When you create a New Folder it automatically has the standard Yellow Folder icon (folder .ico file) attached to it.

The Icon Explained

Fig 1.0  The default Notepad icon is just an image file with the filename extension of .ico

The diagram above represents how Windows 10 attaches its default icon file called Notepad.ico to any letter (or note) written with the program called Notepad.exe to produce a text file called Letter.txt in this case.

When ever a letter (or note) is typed in the program called Notepad.exe and then saved, using the SAVE file option or the SAVE AS File Requester, Notepad.exe first copies the typed letter (or note) into a newly created text (.txt) file; named after whatever file name you gave in the SAVE file option or the SAVE AS File Requester. In this example: Letter.txt. At this point though that text file (Letter.txt) has no icon (image/.ico file) attached to it. So the next task for Notepad.exe, before actually saving the text file (Letter.txt) onto the computer or where ever, is to attach its default Notepad icon (Notepad .ico file) to the text file (Letter.txt). When that is done and the text file (Letter.txt) is actually saved, onto your hard drive for example, you end up with a text file (Letter.txt) that has a Notepad icon attached to it. Double clicking on the text file, and more precisely on its Notepad icon, opens up the program called Notepad.exe which in turn reads the text file's raw text and displays it within its display area (main window pane).

The Letter (raw/typed text) is displayed by the program (Notepad.exe) and not by the actual icon. Windows 10 is the one that says "When an icon is double clicked on open up its associated program". In turn, that associated program then opens the text file (which is attached to the icon remember) in order to read and then display the actual text within the text file. Windows 10 knows which program is the associated program because that information is stored inside the icon (alongside the image). So the icon (.ico file) stores the Associated Program information, File Size and File Name information, as well as the Image. And the .txt file stores the actual wording (raw/typed text).

You can tell what associated program will be opened when you double click on a file (i.e. on the Letter.txt file) either by looking at the, distinctive, icon attached to the file (i.e. the Notepad logo icon) or by right clicking over the file (over the Letter.txt Notepad icon) to view its PROPERTIES. Right click over an icon to bring up its context (Options) menu and then select (left click on) the PROPERTIES menu-item. Note: "Clicking on a file" and "Clicking on an icon" are treated as the same thing because of the fact the two are attached/associated to each other.

The Icon Explained

Fig 1.1  Right click over an icon to select its PROPERTIES

The Icon Explained

Fig 1.2  Click on the CHANGE button to change the associated program the icon refers to

Looking at the PROPERTIES of the Letter.txt file (Fig 1.2 above) you can see it OPENS WITH the program called Notepad by default. Or put another way; Its associated program is Notepad. This is because the TYPE OF FILE (file type) is a text (.txt) file and because Windows 10 is currently set to associate any file with the .txt file name extension to OPEN WITH the program called Notepad. This association can be changed though by clicking on the CHANGE button. Doing so will bring up the OPEN WITH requester whereby you can then change the default associated program that opens text files.

The Icon Explained

Fig 1.3  The OPEN WITH requester allows you to change the program that opens a particular type of file

The CHANGE (OPEN WITH) option is especially good if you want to change the associated program for .jpg (picture) files (i.e. change which program opens photo files) or .mp3 (music) files (i.e. change which program opens music files) for example but not really good for .docx (Microsoft Word 2016) files as not many programs can open Word 2010 files....yet. In other words, there are many programs that can open photo files, music files and text files, but not many that can open Microsoft Word 2016 document (.docx) files. Program Association can also be tackled using the Default Programs control panel.


A shortcut icon is the same as a normal icon, as described above, except that it is not attached to a file directly. It is associated via a Link instead and more precisely links to a path name or file. Hence why it is also known as Shortcut Link.

An .ico file is attached directly to a file in the case of a Notepad text file for example, as described above, but if you wanted to create a shortcut icon for that Notepad text file it would only be a link to that text file, which is not a bad thing. In fact, a shortcut icon can be very helpful. For example: Imagine you have the Letter.txt file on your Flash Drive in a sub-sub-folder called Notes in a sub-folder called Office Files but can not be bothered to double click through that folder path (Flash Drive >> Office Files >> Notes) all the time just to open the Letter.txt text file. A better solution would be to create a shortcut icon for that text file.

