Using multiple spaces with multiple displays

I use TotalSpaces2 to manage how I use spaces on my MacBook Pro running El Capitan. During a day, I move from a 3 display setup, to a 2 display setup, to a single display setup. This being the case, I have observed different ways of using spaces and multiple displays.

Using a single display with multiple spaces
When using multiple spaces on a single display, everybody basically use “spaces as folders”, i.e. each space contain apps for one activity. When adding additional displays into the setup, there are two (generally speaking) choices.

Using multiple displays with multiple spaces
From reading the TotalSpaces forum, there seem to be two main ways of using spaces with multiple displays:

  1. One activity spread across multiple displays (e.g. video editing) → linked spaces between displays
  2. One activity per display → independent spaces

In the first category, additional displays add screen real-estate and the user has more space to use for each activity. The user is mainly performing one activity at the time. Lets call category 1 users “single activity users”.

For the second use category, additional displays add screen real-estate, and the user uses that space to house additional activities. Instead of additional displays providing more space per activity, additional displays provide space for more activities. Lets call category 2 users “multiple activity users”.

Linking a space to a display vs spaces that exist independently of available displays
I fall into the second category. Basically I am using spaces as containers for activities, but only one display is needed per activity. During a day, I move from a 3 display setup, to a 2 display setup, to a 1 display setup. For me, I do not see a space as linked to a specific display, but rather that applications are linked to a space and the space can be on different displays.

The current behavior when disconnecting a display does not work for me as a multiple activity user. Example of current behavior:

3 display setup
Display 1: Display1 space, Development space, Presentation space
Display 2: Display 2 space, Browsing space
Display 3: Display 3 space, Email/Calendar, Reading space

Disconnecting a display: If I just disconnect a display, the apps move from the space on the disconnected display, but the spaces do not.

Current workaround
I use the following workaround:

  1. One dedicated space per display.
  2. Spaces with names according to activity with different applications assigned to each space.
  3. When going from my 3 display setup to a smaller one, I use Mission Control to move any activity spaces from that display to one of the ones that still will be in use.

Ideal behavior for spaces-as-folders-users
– Spaces exist independently of displays.
– If a display is removed, spaces move to existing displays.
– If the removed display is attached, spaces that lived on that display are moved to that display.

Different philosophy
I realize that this is different from how TotalSpaces2 has envisioned space management. In TotalSpaces2, the number of spaces of a display is important. Each display is configured to have a specific number of spaces. When an activity is not spread across displays one does not need to focus both on how many spaces exist and which displays they exist on, only how many spaces exist.

In other words, rather than thinking of each display having its own pool of spaces, one can think of all displays sharing a common pool of spaces, so just like moving applications between displays, one can move spaces between displays.

Now, El Capitan lets you move spaces between displays, but El Capitan treats spaces as something ephemeral, rather than permanent fixtures. Why this conclusion? Well spaces can not be named, they have names such as Desktop 1, Desktop 2 etc. The numbering also changes depending on the position of the space. If I move Desktop 3 between Desktop 2, the previous Desktop 2 is renamed to Desktop 3, and the previous Desktop 3 is renamed to Desktop 2. Creating and deleting spaces is also very easy which promotes a behavior where you create and delete spaces as you need them.

Anyway, writing this has been interesting for me, as it has helped me explore how a linear increase of the degrees of freedom in an interface does not entail a linear increase in UI and interaction complexity, but rather a exponential increase in UI and interaction complexity.

A “simple” thing like adding desktop space functionality combined with another “simple” thing like adding an additional display can have the result of creating non-trivial interaction and usability issues.

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