For the modern creative company, keeping track of your digital files is essential for a smooth workflow. A digital asset management solution might just help you meet your deadlines.

Only a few years ago, all but the biggest design jobs could be managed on the hoof. Video clips, animated sequences, 3D models, textures, and still images could be held somewhere on a server or spread across several machines, recalled from memory, and periodically archived to CD whenever disk space ran out.

Today, the tight timescales and sheer complexity of commercial design projects mean that no studio could possibly survive with such a shambolic approach. In order to remain competitive, the survivors in this cut-throat industry are not just those with the best raw skills but those who can master their rapidly increasing volume of digital materials. This is where digital asset management (DAM) comes in.

More than a library

At the heart of every DAM system lies a library of your digital media – a database of work files. Typically, these ‘assets’ are the still images, video clips, and audio tracks you work with. Some of these may be library files available for use, others may be files you have already used in the past but want to make available for re-use in the future.

Take the example of a Web site that is updated daily. The regular churn of content should not make the content itself disposable. The swelling back-catalogue of material should be treated as a business asset as quantifiable as the skills in your fingers, the computer at your desk, and the roof over your head.

The original digital media library packages sought simply to catalogue these files wherever you’d dumped them. The idea was to help designers locate media files spread across royalty-free CDs, backups, hard disks, and server storage.

You could then scroll or search through a window of thumbnails to call up the item you wanted to use – the program would prompt you to enter the relevant disk, or access the appropriate server location to find it. If several people in a studio had catalogued their own file collections to the library, you would know who had which file on their computers.

While it is still possible to work with this system, it can be a nightmare. A modern DAM operates more effectively when acting as a centralized, physical repository for all the media files used by everyone in the studio.

A virtual library is not effective any more, because disparate files littered here and there can go missing, get renamed, be edited by someone, or simply not be catalogued at all. By putting everything in one place, it can be kept up to date and made available instantly across the workgroup. A modern DAM system is not just a database library, it’s a system of control.

Into context

Just as important is the nature of the content maintained by the system. Basic images, QuickTime movies, and AIFF audio files are not enough. Depending upon the industry you work in, you might want a system that catalogued and previewed
DXF models, various MPEG and DV formats, MP3 audio, vector artwork, native Photoshop PSD files, and Camera RAW shots direct from digital cameras.

It also makes sense for a DAM system to support composite artwork and final documents, not just their content components, so you would expect it to catalogue and preview QuarkXPress and InDesign layouts, Web pages, PDF documents and complete movies. By supporting work-in-progress documents such as overlay instructions, customer feedback, on-going proofs and Microsoft Office files, it can be used to track and manage projects from start to finish.

Server setup

A DAM system is essentially a workgroup software package that most typically runs on a client-server setup. Some products insist on high-powered servers running Sun Solaris, although an increasing number now support Windows Server (NT, 2000, XP), Mac OS X Server, and Linux-based systems too.

Obviously, the bigger the network it needs to support, the beefier the server setup needs to be. For example, Quark’s principal DAM products, QPS Enterprise Edition and Content Manager, are based on industrial-strength Oracle 9i server technology.
Focusing more on hardware, DAM demands lots of storage space, and the demand will increase as time goes on.

High-capacity hard disk storage is inexpensive, but surprisingly prone to failure, so treat your digital assets with the same respect as other mission-critical data. For example, get a RAID system and automated backup routines. DAM often reduces the amount of storage in active use across a studio, by cutting back on unnecessary duplication of files on different users’ computers.

It is important for DAM systems to handle permissions – who can view and access various areas of the media repository, and the specifics of checking files in and out of the file store.

This is one of the key features that distinguish DAM from a standalone media library. By forcing each user to check a file out before it is edited, the system can prevent anyone else from working on that file until it is checked back in again.

This avoids that sinking feeling when you realize you’ve been pointlessly working on the same file as someone else for the last two hours, and avoids multiple versions of a file ending up spread across the studio.

The system should be designed to keep track of the edited versions. This way, users can see what changes have been made to a file, by whom, and when, and have the option of rolling back to a previously saved version.

Metadata core

Metadata is the fundamental attribute that makes core DAM work. Unlike the metadata revealed by the File Browser in Adobe Photoshop, which is embedded within the file itself, a DAM system creates its own metadata and assigns it to files within the DAM structure.

This makes it possible to use metadata for anything from keywords and categories to user tracking, file editing history, and version tracking. This kind of metadata makes for very fast searches and flexible categorization within a relational database.

Of course, this metadata needs to come from somewhere – some poor soul will have to type it in. It needs to be structured in a consistent way for the entire repository of digital assets. It’s best to assign one person to manage the assets and catalogues. Whoever draws the short straw needs to catalogue all the new assets in according to an agreed structure.

It helps to apply strict file and folder naming conventions too.

It does not matter what these are – the filename could incorporate a job number, a date or, in the case of Web graphics, pixel dimensions – just as long as they are maintained.

