How to keep your design files neat and tidy

Peter Vukovic

I’m an organizational freak. Organizational freaks like to keep things in order, so they’re easier to understand, sort through and manage. This includes small stuff, like grid-based furniture layout and more important decisions like color-coding spices.

You’ll know more about how we think if you visit this website. But if you think being too organized is not a good thing, being unorganized is probably worse. Especially when it comes to finding and managing your project files.

file-system-02

Why you need a filing system

If you’ve been without a filing system so far, you might feel comfortable dumping your design files into a folder and finding ways to sort through them later. Some people even enjoy the creative freedom that comes with this file-pile approach. But however you feel about this topic will not change the fact that having a good filing system provides some pretty good benefits:

  • You’ll design better. Every time you spend more than 30 seconds searching for a file, you interrupt your natural flow of creativity and stress starts to creep in. It goes without saying what this does to your inspiration and work.
  • You’ll restore a sense of control over your work. Putting things in order, however small they may be, gives you a nice feeling that you’re the boss in the house (or the hard drive). This will spread onto your work and you’ll be more confident about your design decisions too.
  • You’ll learn a valuable design lesson. Design is all about putting the right things in the right place, in proper order. In other words, it’s about making sense out of seemingly separate pieces. You can use this kind of thinking to design logos, websites, cars, music, elevators or filing systems. Design is about organization and structure, and far from being only visual. Here’s a great book on that.

While any filing system is better than none, some approaches work better for designers than others. Here is the one I personally use and it works great for a large number of different projects.

The 6-step filing system that works

1. Make sure you have a Work folder

work-folder

2. Create client folders

client-folders

3. Create project folders

project-folder

4. Create filing folders

file-folders
  • Client input: This is everything I get from the client during the course of the project. Files, documents, notes… you name it.
  • Business: Project quotes, estimates, schedules, proposals and everything else related to the “business” part of the project.
  • Assets: Photos, vectors, icons and other design elements you use to put together your designs. In other words, everything that is a part of your final layout should go here.
  • Design: The name says it all. Here’s where you keep your actual design files, the stuff you work on. Typically, it should contain nothing else but a list of files with your designs in various versions or revision stages. Remember, all files used to construct those designs, like photos or icons, should go into the Assets folder.
  • Production: All final files for delivery to the client. For print projects, this is where you place your prepress files which can be sent to the printer, like PDF’s fonts and so on. For web projects, this is where you put the actual HTML version of the site, if you do the coding too.

You may have figured it out by now, but this structure roughly reflects the various stages your project is going through, and files related to those stages. So where will you find that great photo you’ve been using in Halloween poster project? Right, it’s in the Assets folder. How about a file ready for printing? Of course, in the Production folder.

5. Save changes as separate files

Whenever you make changes to any of the files, never save them back over the original. Instead, use “Save as…” command to save them under a new version. This way you’ll keep track of number of changes you make, as well as when you made them. And talking about saving versions….

6. Name your files properly

versioning
  • Brochure Final
  • Brochure Final – image fix
  • Brochure Final Final
  • Brochure Final of all finals – cover page fix
  • Brochure Final Final Final

Obviously, I had a problem with the meaning of word “Final”, but it was only because I didn’t know that “final” is not a very practical word for file naming — you never really know if something is final or not and neither does your client. The better, and easier way of handling this is by adding a number to the filename whenever you change it or make an alternative version of it, until you get a final approval from the client. So the above list would look as follows:

  • Brochure_01
  • Brochure_02
  • Brochure_03
  • Brochure_04
  • Brochure_05
  • Brochure_06

This way, you always know that the final one is the one with the highest number in the filename, and your client can easily track the changes and variations too. An edge case scenario where this naming system might fail is when your client decides that Brochure_05 is what should be the final, instead of Brochure_06. The workaround is to simply open the file and save it as “Brochure_07”, even if no changes were made, so you don’t have to think about it later.

How do you make sense of files?

Just like people organize their homes in a multitude of ways, they have the same number of ways of organizing their files. The system I described above is not perfect and will not solve all of your dilemmas, but it will get you started and provide a solid framework for finding and managing your files across dozens of projects.

How do you organize your design files?

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