I don't know, Tim. From my own vast experience, I think that more papers on the desk signifies more unfinished projects, probably due to management-caused fire drills, half of which are meaningless or irrelevant.
The first job for every intern is to clean up the lab. The best EE I ever had was also the messiest. When he took a day of vacation I had the intern clean the lab. When Summer was over and the intern left it took about a week to get the lab back to the same old mess.
I think most of the desks in the pictures are relatively functional. One thing caught my eye in image 7 from Al Sledge that made me chuckle. On one side of the metal workbench is a collection of what appear to be magnets. I do the same thing on all of my workbenches and tool boxes. You don't want to look for a magnet when you need one and you don't want them collecting other metal items.
TJ, the reason that so many of the desktops are skewed to EEs is that they've responded more broadly to the call for messy desk pictures than have MEs. I would love to have more ME desk pictures. People can send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I've never figured out why I can remember the placement of so many individual objects (mostly sheets of paper and file folders) in archeological-like stratified sequences, yet completely forget the locations of a few of them.
MOST of the images here seem to be desks of electrical/electronics engineers. Even Mr. Sledge, with his lathe, says most of his work is electronic.
I think the slideshows (by looking for messy desks) are proving the observation that electrical engineers tend to have messy desks, and mechanical engineers have neat(er) desks. We're not seeing many messy mechanical engineer desks in these slide shows.
Brian and Alex, I think you'll need to do a part III, and show ONLY those submissions from mechanical engineers.
I'm reluctant to turn that observation into a theory of engineer behavior. Do we really want to know what makes us tick?
I try to have my desk somewhat organized at the end of Friday. But when I work on a project I have papers, tools, and electronic "stuff" spread all around. Last night I helped a friend wire new circuits into his breaker box. I had tools on the floor, in my pockets and in the breaker box. I do have a tool belt, but most of the time tools end up in random order in its pockets. I have no idea whether my mode of operations relates to mental state or choice of profession. It might be interesting to ask academics involved with chaos theory if they have "neat" work habits.