Keeping Track of Design Files

Have you ever sent someone a photo of Nicolas Cage when you meant to send your resume? Are your files such a mess that you’re afraid you might? Are they labeled inscrutable things like “picture.jpg” and scattered all over your desktop? A simple, clear file management system is the best way to stay organized and avoid embarrassing Nic Cage moments.

I created a clear and easy-to-use file structuring system over the course of many internships and jobs from all over the design spectrum. It’s useful for projects where you’re the only designer, but especially helpful for teams. I’m mostly a print designer, but this system works for web designers, writers, or anyone whose freelance work generates a lot of files.

Projects and Clients

Everything starts in the master file. I keep all my design files in one folder, called projects. The projects folder contains a unique folder for each client. (I count agencies as “clients,” at this level, even if the work is for a specific one of their clients.) These folders are simply labeled with a short client name in lowercase. For example Stunner Ranch would just be “stunner.”

Jobs

Each client folder holds another set of folders. These are the different jobs I’ve done for that client, sorted by job number. When I name these folders, first I assign the job a unique number and then I add a short description of the project. The resulting folder names look something like “316-tshirt” or “619-poster.” I tie the job number to every file I’ll create for that job, including invoices, receipts, etc.

I used to keep an additional folder within the client folder to house global assets such as logos and style guides. I found this to get too cluttered over time, especially when these elements were updated. Now I just duplicate what I need for each job and keep those things in the job folder alongside everything else.

Working Design

The design bucket is where all the working files live. Most of the time I work from one Illustrator file with a single giant artboard. I’ll drag logos around for each little iteration without worrying about creating new files. This is the one place where I allow clutter on my screen.

The one-artboard approach works fine for Illustrator and Sketch, but it becomes a little more difficult in Photoshop. Sometimes I create a new Photoshop layer folder for each idea, but that creates very large files and slows down the computer. If it’s too much, I just create a new file for each idea.

I copy the design bits over to the presentation file once I narrow down what I want to show the client. I mark the selections with a star shape in the design folder, so I know what I’ve pulled. Everything in the presentation file gets outlined (type and stroke) so I know it’s from a check-in milestone, and also to avoid any issues when sending them to the client.

Presentation

The presentation file is a single Adobe Illustrator file that I reuse each time I check in with a client and show them my progress. I export this presentation as a PDF into the presentation folder at each milestone to keep snapshots of what it’s looked like in the past. I use these PDFs as a record, in case I need to look back on anything. I don’t create a new Illustrator file for each revision. PDFs take up less room on my hard drive (and Dropbox plan) than multiple working design files.

The naming convention I use for the file is {job number}-{short client name}-{short description}-{year}-{month}-{day}. For example, the working design file would be 316-stunner-tshirt–2015–03–29. I’ve worked with project mangers who label client-facing documents with letters and internal documents with numbers. So 316-stunner-tshirt–2015–03–29-v8 gets passed around internally, while 316-stunner-tshirt–2015–03–29-vC gets emailed to the client.

Support

The support folder contains anything that isn’t directly tied to the design process. I usually have three or so buckets in here: documents, linked, and mood. Documents are just that: random documents connected with the project. The linked folder is where I keep anything that is linked to the working Illustrator folder, such as textures or images. These are carefully labeled with the job numbers and a description, such as 316-texture-smoke or 316-logo-flat. Anything that is directly linked, such as a logo, gets added to the linked folder. I create a mood board for each project, and these images live in the mood folder. The actual mood board lives in the presentation file and is always part of client presentations. I add more buckets to the support folder as I need them, such as sourced images for stock photos or client assets that the client sends over in the course of the project.

Ship

The last bucket is the ship folder. This houses all the final files that get sent to the printer, uploaded to Facebook, or otherwise shipped out. These are sometimes labeled per the printer’s guidelines. I never, ever put the word “FINAL” in a file name for the simple reason that nothing has ever been “final” since the world began. Don’t be the clown who has files labeled final.psd, final2.psd, usethisone.psd. There should only be one file in here per output, and they should be named things like “316-tshirt-front.eps” and “316-tshirt-back.eps.” If the printer asks for a change, I just edit this file, add the date to the filename, and send it back.

Conclusion

I try to adhere to this system as strictly as possible. Even small projects can get cluttered up quickly; having a system will keep you sane. The system I’ve just outlined can easily be customized for whatever your needs are, but the key is to keep all your client work sorted into separate, clearly labeled folders — so you can’t confuse them with photos of Nicolas Cage.