When it comes down to it, the two most attractive words to me as a professional designer are “billable hours.” I do my best to be as organized as possible to ensure that the greatest number of hours I spend working will be “billable hours.” Don’t get me wrong – there is a fair amount of work that I do that is not billable – but I make sure to do whatever possible to increase the likelihood that my design work is billable.
One of the most important things that designers can do from a time and file management perspective is keep design files organized in layers and folders. If you’ve been in the industry for any amount of time, you’ve most certainly worked on a design project using files created by someone else. If you were lucky, the previous designer was organized. It’s more likely that you received a Photoshop file with a stack of layers as tall as a skyscraper, most of which were named “Layer 15 copy 37” or some iteration of that.
Working with files like this is cumbersome and time consuming at best. I end up spending hours cleaning up these files before I even get a chance to complete the task that was assigned to me in the first place. Multiply the time it takes to organize one file by an entire project or a client’s entire project load and you will quickly become overwhelmed with frustration.
So what can be done to deal with a problem like this? The answer is so incredibly easy that I am surprised every time I receive a design file that isn’t organized.
Name Your Layers
When creating a design file, you generally start with a blank canvas and a background layer. From there you add text and any number of items until the design is complete. One of the easiest things to do during the process is name each and every layer of your document and then group those layers into folders.
An example of how I organize a basic website design is displayed in Figure 1. Notice how each section of the website is broken into folders. Within each of those folders there are any number of layers and additional folders as needed to segment and compartmentalize the design. This not only makes it easy to find the item that you need to edit, it allows you to make complete design changes with the click of a button.
For example, let’s say the client wants to have multiple options for a rotating image in the header of the website design. Since I already have one created, I can use that group as a template. All I need to do in this case is duplicate the current folder and edit the contents as needed. But don’t forget to rename that new copy. “Header copy” isn’t very descriptive at all. Figure 2 displays how the “Header” folder looks after I have created a second version and group both of those folders into one main “Header” folder.
It does take time to name and rename folders as needed when working on a design, but this is a small tradeoff for a well maintained file. The best practice that you can put in place is to name layers as you go. The benefits can be realized immediately, and never quit paying off.
You can even take this method another step further by assigning colors to your layers, but that is another level of organization that really requires a firm hold on layer naming before it can be applied effectively.
“Wait a minute. How does naming my layers pay off in the long term?” you may say. Well, think about it from the perspective that was described above but in reverse. Let’s say you have an old client that hires a new designer. This new designer will be given your old design files to complete the task. Since your design files are organized into appropriately named layers, there will be no problem. If you provide designs that are rife with “Layer 15 copy 37,” it’s a good possibility that this new designer may contact you with questions regarding your files, maybe even requesting that you clean up the file and submit it upon completion. You are no longer being paid for this work and are now assisting on a project for which you will not be paid. There it is again, “billable hours” rearing its head to take money out of your pocket and time that could easily be spent elsewhere, like on a project that you are actually being paid to complete.
There are many other benefits of naming layers, not least of which is added search functionality. There are now tools in the Photoshop layers panel for searching and sorting layers by type. And for those of you using Mac, Spotlight also searches Photoshop layer names.
So What’s Next?
Now that you are naming your layers and design work is chugging right along, what else can be done to keep your work organized. This is where employing a consistent file naming convention comes into play.
Working for a design company that deals with multiple companies that may have an additional level of clients that they serve, files can get disorganized very easily and quickly. I begin by keeping files organized by client. From there going forward, it really is different with each and every project.
The most important thing to keep in mind when naming folders and files is to title it appropriate to the task. Banner ad files go in the “Banner Ads” folder. Designs and updates to the website go in the “Website” folder. From there I employ basic logic to my folder naming convention. Working on a hay ride ad campaign featuring a 300×250 banner for the state fair? That’s going in the /State Fair/Banner Ads/Hay Ride 300×250/ folder.
It really is that easy. Just remember to name files and folders logically so that at any time in the future when you need to access the files again, you will easily be able to determine not only where to look for the file, but what the file was for in the first place. There is a lot of information that can be gleaned from a file management system that will help you streamline your production process and keep you working in the magical world of “billable hours.”
Now go open your old design files and clean them up. You’ll thank yourself later for the effort.