Keeping your project files organized and easy-to-find is essential for busy creatives: we show you how.

Take a look at your computer desktop. Is your carefully chosen wallpaper all but invisible behind the chaos of zip files, images, folders and other clutter?

Do you have a speedy, easy way of getting to the image, clip or document you need, or is there usually ten minutes of clicking around before you find what you were after, before you sometimes just give up?

The myth of the chaotic genius is powerful, and many creatives find that they work best with a little inspirational clutter. However, while your studio may benefit from some arty disorganization, the same is definitely not true of your computer systems.

The ability to find images and other documents quickly is crucial for designers. If you’re in the middle of a project, you can save yourself time and stress by knowing where everything is kept.

Once a project is done, it’s all too easy to accidentally delete crucial parts of it if they haven’t been properly stored – which can be a disaster if you (or a client) want to revisit it.

Having a decent filing system (or asset management system, to use the technical term) is important if you’re working on your own. If you’re working with others then it’s nothing short of essential.

Not only does it make the day-to-day collaboration vastly easier and less frustrating; it also protects you from confusion and costly setbacks if a team member leaves or goes on holiday.

Counter-intuitively, being organized with your assets can help you be more creative, as all the time you would have spent hunting for the image you’re after can now be spent more productively, generating ideas and earning yourself more organized with your images, you’ll find it easier to be more organized with your invoicing and other admin, too.

There are tools out there to help you organize your assets – which we’ll discuss later – but some of the most important steps you can take are free, requiring only determination. Here’s how.

CLEAR YOUR DESKTOP

To adapt the old maxim, a tidy desktop means a tidy project. Get into the habit of filing everything as you go along, rather than waiting till the end of a project and then shoving everything into a generic folder.

With a little discipline, this can become second nature, rather than a tedious post deadline chore. Save your files to relevant, carefully structured folders as you work, and take the time to rename downloads and images sensibly when you’re saving them. Filing as you go along will save you time while the project is in full swing – which is when you need to be at your most efficient.

NO-FUSS FILING

Take the time to figure out the way of organizing your folders that best suits you and your workload. This should consist of folders within folders, so that the number of files on your desktop is as small as possible.

So, for example, you could have a root folder on your desktop titled ‘Work’, which contains separate folders for each client. Inside each client’s folder, the different projects you have for that client would each have their own folder.

Inside each project’s folder would be a folder for images – with a folder inside that for logos and other assets – one for each stage of the project, and one for the final project. Students could consider organizing their files by tutor or module, rather than by client.

For all your other images – royalty-free stock images, generic vectors, textures, your own photos and so on – consider another root folder titled ‘Images’, containing folders marked ‘JPEGs’, ‘Vectors’, ‘Textures’ and so on.

Inside ‘JPEGs’ would be another folder for all your camera shots (named according to a convention), and another for stock images. Sounds complicated? Try it for a month and see how much simpler your life is.

TRACK YOUR PROJECTS

It can be tempting to keep your files uncluttered by working on the same document from the very start of a project to the end. However, this can cause more problems than it solves: if you make changes to a draft in response to client comments, and then the client decides that he preferred elements of the previous version, you’re stuck painstakingly creating them from scratch.

Again. To avoid this, it’s best to keep a copy of each draft, or each stage of the project’s progress. However, if you keep every version, you have the problem of knowing whether you, or your team members, are working on the most up-to-date document: consider labelling your current version with ‘Current’ and ending the filename of all previous versions with a number.

The final version should be stored in a separate folder, for ease of reference. So if you’re working on a flyer, you could have files titled flyer_draft_1, flyer_draft_2, and then flyer_draft_3_ current for the current version. If you work collaboratively and access files on a shared system, it makes sense to mark a file ‘in use’ or something similar when you’re taken it to work on.

This means that you won’t end up working on something at the same time as a colleague. It can be simpler to let software to take care of this process for you. Available tools range from small-scale applications, such as Adobe Version Cue for small teams of designers, to full-scale systems for large organizations, such as Quark’s QPS (Quark Publishing System). The more elaborate of these systems often include automated asset organization and searching tools.

There are also asset management tools focused on video post-production – such as Apple’s Final Cut Server – and 3D animation – Avid’s (formerly Softimage’s) Alienbrain.

ARCHIVE YOUR WORK

You don’t need us to tell you to back up regularly, but it’s also important to keep your past projects in a structured way. Archiving your completed work regularly stops your computers from getting clogged up and helps keep your filing systems streamlined.

Make a point of copying your projects onto disc or a hard drive every couple of months, using your standardized filing system. Keep a copy handy of any elements that you use regularly, such as logos for clients, on your computer, in the Images folder or in that client’s folder.

There are advantages and disadvantages to archiving on both DVDs and hard drives. DVDs are liable to get scratched, hauled out of the beautifully organized archive cupboard for reference and never put back, and generally mislaid.