To create a shortcut icon for a file simply right click over the file you want to create a shortcut icon for, to bring up its context (Options) menu, and then select (left click on) the CREATE SHORTCUT menu-item. This will then create a shortcut icon inside that file's folder (Fig 2.1 below).

The Icon Explained

Fig 2.0  Left click on the CREATE SHORTCUT menu-item to create a Shortcut Icon for this file

The Icon Explained

Fig 2.1  The shortcut icon has been created, inside the file's own folder.

Once the shortcut icon has been created you then CUT & PASTE it onto your desktop or into another folder on your hard drive for example. In those cases where you need to edit/update a file from more than one computer (i.e. from your computer, from an Internet Café computer, from your Friend's Laptop and so on) it is better to create a shortcut icon that is placed on each desktop of those particular computers. That way when you unplug your flash drive from your computer and plug it into your friend's laptop for example, in order to continue working on your file from their laptop, the shortcut icon you created on their laptop will work each time (as long as your file remains in the same place on your flash drive).

Creating a shortcut icon that is automatically placed on the desktop for you, as opposed to you CUT-ting & PASTE-ing it onto the desktop, is created in the same way as the above shortcut icon except you select the DESKTOP (CREATE SHORTCUT) sub-menu-item from the SEND TO sub-menu.

The Icon Explained

Fig 2.2  Select the DESKTOP (CREATE SHORTCUT) sub-menu-item, after hovering SEND TO, to create a Shortcut Icon.

The above methods of creating shortcut icons, Figures 2.0 and Fig 2.2, can also be used to create shortcuts icons for a folder or sub-folder.

The Icon Explained

Fig 2.3  Click on the CREATE SHORTCUT menu-item to create a Shortcut Icon for this folder

Another way to create a shortcut icon specifically for the desktop is to drag the file (or folder or sub-folder) out of its folder and onto the desktop (Fig 2.4 below). As you drag the file (or folder or sub-folder) out of its folder a little message (tooltip) appears stating COPY TO DESKTOP. When you see this message stop dragging (release the left mouse button) in order to drop the file (or folder or sub-folder) and thus create the desktop shortcut icon. The original file (or folder or sub-folder) will be left alone (remain intact).

The Icon Explained

Fig 2.4  Drag the file out of its folder and over to the desktop in order to create a desktop shortcut icon for it

The same dragging technique can be done with a file, folder, sub-folder or program on the START Menu. A file, folder, sub-folder or program on the START Menu is already a shortcut icon, with a link to its respective file, folder or program. So dragging one of these START Menu items (shortcut icons) onto the desktop is exactly the same as COPY-ing & PASTE-ing that shortcut icon onto the desktop.

Be careful not to release the left mouse button too soon when dragging a START Menu menu item (file, folder, sub-folder or program shortcut icon), otherwise you might drop it and turn it into a START Tile by mistake. You can drop a START Menu menu-item into a main folder if you want to though. In this example (Fig 2.6 below) I have dragged the START Menu menu item (Microsoft Word 2016 shortcut icon) from its original START Menu position (in the APPS section) over to the desktop, passing over the START Tiles on my way (Fig 2.5).

The Icon Explained

Fig 2.5  A shortcut icon can be dropped into the Tiles area of the START Menu.....

The Icon Explained

Fig 2.6  ..... Or it can be dropped onto the DESKTOP as a Shortcut Icon (Link).


Each shortcut icon is represented by an ARROW in its bottom-left corner, - shortcut in its name and behind the scenes it has a file extension name of .lnk (link). Hence why a shortcut icon is also known as shortcut link. If you right click on a shortcut icon, to bring up its context (Options) menu, and then select the PROPERTIES menu-item you will see the path name of the link itself. In this example (Fig 2.8 below) it is C:\Users\John\Pictures\John_Cairns.jpg. If you were to then click on the GENERAL Tab (not exampled here) it would show the associated program for opening a .jpg (photo) file is the program called Photo Gallery.

