I was also messy, but I owned the company. When things got too overwhelming on my bench, I would move to a bench in the production area. When the employees came in, they would often demand that I clean off their benches, otherwise work would not get done. Some employees were actually afraid to enter my office!
My stuff is spread out over my space (but not onto other's space). Periodically, at the appropriate time, I tidy up.
For 2 years the company tried to enforce "5S" on R&D (Sort, Shine, Set in order, Sustain, and something else I can't remember now). This is very successful in our factory, but really hard to implement in a creative environment where you need to come up with fresh ideas all the time. Most guys are now doing "5S" only to please management, and the sensible (genius) guys use "5S" to get inconsiderate guys to clean up the mess they make in common areas.
If your desk is tidy, then the mess must be stored in your head ;-).
Some degree of messiness comes from having more important things to do than put every pencil in the right place. At Methode Electronics division we got a new manager, (MBA, of course), and he decided that since certain customers were of an ethnic group that fixates on neatness, we must all fixate on neatness. So we had weekly cubicle neatness audits. Then things got slow, so we had layoffs, because "we can always get more engineers-they're all the same", and now I see that most of the engineers don't work there any more, and business is slower yet. And all the empty cubicles are so clean and neat. And business is getting slower.
I used to think that having a messy desk somehow implies that the person is smart and a wiz or something to that effect. However, I don't believe in that anymore. I believe that a person's desk should not be messy and it should be organized. To me if someone's desk is messy, this implies how this person might also deal with other things in his life or anything else related to work. However, this is not a general rule. It is just my opinion. I don't mind if there are drawings or other items on the desk during the day, but at the end of the day, the desk has to be clean.
When I was studying engineering the most popular professor of our Electrical engineering department was known for his messy desk. He used to display a board on his messy table with the message:
"Creative Mess Is Better Than Idle Tidiness".
Any good engineer will realize when his workspace is too cluttered to get his work done, and clean up as needed. The sad part is that we have managers that spend their obviously copious free time to examine the cleanliness of engineer's desks. The solution is to replace those managers with ones who will do work that contributes to the bottom line. This leads to a similar need, which is to make sure managers do not have windows in their offices because they spend too much time looking out of them.....
This is the problem with messy desks. If you work with a lot of hardware and prototyping, you have a lot stuff needed to do your work. Some of my larger prototype projects looked like I had dumped pots of spaghetti on several desks. Then add on to that test equipment, meters, parts, tools, and computers then you have what seems a cacophony of chaos. Surfing this undulating wave of disparate hardware is likely an engineer who is probably the only one in the company that fully understands that it is not chaos in their workspace but progress. Then enters the manager who job is to make everything follow “the plan”, reduce costs, systemize, “motivate” the workforce, and meet deadlines. In other words minimize chaos and promote order. When a manager sees what the engineer is doing, the manager skin crawls and seeks to help the engineer improve his productivity by introducing his version of order. To engineers, this is called stress. Managers look at engineers as hoarders and want them to get rid of the “junk” from previous projects. Then the same manager complains that following projects are continually delayed because the engineer keeps ordering and waiting for parts. The manager wants the engineer to clean up their work area to look pretty for customers who tour the area. Then the same manager complains that the engineer is wasting too much time searching for stored equipment and setting up projects. Then the manager makes everybody’s work space the same size then wonders why the hardware engineer has a rat’s nest of several projects on a single desk unlike the cooperative software engineers who can manage several programs on their computers just like the managers. When I had several desks and a larger room, my productivity increased. There are several other ways managers try to help engineers and then wonder why the engineer has a failure to thrive.