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Organize Your Design Files – Or ELSE!


Organizing your design files – Or ELSE!

Design file names and folder structure are a key ingredient to your success as a graphic designer.

Ok, here’s the scenario; a client calls you because he just picked up the presentation your firm designed from the local Kinko’s and they’ve found some typos. Also, they’ve decided to change some images.  They have their meeting in one hour and they need you to make changes and e-mail over the revised presentation. They’ll need fifteen minutes to print it and fifteen minutes to get to the meeting. That leaves you thirty minutes to make the changes – no problem!

But wait! The designer who put this presentation together is home sick.  Again, no problem! These are simple changes, you’re a capable designer. This should be no problem at all. But when you sit down to open the presentation you realize you’re in big trouble. There is no clear folder structure. There are six different versions of what you THINK is the presentation.

Content files, images, design files and the presentation files are all mixed up in one huge mess. Which file was approved? What file was sent to the printer? You start opening the latest files hoping one of them is the approved version of the presentation. But when you open the latest files there are missing image and you don’t have the proper fonts installed on your computer! Panic starts to set in as you rush over to your fellow designer’s computer.

It’s been fifteen minutes already and you’re still trying to make heads or tails of all the files. When you fail to deliver the revised presentation on time your client drops you. Your business goes bankrupt and your girlfriend leaves you. Within six months you’re addicted to heroin and living on the streets.

DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU.

Now, this is just one scenario where having an organized file structure is important to your career as a graphic designer. Has this happened to you yet? If it hasn’t, just wait, it WILL! And I’m afraid no diet, exercise or drug can possibly prevent this from happening to you. No, what you need is a file naming and folder structuring system!

Yes, this article is on the subject of how you set up the folders and name your design project files. I know what you’re thinking: “BOOOOOOORRRRRIIIINNNNGGGG!!” Ok, yes, I’m not going to lie. This article will probably be a little boring compared to our normal articles. But this is important stuff! And I promise that if you read this article, you’ll learn some useful stuff and be glad that you took the time.

Before I go any further let me throw out this disclaimer. The systems and concepts I’m about to discuss were developed by Go Media in house over the course of 14 years in business. What works for us may not work for you. Or perhaps someone out there has an even better system or ideas in mind. If so, PLEASE COMMENT at the end of this article. We would LOVE to hear how other firms approach this issue.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into how Go Media structures its folders. For starters, all of Go Media’s design project files are held on a single server that we affectionately call “The Beast” (the actual name has been changed to protect the innocent – us.)  On the Beast we have a folder called Clients. This folder has exactly what you would expect – a long list of folders with names like Nike, American Greetings and Lincoln Electric. Pretty simple so far, right?

Within each client folder we have a folder for each project that we do for them. An individual project would be something like a logo design, website design or brochure design. Now, if a client orders a full stationary set like business cards, letterhead and envelopes, we will typically put this together into one project. Each project folder is named with the project number and the project name.

So, for instance, a project folder might be named: “3186_business_stationary”.  Now, you’ll notice that I used underscores instead of spaces in the name of that folder. It’s not actually necessary in this case, but all folders that will be put on the web and all file names put on the web cannot have spaces. So, I find it’s a good habit to get into – using underscores instead of spaces. So, let’s take a quick look at what our folder structure looks like so far:

Sometimes a client’s folder will include a folder or two that are not related specifically to a project. For instance, you may acquire a client that already has all their branding done. You’ll be using that branding for a variety of their projects, so you won’t want to hide those branding assets inside of a specific project folder. In this case you’ll want to have a folder inside the client’s folder named something like Branding or Assets.

Another example is our client Lincoln Electric. We design welding helmets for them. They have about 4 different models of helmet that we’ve built templates for.These templates are used for all their projects, not just one. So, we have a Helmet Templates folder in their root client folder for easy access. You’ll notice that I start the names of these non-project folders with an underscore. This insures that they will stay at the top of the list of folders for easy access. Also, you’ll notice that the project numbers being at the front of the project folder names also has a nice side effect; it keeps them in chronological order. Let’s look at that client folder again:

Now, I know what your next question is: “Where do your project numbers come from?” WARNING: gratuitous product plug coming…  …now!

Go Media uses a project management software that we developed internally called Proof Lab. The Proof Lab is the ultimate design project management software. It allows you to manage projects, tasks, post proofs for clients, track time, share files and much more. Proof Lab will shortly be available as a hosted service that you can use! But all you need to know right now is that each project in Proof Lab is given a project number.

