Make your desktop shortcuts work for you, not against you

If you find yourself hunting for shortcuts amid a chaos of icons on your desktop, use these tips to restore order to the Windows backdrop.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
4 min read

I once worked with a woman whose office looked like a hoarder's attic. Apart from very narrow passageways, every inch of space was piled ceiling-high with paper of every sort. The desktop of her Windows PC was similarly strewn with more icons than would fit on a single screen.

She claimed to be able to find exactly what she was looking for with little hunting, both in her office and on her desktop. The woman obviously had found a system that worked for her. If you find yourself struggling to manage the shortcuts and other items on your desktop, there are plenty of ways to arrange your desktop elements to your liking.

Desktop-shortcut basics
Microsoft explains how to change the appearance and arrangement of XP's desktop icons (and other desktop elements) in an article on the Microsoft Support site. The company's overview of the Vista desktop includes instructions for customizing the desktop icons in that version of Windows. The equivalent article on Windows 7's desktop is on Microsoft's Windows 7 Support site.

Unfortunately, Windows' desktop icons have a way of repositioning themselves on their own, leaving you to play hide-and-seek to launch your favorite apps, files, or folders. Sometimes, a game or other program will adjust your screen resolution automatically, which can throw your desktop's icon arrangement for a loop.

More insidiously, some malware will hide your desktop shortcuts and taskbar. Should you find these items missing, scan your system for malware. The anti-malware tool I recommend is the free, appropriately named Anti-Malware from Malwarebytes.

Windows offers a handful of options for viewing your desktop icons. To see them in Vista and Windows 7, right-click an empty area of the desktop and choose View. In Vista, you can choose Large Icons, Medium Icons, or Classic Icons. In Win7, the options are Small, Medium, and Large. You can also change the size of your desktop icons by pressing Ctrl and moving your mouse scroll wheel up or down.

Your other options are to autoarrange the icons and align them to a grid. You can also choose not to show icons by unchecking Show Desktop Icons. Windows 7 adds the option to show or hide desktop gadgets.

The options for viewing desktop icons are slightly different in XP. After you right-click a blank area of the desktop, choose Arrange Icons By to be offered the choices of Name, Size, Type, and Modified. Other choices let you Lock Web Items on Desktop and Run Desktop Cleanup Wizard. Vista and Win7 lack the Desktop Cleanup Wizard.

Other desktop-customization options
The desktop-customization options built into Windows are composed primarily of Themes, which are prepackaged backgrounds, sounds, icons, and other onscreen elements. To view your Theme options in XP, right-click an empty area of the desktop and choose Properties > Themes. Make your selection from the drop-down menu to preview the built-in themes, or choose "More themes online" or Browse to select another.

To customize XP's icons, click the Appearance tab in the Display Properties dialog, choose Advanced, and choose one of the three icon-related options in the Item drop-down menu: Icon, Icon Spacing (Horizontal), or Icon Spacing (Vertical). Select a size for the icon and accompanying text.

In Vista and Windows 7, right-click an empty area of the desktop and choose Personalize. Click "Change desktop icons" in the left pane to view your icon options. You can also choose Change Icon button to select a new icon for the selected item.

Microsoft Windows 7 Personalization options
Windows 7's Personalization options include a handful of themes to spiff up your desktop. Microsoft

If you're having a problem with your desktop shortcuts or icons, Microsoft offers a one-click Fix-it solution for Common System Maintenance Tasks. The automated troubleshooting service also claims to address certain Windows update glitches, correct your PC's clock, and free disk space.

Desktop add-ons enhance your icon options
If you'd like to go beyond the desktop-shortcut options available in Windows, several programs offer a number of other ways to enhance the appearance and organization of your desktop icons. Stardock's free Fences utility allows you to place related shortcuts into groups, hide some or all of your grouped icons by double-clicking the desktop, and take snapshots of your icon layouts.

The $20 Desktop Icon Toy utility from iDeskSoft lets you arrange your desktop shortcuts in the pattern of your choice, including an analog clock that actually keeps time. The trial version of the program lets you use it for 14 days to determine whether it's worth paying the $20 to keep it.

You get many more options for changing the appearance and behavior of your desktop icons with SillySot Software's free Iconoid program. Along with making the icon backgrounds transparent, you can save and restore your shortcut layout, change the color of backgrounds and text, and hide icons by moving the cursor off the desktop. The utility hasn't been updated in several years but claims to work with all versions of Windows from 98 through Vista.