This makes it easier for everyone in the studio to identify one file among similar files – since three differently scaled versions of an image will probably look identical when viewed as thumbnails in the DAM browser.

Assuming not all your digital assets are created in-house or necessarily stay there, support for Adobe’s Extended Metadata Platform (XMP) is becoming increasingly important. This is a W3C-compliant standard for embedding metadata into media files so that the metadata becomes as portable as the files themselves. Freelancers can then tag their files with XMP information before submitting it to the studio.

It may be possible to embed custom XMP metadata, such as ownership details and licence restrictions, into your assets before selling them on.

Managing the digital rights associated with your assets may be a key challenge, depending upon what the assets are, where they were sourced, and how they are being used or resold.

Most of the large DAM systems allow you to determine usage rights and incorporate licence restrictions, but fully featured digital rights management may require the purchase of extra-cost modules on top of the basic system.

Copyright relating to the original source is one major issue. A newspaper or magazine, for example, is likely to handle vast quantities of images to which it only purchased single-use rights.

The DAM system needs to incorporate a facility for preventing re-use of those assets without first obtaining fresh permission and arranging appropriate royalty payments.

Integrated workflow

In the same way that DAM is more than a database, its interface has to do more than show a bunch of searchable thumbnail previews.

Drag-&-drop integration with the user’s operating system is essential. This way, any design package that also supports drag-&-drop objects on the operating system level should be able to accept assets dragged over directly from the thumbnail previews.

Certain DAM products are supplied with XTensions and plug-ins that integrate the system within certain design applications. For example, Portfolio runs an Express Palette in the background that can be called up within any design program using a keyboard shortcut. Alienbrain Studio can be accessed from within a variety of packages including 3DS Max, Maya, Softimage|XSI, and Photoshop.

Naturally, all DAM products provide an Edit Original command to allow you to open any asset for editing within its creator application. However, some also provide built-in editing features, most commonly for still images.

These can be as simple as image rotation and cropping – even Apple’s iPhoto can do this – or may extend to OPI-like proxy functionality by which images placed from the library window into a page layout are applied in low-resolution format, then later replaced automatically with the high-resolution version at output.

The more advanced DAM systems offer additional workflow features such as job tracking and workgroup collaborative tools. This could include overlay sketching on top of visual assets to highlight areas for correction or attention, or simply an internal messaging system for passing instructions to colleagues in the studio, along with instant links to the relevant assets.

Ironically, the print publishing industry is one of the last to wake up to the need for DAM. The development of DAM technology has been driven by games design, digital retouching in movies, and the Web explosion of the past 10 years.

Publishing opportunities

But it’s the combination of Web and print publishing that makes DAM so essential – it’s all about repurposing simultaneous content without duplication. For this reason, many DAM products are geared up for workgroup access via Web browser standards, breaking away from the traditional proprietary ‘viewer’ utility program.

For example, some of the assets you use in the studio may be shared with external partners, or even sold online. A Web-friendly DAM system will be able to handle internal use and external distribution from the same database.

Many DAM Web modules are specifically geared up for presenting online media libraries for Web browser access, and offering keyword search facilities, virtual lightbox features and ecommerce ordering and download functions.

Opening your DAM system to the world can put your server at risk, so security technology is essential. If a DAM supplier cannot prove its security credentials, whether for off-the-shelf solutions or bespoke systems, look elsewhere.


The Web modules for most DAM products are based on Java standards. Although they are designed to be implemented without having to look at any of the Java coding, the Java base allows programmers to customize the look and functionality of your Web catalogues. This is probably not the case for the rest of the package.

It’s important, though, that a DAM system allows for user-driven customization built into the software.

The issue at stake here is whether you should buy a DAM product dedicated to your industry, or a more generic solution and customize it to your workflow. Products such as the Alienbrain range are specifically targeted at games developers and video effects creators.

Picdar’s Media Mogul, on the other hand, covers the wider concept of media publishing, from print and Web to TV advertising and general licensed product branding.

It is important to avoid a system that can’t be opened up to new areas and new types of media asset when your business starts to grow.

Growing the library

A DAM system must be scalable – there must be a way of expanding storage, adding users, and enhancing functionality without being forced to replace the products you have already purchased.

This keeps initial costs low because you don’t need to install a DAM system bigger than your current workflow demands, and avoids redundancy of those initial costs when the time comes to expand.

Easily scalable systems have benefits when working with external sources such as freelance photographers, filmmakers, recording artists, and graphic designers, because each of these freelancers can work with a single-user version of the same DAM program as your central DAM repository.

Finally, with an eye on scalability, ensure the DAM system you choose is compatible not just with a variety of client computers but with your other existing workgroup components too.

For a simple print publishing operation, it may be enough to support a mix of Windows and Macintosh clients, but a Web publishing operation will also need the DAM system to interact with its physical Web site locations, while a video and animation house may need it to hook into Discreet servers.

As with everything else in modern digital media development, the goal is to preserve the workflow, not hinder it.

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