The Basics of Using ZIP Archives

It’s recently come to my attention that the general public has never heard of .zip or any other type of compressed archive. The idea of a compressed archive has been around for many many years. It certainly was a very early part of computer science. This article is intended to help regular people understand why these types of files are useful and how to use them on a very basic level in Windows, Mac OSX and Linux.

This post is not a detailed review of the various types of archive file formats or how they compare to each other. I am talking about .zip because, like the MP3 file format for compressed music, regardless of it being superseded by newer and better technologies it is the most common type of file archive in use today.

What the hell is a ZIP archive?

Archive files, at their most basic, are something like the boxes we put things into for shipping them to other locations. You would never simply write a mailing address on the cover of a book or box of chocolates and drop them in the mail. At the very least you’d wrap them in some tough, opaque brown paper. For something that is soft or fragile you would probably put them in a big brown cardboard box with bubble wrap to protect them on their journey. Of course, you might not be shipping the item at all. You might simply want to put it in a box for safe, organized storage.

For basic purposes all of these uses of a cardboard box are a perfect analogy to an archive file.

Sounds simple. How do I create a ZIP archive?

When it comes to desktop/laptop computers or any computer with a screen, mouse and keyboard there are several different operating systems. In terms of dealing with ZIP archives, however, there’s pretty much only two categories:

  1. Some version of the Windows operating system
  2. Some version or type of UNIX-like operating system
    • Apple Mac OSX
    • UNIX (BSD, Solaris, etc.)
    • Linux (Ubuntu, Fedora, Suse, etc.)

I am making this grand over-simplification because basically every UNIX-like operating system for desktop/laptop use includes software for creating and manipulating .ZIP archives as well as other archive types. Winblows, I mean “Windows,” in my experience never comes with this type of software pre-installed. Okay, maybe sometimes it comes with a free trial version of WinZip, but I find that beginners don’t really understand how to use WinZip. It’s definitely more geared towards advanced users.


Don’t like my snarky comments about Windows, eh? Fine . . .

In order to bring Windows up to par with other computers you can install the free-and-open-source 7zip application. Go to and click on the top-most “Download” link to download the 7zip installer for Windows. Run the installer. Once installed continue reading.

Creating a ZIP Archive

  1. On your desktop create a new folder called “brownbox” (or whatever you want, there’s nothing magical about the title “brownbox”).
  2. Copy some photos or word processor files to this folder.
  3. Right-click on the folder and, from the resulting menu select one of the following:
    • Windows + 7zip: “Add to archive . . .”
    • Mac OSX: “Create Archive of . . . ”
      Note: If right-click is not enabled on your system you can click-and-hold or press the Control/Ctrl key + mouseclick to access the contextual menu.
    • UNIX/Linux: “Compress”
  4. An archive should be created on the desktop with the same name as your folder. Windows + 7zip and UNIX/Linux will probably ask you where you would like to save the archive while OSX automatically saves it to the same location as the original folder.

Opening a ZIP Archive

I’m using the term “open” pretty loosely here. I think that the general public, wanting to access the contents of an archive file, will most likely want to “Extract” or “Decompress” the contents of the archive into a standard “folder” on their desktop. To do that:

  1. Ask your archive software to extract/decompress the contents of the archive like this:
    • Windows + 7zip: Right-click and click “Extract here”
    • Mac OSX: Double-click on the archive
    • UNIX/Linux: Right-click and click “Extract here”

Again, OSX will automatically save the extracted files to the same location as the original file while Windows + 7zip and UNIX/Linux will generally present a Save As dialog.

So archive files aren’t just for nerds!

Exactly. Let me know if you have any questions.

Great New Book Coming Soon: “Design for Hackers”

Please consider signing up for email updates for this great new book that is intended to help “hackers” learn the basics of design. It’s being written by a very skillful (and good-looking!) designer named David Kadavy. The book will be available September 2011 and the publisher, Wiley, has recently made the book’s website live:

The cover design looks AWESOME.

Art, Failing To Transform, Is Merely That of Which It Is Composed

The world’s “trash problem” is one I’m interested in finding a solution for, but Vik Muniz’s artwork doesn’t interest me at all. There’s nothing brilliant about recreating past works with garbage/food products.

If you have to explain to your viewers why your art is interesting you’ve already failed. No matter how positive or meaningful the message might be. In sports if you lose the game and explain that you lost because whatever, you still lost the game. Now, if you win the game in spite of whatever, well, then you might have the audience’s attention. The art needs to be good before it is even given the chance to be explained.

A sloppy recreation of Jacques-Louis David’s “Death of Marat” is just a poor reproduction of a well-crafted masterpiece that was both great art and meaningful to its contemporary audience. What percentage of today’s population is even familiar with this painting, let alone know who Jean-Paul Marat was?

Jeff Koons’ art is what made Mr. Muniz realize he “could be an artist too”. Good grief, Charlie Brown, a 5th-generation Dada-ist. Just what the world was begging for: another smart-ass with nothing to say other than, “this sucks”. Well, maybe Mr. Muniz has something interesting to say, but he isn’t very good at speaking. Is The New York Times writing about him because he is a philanthropist or because he is an artist?