Every design firm has their own project management systems, but most will have a numbering system to go along with each project. It’s important that the naming conventions and numbers on your folders coincide with what’s in your company’s project management system, whether that’s Proof Lab or something else. Here is a screen shot from inside Proof Lab:

Hhhhmmmm…  I think that image above is the world exclusive sneak peek at the project queue in Proof Lab. There will be more on Proof Lab to come soon.

At Go Media we try to match the project number and the project name exactly between the Proof Lab and our folder structure. This just makes good sense. Still easy enough so far, right? Ok, well now is where things start to get complex – the individual project folder structure. It will be easiest if I just show you first, and then explain after. So, here ya go:

So, this is the extent of the folder structure we used for many years. Here is a quick breakdown of what the folders are. The Ai folder is filled with Adobe Illustrator files; Fnl contains all final approved files. In most cases these were the print-ready files for all print projects. Ind is In Design files.

And really, when it comes to any software, you could have an associated folder with that software. What I’m showing here is just our bread-and-butter software. But if we had a project in Power Point, for instance, we would also have a PP folder in there. Mgmnt is all files related to managing the project. This might include things like a timeline, the project proposal or a non-disclosure agreement. Prf is where we save our proofs. Psd is Photoshop files. Rsc is resources. Resources are where we keep anything we may need on the project like images, content, logos, etc. And Web is, well, web. This web folder has always had sub-folders, but I won’t go into that now.

This folder structure served us well for many years. But when our projects grew in size, we realized there were still some problems. We were confusing which files were old and which files were approved. We were mixing up client content files with previous outdated content. And, we didn’t even have any file naming conventions. So, each designer would name their project files differently which invariably lead to confusion.

So, let’s start first with that – the naming convention for the files. Here’s a break-down of our current system:

And now let’s look at our expanded project folder:

Whoa! – I know. It IS a beast isn’t it? Well, it only looks this big and complicated because I’ve got every folder expanded, and this file structure assumes a fairly large project with lots of different software being used.  Obviously, you will only create the folder structure that you’re going to need.

All of the _Old folders you see are like mini-trash cans. When we’re on version 8 of a design and the folder is looking cluttered, we like to move versions 1-7 into the _Old folder. We don’t like to delete them because you never know when a client will suddenly ask for something they saw two weeks ago. The Fnl folder stands for Final. Basically, every proof, design file, piece of content, etc, that is approved by the client gets moved into this folder. So, there is essentially a mirror copy of the folder structure within the Fnl folder. The Print folder within the Fnl folder is where we save our print-ready files.

The file structure within Mgmnt should be fairly self-explanatory. In the proofs folder you’ll notice that we break the proofs down into rounds (Rd1, Rd2, Rd3). It’s just easier to find the proofs you’re looking for when you have them broken down in this way. Another folder that we sometimes put into the Prf folder is a Crit folder. The Crit stands for critique. This folder holds proofs that we’re going to do an internal critique on before we show the client.  That Psd folder should have an _Old folder in it – sorry missed that one. The Rsc folder is for Resources. Resources are generally broken down into content and images.

Other random items can just go into the root Rsc folder.  Within the Web folder, the  Axs folder is a place for all login credentials or access details; this is convenient when you’re trying to keep track of stage or testing site details, client accounts, etc. Flash is all source and SWF output for Adobe Flash files. HTML is a folder for all static markup; clean, without CMS implementation.Live is a folder for all final web files for the live site, possibly including database backups. Stage is a working copy of a site after static HTML has been integrated into a CMS.

Again, this folder structure is fairly large, and you would normally only create the folder structure that you’re going to need. For instance, a business card design project’s folder structure would look something more like this:

In some instances you need even less. But in our experience, you never know when a design project is going to spiral up in size, so we like to start a little over-kill on the organization so it’s there for us when we need it. There is even a neat trick for auto-creating these file structures, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I am anticipating another question: “This seems like a great system for client work, but what about Go Media internal work?” Well, we’ve learned that we need to treat our own internal projects just like client projects. So, we actually have “Go Media” as a client in the Client folder. And all internal work is put in the Proof Lab and given a project number – just like our client projects. This is really the only way to keep it all organized.

Now, I know your next concern; “Isn’t it a complete pain in the butt to create these folder structures each time you start a new project? I mean REALLY, what a pain in the butt.” Well, yes, if you manually created these folder structures for each and every project you would probably waste a lot of time. But we believe in working smarter, not harder.