The Icon Explained

Fig 2.7  Right click over a shortcut icon to view its PROPERTIES

When you click (from the START Menu) or double click (from the DESKTOP) on a shortcut icon its link (shortcut) is followed/visited in order to find the actual file belonging to the shortcut icon (i.e. the file at C:\Users\John\Pictures\John_Cairns.jpg) and in turn to launch the program associated with the actual file (i.e. the program called Photo Gallery) so that the file's data (i.e. photograph) can be read/viewed. So in this example double clicking on the John_Cairns.jpg shortcut icon, located on the desktop, would cause the program called Photo Gallery to open and display the photograph of John Cairns.

The Icon Explained

Fig 2.8  TARGET is the actual shortcut link

The main aim for creating and using a shortcut icon is to avoid clicking through many folders just to get to one file. For example: The PICTURES shortcut icon on the START Menu is a shortcut link to your hard drive (root/main) folder (C: in this example), USERS sub-folder, USER NAME (i.e. John) sub-sub-folder and PICTURES sub-sub-sub-folder. So instead of clicking through four folders just to view your picture files Windows 10 has provided you with the PICTURES shortcut icon (link) to make life easier.

And it can be the same for your own files. If you use a folder or file regularly why not create a desktop shortcut icon for it. You can always store shortcut icons inside a folder on your desktop, called Shortcuts for example, if your desktop becomes full of shortcut icons.

In some cases you have a shortcut icon and want to get to its file or folder (path name) location fast. One way to do this is to click on the OPEN FILE LOCATION button of the SHORTCUT Tab (window) - see the Shortcut Properties window in Fig 2.8 above. And if you want to know which associated program opens the actual file all you need to do is click on the GENERAL Tab (window).

In the following example the Windows Photo Gallery program opens the John_Cairns.jpg picture file. To change the associated program of a file you would click on the CHANGE button, as described in the paragraph immediately above Fig 1.3 above.

The Icon Explained

Fig 2.9  Click on the GENERAL Tab to CHANGE the associated (Open With) program

The path name (link) is also changeable. I could for example change the path name of the John_Cairns.jpg picture file to D:\computer.png, simply by clicking inside the TARGET edit box on the SHORTCUT Tab (window) and editing the path name, but I would have to make sure the path name is valid first (make sure the computer.png picture file exists on the D:\ hard drive) if I don't want Windows 10 to complain at editing time with the error: Problem With Shortcut.


Going back to the .ico (icon) file. If you remember, a data file (i.e. Letter) has an .ico file (i.e. Noteppad.ico) attached to it by the program creating its own kind of file (i.e. Letter.txt). The example below shows how a paint program uses its picture icon (picture.ico file) with your picture/photo data (i.e. picture of John Cairns) to create a .jpg picture file.

It works in the same way as the Notepad icon (Fig 1.0 above) but with one small difference. Windows 10 changes the picture icon (i.e. palette and paint brush) for that of your picture/photo data when the picture file (i.e. John_Cairns.jpg) is viewed as a Thumbnail (i.e. as a Large Icon) only. When you are not viewing the picture file (i.e. John_Cairns.jpg) as a Thumbnail Windows 10 normally reverts to using the icon of the default paint package instead.

The Icon Explained

Fig 2.10  A .jpg file created from the Picture icon and Picture data

The Icon Explained

Fig 2.11  The .jpg file and its shortcut icon

When a file has no program associated with it, perhaps because you do not have the correct software/program installed on your computer or you renamed the file with an unknown file name extension (i.e. john.123az), its icon will be viewable as a psuedo (default or unknown) icon only with no shortcut link due to no program being associated with it.

If it's a case of you renaming the file by mistake with a bad file name extension you can easily rename the file of course, and if the associated program is not installed (i.e. you have a .PDF file but not Adobe Reader installed) you can easily download and install the program, but if the file has no immediately identifiable program associated with it then you will need to double click on the file in order to bring up the OPEN WITH message requester (Fig 2.13 below).

The Icon Explained

Fig 2.12  An unknown file with an extension name of .123az

The Icon Explained

Fig 2.13  Search for an associated program for this unknown file

The above will also apply when you get e-mailed an attachment (attached file) whereby its file type (file name extension) is unknown. In that case you would download (save) the unknown file to your DOWNLOADS folder for example and then try and open it with the OPEN WITH requester. For more general information about this see the paragraph immediately above Fig 1.11 in the Set Default Programs section. That section and its related sections will also give you a better understanding of how file associations and program associations work.