Hard drives, on the other hand, organize themselves (at least, they do if you’re following your filing system), but they’re prone to failure. It’s best to use hard drives for projects you will dip into often – recent work, or materials for regular clients – and DVDs for long-term archiving.

If you’re serious about conserving a record of your past projects then invest in a RAID array (which protects your information if any one of the drives fails) or, if your budget won’t stretch that far, archive everything twice and keep one copy away from your studio.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Take the time to rename your files with sensible titles as you’re working on a project – these should describe the file’s contents as closely as possible. So a model shot of a trendy, fair-haired young woman could be titled girl_ blonde_trendy.

If you have several of these then add numbers to the end. Using keywords like this will make it easier to search for misplaced images. Aside from materials directly relating to your projects, it’s likely you’ll have stacks of other images to hand – anything from photos you’ve taken yourself to textures, reference images and scanned-in sketches. It’s just as important to keep these in order as it is to organize your client files.

Finding a standardized way of naming your images – particularly your photos – is crucial. While textures, sketches and reference images can be filed using a keyword system, you’ll need to find another system for the photos you’ve taken. One method that works well is to file by date (YYMMDD) followed by a three- or four-digit code.

So the 35th photo you took on December 10, 2008 would be filed as 081210_0035. This is best done at the point when you’re downloading your photos from your camera – some tools such as Lightroom have a batch renamer.

If you have thousands upon thousands of images to search through, consider using software like Adobe Bridge or Apple Aperture to tag your images with keywords and metadata.

KEEP OR BIN?

Keeping your filing system clear and streamlined without carelessly binning things that later turn out to be essential takes practice. On the other hand, obsessively hoarding everything will leave you with lots of duplicate files – so you might have the same file in several different places – which will clog up your computer and use too much disk space.

On the other, overzealous file disposal could leave you without important assets. Chuck out zip files once you’ve opened them, but make sure that you copy all original Photoshop documents and work from the duplicates, as the Revert command doesn’t work once you’ve saved your changes. Make sure you keep a copy of your project at each stage, but consider binning this when archiving to save on space.

BEYOND IMAGES

Of course, all the care you put into protecting and organizing your assets won’t help your business much if you’re scatty with organizing your admin. Have you considered how much vital client information there is – from briefs to contact details – on your email system?

Simple freeware programs like Apple’s Email Backup 2.0 will ensure that you don’t lose it. Have another root folder on your desktop titled ‘Admin’, and organize it the same way you do your ‘Work’ folder: by client, with folders within each client’s folder for correspondence, briefs, invoices and meeting minutes.

TRUST THE TECHNOLOGY

If you’d rather have software take care of this for you, there is a variety of asset management tools available, ranging from simple desktop tools such as Adobe’s Bridge (which comes free with the Creative Suite), Microsoft Expression Media and Extensis Portfolio to networked tools such as Canto Cumulus or Extensis Portfolio Server.

These tools are designed to allow you to manage and find your files with ease. One forthcoming tool that’s designed to let you be as messy as you like is GridIron Flow, which runs in the background to track your assets. It gives you access to a flowchart showing you what’s connected to each project, wherever they are on your machine and however many times you modified them – so you can quickly find images and vector art that are used in InDesign or QuarkXPress documents and even elements within these components.

It’s not supposed to be an excuse to throw organization completely to the wind, but it should help if you’re naturally scatty. As well as organizing your projects, there are a wealth of tools available to help automate the rest of what’s involved in your projects for clients – including tracking how long you work on projects, scheduling, planning, producing quotes, client management and invoice creation.

They integrate tools including accounting software, a calendar, a contacts database and time reporting into a central hub that ties them together and makes managing projects easier and less messy. Some include basic asset management functions too.

Many are aimed at any type of small business, but some pitch themselves directly at creative firms – including Creative Manager’s Workamajig (previously Creative Manager Pro), Sohnar’s Traffic, Streamtime, and Youmehub. Video post production houses should also consider Farmers Wife, which includes tools specifically for facility management including suite booking and tape or disc dispatch.

A FINAL WORD

It goes without saying that the hardest part of managing your assets well is getting started. Adjusting to a new way of working can be frustrating and seem fiddly at first. Stick with it, though, and you’ll notice a difference to your life and business – and hopefully will give yourself a little more space to dedicate to creativity.







ASSET MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE

ADOBE BRIDGE
www.adobe.com
APPLE FINAL CUT SERVER
www.apple.com/uk
AVID ALIENBRAIN
www.avid.com
CANTO CUMULUS
www.canto.com
EXTENSIS PORTFOLIO/PORTFOLIO SERVER
www.extensis.com
GRIDIRON FLOW
www.gridironsoftware.com
QUARK PUBLISHING SYSTEM
www.quark.com

PROJECT MANAGEMENT TOOLS

FARMERS WIFE
www.farmerswife.com
SOHNAR TRAFFIC
www.sohnar.com
STREAMTIME
www.previewstreamtime.com
WORKAMAJIG
www.workamajig.com
YOUMEHUB
www.youmehub.com

Illustration: Johann