So, we’ve installed a little piece of software called AutoHotKey. Then one of our developers here wrote a little script designed to auto-generate these folder structures. I would give you a quick tutorial on it, but AutoHotKey, and the script we’ve written is a little tricky. If you have a programmer in your company, just explain what you’re trying to do and I’m sure they’ll be able to help.

Or another not-so-elegant solution are the these: Batch Files for Creating Design Project Folder Structures (1994). Just double click the one you want to use and it will auto-generate a project folder structure for you. Then you’ll just have to rename it and drag it into the appropriate client folder.

Once you have these naming conventions and folder structures in place you will quickly find them to be second nature. Your brain will work more efficiently, your company will work more efficiently, and you can spend the money you save with efficiency on a Proof Lab account – which will result in even GREATER efficiency, more savings, your company will get out of bankruptcy, your girlfriend will come back to you, and you’ll kick that nasty heroin addiction. Congratulations – your design files, and your life, are now organized!

One last request for comments on this post. I am very interested in how other designers approach the organization of their files!

About the Author, William Beachy

I grew up in Cleveland Hts. Ohio and was drawing constantly. As a child I took art classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art and eventually became known as the "class artist." I graduated from The Ohio State University's department of Industrial Design. I have always tried to blend my passion for illustration with Graphic Design. Go Media was the culmination of my interests for both business and art. I'm trying to build a company that is equally considerate of our designers AND our clients.
Discover More by William Beachy

Discussion

We want to hear what you have to say. Do you agree? Do you have a better way to approach the topic? Let the community know by joining the discussion.

  • Anonymous

    Just about the same naming system as I implemented there at our studio in 2004. 
    The main difference is that we don’t put the designers name into the name. I don’t really see any point in that. That info should be in the accounting system not to mention if one job is going between more than one designer.

    But everything else I highly agree on.

    • http://www.gomedia.us Jeff Finley

      We put the designer’s initials on them so, you, as a designer, know the difference between the logo concepts YOU are working on from someone else’s.  When 5 different designers are working on t-shirt concepts for let’s say, Britney Spears (a recent project), each designer will be saving their AI or PSD files into the same folder, so it’s nice to have a designer initial in the file name to keep things organized.

  • http://simonh.me Simon H.

    That makes totally sense.

    We have the same type of structure, just not as pushed.

  • http://simonh.me Simon H.

    That makes totally sense.

    We have the same type of structure, just not as pushed.

  • http://www.gomedia.us Jeff Finley

    Yeah this has come a long way.  And if you’re only a two-person team, which we were at one point, there wasnt a need for all this organization.  It’s a system that develops with you over time.

    • Andrew

      1 person team here, but over 1,000 projects a year so the organization tactic has definitely helped! :)

  • Anonymous

    One thing which I like very much about this kind of naming is when a customer ask for let’s say, low resolution of all the work done for him for the last year to put on his website, you only need to look for his initials + .pdf 

  • Anonymous

    This is so key. My files are a mess. I need to get on this.

  • http://twitter.com/hidobrado Ramon Thompson

    Great post; definitely an important thing keeping organized. I do something similar that grew from feeling the need to eb more professional. Nothing crazy; each client has their own named folder, subfolders contain folders named with the type of work (brochure, poster, flier, etc.), and in each of those, folders for each file type along with a Proofs and a Finals folder.

  • http://www.facebook.com/vitospatafora Vito Spatafora

    Great post! I’ve been meaning to re-organize my system, this really helps allot. Does the project number have any correlation with the invoice number?

    • http://simonh.me Simon H.

      At that point I’d say yes. It’s just more logical and if you do a search on the project number, you can find everything. From the initial sketches to the invoice.

  • Anonymous

    Autohotkey script? Isn’t that an overkill? Can’t you just create this folder structure somewhere on the harddrive and then copy it?

    • http://www.facebook.com/coryrkerr Cory Kerr

      That’s what I’ve done. I just have a generic file structure folder with a bunch of blank folders named accordingly and it gets copied and pasted into new projects.

  • http://www.facebook.com/trishacupra Trisha Cupra

    I’ve chosen a file naming convention that helps me heaps. Basically it’s a 6 letter Client ID in capitals, then the date, then an accurate description of what it is.

    The Client ID is made up of the first three letters of the clients first name and the first 3 letters of the client’s last name. So John Derthy would be JOHDER. Very simple to remember.

    Then the date is in YYMMDD format. I have TextExpander set up so all I have to do it type ‘dt’ and 110601 appears. So easy. And the date serves as a revision number as well.

