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.


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: [download id=”70″]. 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!