It's easy to dump shortcuts, files and other miscellany on to your desktop for quick access or for convenience's sake, but before long you can be left with a forest of icons and thumbnails obscuring the wallpaper beneath. If your desktop could use a clean up, we're here to tell you how to go about it.
These tips are primarily written with Windows in mind, though you can apply some of the same general principles to Mac OS or Linux to suit your setup.
Create a temp folder
The desktop is often the go-to place to store email attachments, photos and downloads, but once you've opened or dealt with a file then it can sit there gathering virtual dust. Instead of using your desktop as a temporary store, create a temp folder specifically for that purpose—use it for files that are only needed for a few minutes until they get uploaded or sent elsewhere.
Don't save anything that's important to this folder, like a cherished holiday photo that you only have one copy of. Use it for stuff that's duplicated elsewhere or that you can easily find again on the Web—basically anything that you can live without—that way you can erase everything in this folder on a regular basis, without having to pick through each file and worry about its relevance.
In my case, the temp folder is filled with images downloaded from one place ready to be uploaded somewhere else, documents to email (like .doc downloads of Google Docs files), installation packages and numerous press kits. It keeps my desktop clear but can be safely wiped at the end of every day or week.
Open up your desktop in File Explorer, as it's easier to navigate without the distraction of a wallpaper image, then identify files, folders, and shortcuts that you don't really need. Uninstall applications you don't use any more and erase documents and pictures you no longer require. If you must hoard your digital junk, drag it into a new archive folder to sort through later—a folder that works like the temp folder, but which isn't cleared out as often.
Using File Explorer to clean up your desktop also lets you order your files and shortcuts by date. Choose Date modified from the Sort by menu on the View tab and work out which files have been there the longest. You might come across some files you'd forgotten you had or a job you've not got round to finishing.
Once you've decluttered your desktop, resist the temptation to save anything new to it. That might involve changing the default download directory for your browser or setting a better-looking wallpaper backdrop that adds extra motivation to keep the screen clear. If you're after some new desktop images, Desktoppr and Wallbase.cc are a couple of my favorite resources.
Install a third-party tool
Desktop cleanup programs aren't quite as ubiquitous as they used to be—Microsoft had an application of its own which hasn't survived to Windows 8—but there are still some useful tools out there. Take a look at Stardock's Fences for example, which lets you drop your icons into buckets that can be resized and moved as required (it works a little bit like the sub-folder system on your Android or iOS home screen). The application costs $9.99, but there's a free 30-day trial so you can see if it's worth it.
Alternatively, add another desktop or two to the mix. A virtual desktop manager such as Dexpot lets you spread your files and shortcuts out across multiple screens to keep everything tidier—perhaps you could have one desktop for working hours and one for leisure time, if you take your laptop between the office and your home. You can also spread out your application windows at the same time. Dexpot is free for non-commercial use.
If you're on a Linux machine, Compiz is by all accounts a very stylish tool to do the same job as Dexpot, while Mac OS users can of course feel very smug that Spaces is already integrated into the operating system to take care of all your virtual desktop needs (it's in Mission Control if you've never used it).
Use the alternatives
You may well use the desktop as a place to dump shortcuts to games, folders and applications for easy access—wherever you are in Windows, it's only a couple of clicks away. But there are other convenient places you can pin these shortcuts without having your desktop overrun with thumbnails.
There's the new-fangled Start screen, of course. Head to the Apps list (via the down arrow on the Start screen) then right-click on any entry to pin it to the collage of live tiles you see whenever Windows boots up. Your shortcuts are still only a press of the Windows key away, and your desktop stays tidy. From the same right-click menu you can pin apps to the desktop taskbar too, which makes them even more accessible than they are on the desktop itself.
You can right-click folders and files in File Explorer to pin them to the Start screen, or drag them to the taskbar to add them to the File Explorer's jump list. If you really must keep items on top of your desktop, make sure they're well organized by right-clicking the desktop and enabling Auto arrange icons and Align icons to grid from the View menu.
Hopefully that's enough to help you start creating some kind of order out of the chaos of your desktop. Leave a note below if you have a tip or method of your own that you'd like to share with the wider world.