    I keep all my client work in my DropBox folder, and backed up with Time Machine, so I can access past revisions if I ever muck something up badly, or need to revert. (Hasn’t happened yet).

    An example of a full file name would be:

    JOHDER – 110601 HBE site logo.psd

    And I use Tembo, another amazing Mac app, which helps me to locate any files that I (cough) haven’t filed away in the client’s own folder properly yet. For instance, if I know I need one of John’s PSD files, I just type JOHDER in the search field and then go to the PSD section of the search results. Easy.

    • William_Beachy

      Thanks for sharing Trisha! I like your client naming convention… sometimes 3 letters doesn’t feel like enough. 

  • Anonymous

    So glad that I have source control to help with this problem.  I’ve used it for artwork assets on all my projects, but I don’t accumulate nearly the amount that a design agency would.

    I can simply commit a new version of a file and there’s no guessing what the most recent version is.  I can also “go back in time” to get previous versions that are all signified by relevant commit messages.

    • http://simonh.me Simon H.

      That’s another way to go about it.

  • http://twitter.com/Manifocom Manifo.com

    I cant stand the mess in the files. I always try to have an order but with your tips it would be even simpler.

  • http://twitter.com/Manifocom Manifo.com

    I cant stand the mess in the files. I always try to have an order but with your tips it would be even simpler.

  • Meredith Gossland

    I’m wondering about the Kinkos thing??????? Do designers actually do that?

    • http://twitter.com/heathermariano Heather Mariano

      I think that one was joke. We don’t work with Kinkos ;)

  • http://uniondesign.ca DL

    The folder structure is good and some interesting ideas I hadn’t thought of, but why the cryptic folder names? Axs? Fnl? Ind? What’s wrong with Final, Management, Photoshop…?

    By the way, my folder structure for web projects is Artwork (for any custom designed icons, illustrations, or other custom design elements), Design (the interface design mockups), Documentation, HTML, Production (Layered PSDs of sliced up interface elements like buttons, backgrounds, etc ready to “save for web”) and Source (content, stock photos, logos, etc). So basically the same in a lot of ways. And my design folder always has an “OLD” folder in it as well. Very important! Even as a one man shop!

    • http://twitter.com/heathermariano Heather Mariano

      It works for us because it’s ingrained. The removal or vowels still makes a word recognizable to the human brain, or maybe I made that up… (not applicable to Access, but that’s probably the only exception)

  • http://uniondesign.ca DL

    Of course the other side of this issue is within the files themselves. Nothing worse than doing some contract work for a local agency and being given files from some other designer with 1000 layers named “layer 639 copy”. ARGH! I don’t understand how anyone can work like that. And as a new person being dropped in, it can take half an hour just to sort out the mess.

  • Eric Santiago

    AWESOME article!

    What about organizing stock images, photography, and resources & stuff? 

    • Andrew

      Hey Eric – this is how I organize mine:

      Resources
      > design_assets
      >> backgrounds (standard backgrounds I use a lot)
      >> fonts (back up in case I ever need them, or need to share them)
      >> headlines (this has Word docs with headlines I’ve used and already gotten approved, so I can go back and reference)
      >> logos (has versions of company logo, but also other internal logos. Also has standard social media tags)
      >> other (admittedly kind of a dumping ground or a “to be filed” area haha)
      >> photo_assets (different food shots, customer shots, crew shots, building shots, anything photo really)
      >> textures (this has grunge textures and other background textures for quick access)

      Then I also have: Templates – this folder has standard pre-approved templates that people need on a quick turn so if someone says hey use X template and put my address on it – that’s a easy fix!

      Hope this helps (2 years later haha)

  • http://www.facebook.com/lex.singleton Alexander Singleton

    Just arranged my folders like this- much better way of doing things. I can happily leave a project in another persons hands now without a list of instructions as long as my arm. Need to get into the file naming habbit still though.

  • Jean-Philippe Côté

    I like your method. I’m trying to get a good backup formula, what about backups and archives? Are you archiving by project or by client? Are you backing up everything on an image?

  • Remington McElhaney

    The only real issue with this is (I don’t know what software everyone here is working with) but I do motion graphics so I use After Effects. With After Effects is you have a file path longer than 250 characters it won’t be able to be find the footage if you send a project file to someone. Which lead to a lot of work for me on this animated movie project when files had large file names and I had to manually go through and rename them and then replace them in my project. I’m sure 250 character sounds like a lot, but when its in your Documents>Motion Graphics>Client Work>Road to Independence >Assets>Scene 41…. 

    You can see how it adds up quickly! So one large file can really get in the way.

