Computer desktop clutter

There are two types of people in the world — those who are okay with this, and those who aren’t:

Computers have been a part of my daily life since about 1994. The machines and technologies we used back then would be almost unrecognizable today, with one exception: files saved on the desktop. When Apple released the first Macintosh in 1984, it featured what we think of as the desktop today, with files, a trash can, a clock, and little program icons.

Since then, people have taken to saving digital files to the desktop, much as one does with a physical desk. We’ll call these people the “desktop group.” Others prefer to keep things sorted by folders tucked inside the hard drive itself, not visible from the desktop. We’ll call this second group of people the “folders group.”

I have a strong opinion on this, but first let me share both sides. The desktop group would claim that their method keeps everything within sight and within reach. Files that are necessary for the task at hand are right there, as are reference materials that will be useful in the future. This is how Erin works: she has all her files for her current project’s work saved to her desktop and then at the end of a project she carefully organizes everything into folders in her Documents area of her computer. For long-term projects, she makes alias folders on her desktop from her Documents area so that she can save directly to her desktop and access the folders from her desktop, but the files aren’t actually stored there. She says that working from the desktop saves her time during the work day but also allows her to delete temporary files easily so that they don’t clutter up her well-organized Documents area of her computer.

The folder group would assert that the desktop group’s method is cluttered, the icons strewn across the desktop a complete mess that can slow down the memory on the computer, and that a series of clearly-labeled folders is the way to go, despite taking a little navigation to reach them.

Unlike Erin, I fall squarely with the folders group. I really dislike the visual clutter of a desktop strewn with icons and must have my desktop free of as much clutter as my computer will allow. It barely takes me any time at all to save information to well-organized folders and it saves me time later from having to go back and clean up everything.

So, which method do you espouse and why? Let’s see what we can learn from each other.

21 Comments for “Computer desktop clutter”

  1. posted by Leslie on

    I’m a bit of both plus. I will keep the current file I’m working on along with its relevant folder (all very neat) on my desktop for current projects and when they’re finished, they’re moved to my documents section. For projects that I need to access when I travel, those are placed in folders in my Dropbox and removed when I’m done with them.

  2. posted by Steve Crane on

    I’m in the folders camp. My feeling is that if I can see the desktop, I don’t have enough windows open.

    Using the desktop requires that I minimise the windows so I can see it, then use the mouse to interact. Much easier to use just the keyboard to interact with folders via my chosen file manager.

  3. posted by bEV on

    A little of both. My desktop holds items that I need for a very short time. If they get lost or erased, no big deal. For anything big or important or long term, it goes to a folder on the hard drive. Actually on the network drive, where it is automatically backed up and kept safe.

  4. posted by Paul Costley on

    I am a folder organizer – to a very high level for my professional work. (Graphic Designer)
    Aside from the occasional file that comes along and needs to be viewed quickly or temporarily, only my hard drives and flash drives are usually seen on my computer desk top.

    When I start a new job for a client, I make a “Job Folder” with the client name and a short description of the job, like, “Bob’s Truck Stop – June 2015 Flyer”. When my boss creates a docket entry for the job in his accounting system, I place the docket number at the beginning of the folder name – “28238 Bob’s Truck Stop – June 2015 Flyer”. The docket number will also be added to the page layout file name. All the required logos, photos and any supplied text files will all be placed in a “Links” folders inside this Job Folder as they come in. A few seconds here for organizing the files is all it takes.

    All my active Job Folders are kept in a “master” folder at the root level of my hard drive – called “Current Jobs” and a shortcut to this folder is placed in the dock at the bottom of my screen. The “Current Jobs” folder usually stays open set to List View and the window is placed along the left side of my screen. I can very quickly find anything I need from there. If it gets closed accidentally, I can open it again from the link in the dock. No searching.

    To make it even more user friendly, I colour code these folders (Mac OSX – labels). For example – one of our larger clients has all their folders coloured Purple. I then set the folder to sort by Label, keeping all like folders together.

    If I have many active jobs for one client, that client will get a master folder with a name beginning with a bullet – for example, “• Bob’s Truck Stop”, and all the individual job folders are kept in this Client Folder. The bullet at the beginning of the name makes these “Client Folders stay together in the list view and makes them simple to find. They all are also given a unique colour label, adding to the visual separation.

    This sounds complicated, but it really only takes a few seconds per job to set up and it saves me a ton of work later on.

    (Completed projects are burned to DVD archives and the disks are scanned with a tracking program so I can search for any file name or docket number and quickly find the files again for future use.)

    I’d be happy to send you a screen capture if you let me know how. Seeing my “system” in use really explains it much more elegantly than a written description.


  5. posted by skiptheBS on

    I love Launchy. No icons necessary, just good wallpaper and their li’l black searchbox. It retrieves files and opens programs with no muss or fuss.

  6. posted by infmom on

    I LOATHE desktop litter. I have three icons on my desktop representing my computer, the network and the recycle bin. Period. Applications that assume you want their dorky icon on your desktop drive me nuts. I delete those stupid things immediately.

  7. posted by Marie Davis on

    I have stuff on my desktop at work, but I’ll be retired soon, and the home computer won’t have all that junk. I’m pretty much both a desktop person and a folder person, but everybody’s comments about folders being better makes sense. It appeals to my inner librarian. Besides, if icons are not cluttering up my desktop, then it’s easier to see the wallpaper.

  8. posted by Fazal Majid on

    You can actually see your desktop? I have two 30″ monitors and a 27″ in portrait mode, every single pixel is covered up in application windows (yes, I know about the F11 key).