    I definitely agree with having a good name structure though. Its SO important. I’m still trying to work on my though. I need it to be short enough, but with enough data to be useful at the same time. 
    Good post! 

  • JeffreyLin

    Can’t believe how hard it was to find a tutorial like this! We’re in that “Spiraling” growth and it’s suddenly become a mess. Thanks for the ideas.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lekmao Olamilekan Mabayoje

    can u pls explain more of the PRF file

  • Mohd Marzuki

    What if you get a recurring job, say a brochure X from company B that you design a few months back, and company B wants you to print it again with the same design? Do you treat it as a new job with new folders, with duplicate files?

  • http://www.darkdesigngraphics.co.uk Dark Design Graphics

    This is great! As a couple of people said before it is hard to find any sort of tutorial for this. My files, while organised, probably aren’t organised as well as the should be. I am going to start doing this straight away, cant believe I missed this tutorial.

  • amanda_brownhill

    I know this was posted a long time ago but I am just starting out working from home (here in australia) as I have two little ones.. and I want to make sure that i don’t let my files get in a mess which is so easy to do as I often have massive rushes and must create somethiNG then and there and think oh will file this after.. thank you! (amazing what you find in google when you ask questions!)

  • http://www.facebook.com/cedricadufour Cedric Dufour

    Great article. Hard to figure out what the best folder structure is but I think you guys are pretty close.

    Are the underscores important in your naming conventions? Not sure why you would use them for anything other than web files?

  • http://www.printingray.com/vinyl-sticker-printing.html vinyl stickers

    These are of any file sharing panel photos ?

  • http://www.facebook.com/bobotron Bob Potter

    I know this is an old thread, but still relevant when I searched today! I have one thing to add on the file naming… when I have different “design versions” of stuff (rather than revisions of the same design) I add a letter to the end instead of a number. So I can have “rev1a, rev1b, rev1c” as versions, then when they pick one, it becomes “rev2″.

  • Lina

    any similar article for an interior design project?

  • blakemiller

    Great article and reference. What happens when you have project files that need to go online – website or blog or??? We have similar issues and alot of the final files, such as sales sheets, flyers, etc. end up on the clients’ websites. Do you keep all of the codes, references, revisions, within? Or do you make a “web only” version that’s more compatible to the general public (and maybe clients) Or maybe better asked . . . what does the filename string look like in your “fnl” folders?

  • Rachel

    How would you suggest I adapt this file organisation system for my own use as a student? I found this post very useful and I want to use the system for my final year at uni.
    The main issue I have with my organisation is that we’re required to do a LOT of research and I find this difficult to keep track of and organise.

    Do you have any tips on how to keep track of mixed media research!?

    Thanks

  • Andrew

    First off, dear original poster – THANK YOU!! This saved my sanity about a year ago haha!

    I reference this page a lot. I’m an in-house designer and brought organization to the file clutter when I started but after reading this post about a year ago I’ve been ultra consistent in my file naming, although I’ve adapted it a little bit.

    Since I’m an in-house, salaried designer, my only client is the company itself, while I have a bunch of different people who request I don’t distinguish them by requester. My adaption is:

    Project Folder > 1234_project_title (root folder, simple label – project # and title as submitted into the system)

    Sub-Folder > Live (I used the Ai, Psd, Ind distinction at first but it ended up driving me crazy. My project typically don’t have more than 3-5 files)

    Sub-Folder > Proofs (within this I have Rd# for “Round #”, I also keep an InDesign file where I show the proof and include pertinent details for whoever the reviewer is)

    Sub-Folder > Source (instead of Resources, source files, includes any linked images and inspiration used in designing)

    And then of course once I’m done I create the folder “Final” for my print-ready or final PDF artwork. I’m only designer here so I don’t need to distinguish designer name.

  • Nathan Simpson

    What about the archive of resources you have e.g. Fonts, templates, stock images that you keep for general use between projects?

  • Techni Smart

    Great article that every designer needs to know. Proof Lab appealed to me but the project is on hold, so back to manual system with Dropbox.

  • Lydia Komonko

    Can anyone recommend any servers for hosting files like this? Right now I’m backing things up on a hard drive, but I’m starting to need to share my most current files with another designer … I know some people have servers in their office that everyone can access, but I think I prefer an online solution so that if (heaven forbid) anything happened to the office, the files are safe somewhere else.

    I’ve been looking around myself, but I’m curious to see what other designers like best?

  • Kivlov van Leeuwen

    This system will work well with Github