  9. posted by jc on

    I use both at home, but everything at work is saved to a specific client folder on the network. The only folders on the desktop are short-cuts to programs and main client directories. My boss has a tendency to spontaneously work on the computers on the weekend, and the desktop is NOT safe. Unfortunately, he also arbitrarily moves things in client files and among office files so there is no real guarantee they will be where you saved them. There is no real “safe” place. To avoid a third file move, a co-worker constructed a bookkeeping spreadsheet on her desktop only to have the boss erase the file over a weekend. We have learned to save in multiple locations and hope for the best.

  10. posted by momk95 on

    I am definitely in the folder club, hands down. Seeing duplicate or related material of the same project in multiple locations (desktop, folders, email, Lync, etc.) is too distracting. My simple brain needs one location for all items related to each topic.

  11. posted by Pat Reble on

    I have been involved with computers since the days of punch cards, so I’ve seen all the dastardly deeds they can perpetrate. For this reason I use folders – one central folder with everything else as sub folders. It’s a no brainer to back up to an external hard drive. An external hard drive is the only safe back up – any cloud based system is vulnerable to terrorism or sabotage, internal or external. Similarly, if I am hacked by some Nigerian/Russian whatever who tries to hold me to ransom I can spit in their eye. They can’t destroy anything important and it’s cheaper to buy a new computer than pay their ransom. The more sophisticated computers become, the more the KISS principal applies.

  12. posted by April on

    I want to be in the folders camp and try to be, but inevitably I end up with icons on my desktop that have to be cleared out periodically. It tends to fill with stuff that I need temporarily, stuff I don’t want to save in my folders where it’ll get forgotten instead of cleared out when I no longer need it.

    Still trying to figure out what works for me so this doesn’t happen.

  13. posted by Bette on

    Folders! Desktop storage slows your system and can interfere w/ memory functions. If I see someone w/ a cluttered desktop, I know they’re not computer savvy — all those little icons and folders sitting “safely” on the desktop really affect your computer’s speed and performance.

  14. posted by Debi on

    I am primarily folders, but there are times when I have a very active project that makes it easier to litter my desktop with numerous documents. Once the project is complete, the documents will all go into a folder. (In these cases, I have usually received the files via email, so they are largely “backed up” in that sense – If I’m very concerned about losing the work, I’ll back it up in a safe folder as well.)

    I’m sure it’s much like the clean desk/messy desk dichotomy – I wonder how many of the folks with numerous docs on their desktop also prefer a cluttered desk in their real-world workspace 🙂 As for me, the same principle applies – I usually have a cluttered desk when I have a number of active, open projects on deadline, but it is clean during routine work.

  15. posted by Mike Shelton on

    I’m a folders guy. Desktop clutter increases my stress. I use a consistent naming and date convention for files so I can use powerful search features in all of my files storage apps and programs. Search is faster than tags, folders, labels and scrolling to find things. Ask IBM.

  16. posted by Marie on

    Saving to your hard drive is against my company’s policy–everything must go on the shared server. My behavior is so habitual now that saving to my desktop seems like a crazy idea, even when it’s my personal PC.

  17. posted by SER on

    I am both.

    At work, everything’s on the server and must remain there, so I save shortcuts to high-level folders on my desktop. I click the high level folder and thereby save often as many as 10 additional navigation clicks. Since I need to work on many projects from many different areas of the server, this is a lifesaver.

    At home, I have the same structure minus the shortcuts. High level folders for projects on my desktop, and within each is the rest of the stuff in all the subfolders.

  18. posted by Judi on

    Out of sight, out of mind!
    When I tuck away my paper files in folders, I forget all about them. I need a system for active papers that allows me to see them, which allows me to find them.
    The same idea works on my computer (although the ever-valuable ‘search’ function is a marvelous back-up!)
    I know the idea that different sides of the brain do different things is falling out of fashion. I still think the book “Organizing from the Right Side of the Brain” can help those of us who think differently.

  19. posted by Dianne in the desert on

    There are multiple users on my computer, so each of us has a “Desktop”. I am the administrator. I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard, “My folder is gone for where did it go?”

    The computer does a backup at night to the connected backup drive, so retrieving things is easy enough for me, but I get tired of doing everyone’s “lost and found” work. Now everyone has a “stick drive” and all of their folders are on their drives and no longer on the computer, except for mine, of course. The files needed for school or the office are not forgotten on the home computer anymore and I don’t have to answer panicky phone calls and attempt to send huge amounts of data anywhere.

    My own desktop is currently holding nine “shortcuts” to the left and six tools in the sidebar to the right. when my programs are open, they only occupy the space between those two columns. This is, after all, my desktop. I also own the computer. LOL.

  20. posted by Amber Colour Decor on

    I just looked, like really looked at the icons on my desk top and half of them I have not opened in 2years! Great motivation to clean up!

  21. posted by Jonathan Phillips on

    I am a desktop person, usually keeping things of a transient nature on my desktop. They will either get further developed and “promoted” into my folder system, or get trashed when I’m through with them. About once a month I’ll do a full cleaning of my desktop and purge or file anything that has been stubbornly resisting my organizing efforts.

    I have to say that the idea that desktop items affect your computer’s performance is a pretty lame argument. There may be a slight lag when the desktop has been hidden and then gets displayed, as the computer has to “paint” the preview icons for each item. However, when you are working in applications or doing other computing tasks, there is absolutely no difference between a clear and a cluttered desktop.

    So, breathe easier, fellow desktop people!

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