Shabnam Gideon

Organizing Your Files for Work

I’m pretty sure I ended up writing this post because I’m the only one in the office who complains about how I can never find other people’s files, and how if we all just followed the same naming conventions and file structures we’d never need to ask anyone to send us a link to a file ever, EVER again!

File-OrgA The files are *IN* the computer

But really, it’s simply because we all struggle with organizing the impossibly vast and continually growing number of files that we need access to on a daily basis. Within a group, this struggle is compounded by the fact that every individual thinks differently, and subsequently judges and uses organizational conventions differently.

At Focus Lab, it is clear that our file systems, primarily Dropbox and Drive, have benefitted from a modicum of basic organization, and also that without very granular rules around file naming syntax and folder-nesting principles, those benefits can diminish with every folder that one opens. As such, I’ll share with you some ideas that I keep in mind when organizing my own files.

Location and Recognition

In my mind, when we go to find a file, heck, to find anything, we employ two different ways of thinking.

  • Location: following a structure (in this case, folders) down a logical path or conducting a search
  • Recognition: knowing that the filename you see “contains” the content for which you’re looking

Because of this little nuance in thinking, when we go to store items (files, forks, footwear), we have to keep in mind both the way in which we might go looking for it and also the way we’ll know it is what we think it is when we get there. That brings us to...

Folder Structures

Logical folder structures with repeatable rules and patterns are my dream. In this highly ordered world, I could describe the nesting logic to a total newb and tell them to go find something and the folders would practically open up for them on their way to this glowing file of naming perfection (UX, anyone?). Every group of user is different; we’ve found the following distinctions helpful when defining folder structures at a high level:

  • Internal vs. external work: we have these primary divisions at the highest level.
  • Current vs. past work: within our external projects, we archive projects as soon as they’re complete.
  • Global things: we keep reference assets, documents, templates, etc. in one handy location.
  • Projects: this is where it gets hairy, but we definitely do use some primary groupings.
    • Type of project(s)
      • Legacy assets
      • Working files
      • Final files
      • Packaged assets
    • Contracts and documentation
  • Dates: for items tied to calendar or fiscal years, we definitely have some items stored by date.

Naming Conventions

This is where it gets hairy, Part 2. In my opinion, intelligent file and folder naming involves establishing patterns that are preserved within a given folder, and on which the names of nested files can be based. Let’s break it down using an example client folder:

  • /AwesomeClient1
    • /Branding
    • /Content
    • /Strategy
      • AC1-ContentAudit-20151201.xls
      • AC1-AnalyticsTakeaways-20151201.xls
      • AC1-AnalyticsTakeaways-20141201.xls
    • /Content Production
    • /UX
    • ...etc.

In my mind, I want to locate the client at hand, drill down to the part I’m working on and then be able to tell easily which was the last version of a given file. You can trust the last open/modify date/time only as far as you can throw the engineer that determined the trigger for resetting it. This example also shows you that I prefer to have context-specific filenames in the event that I choose to search for a file versus navigate to it. In other words, if I do a Drive search for “ContentAudit” and I get 42 results with the same filename, my most efficient option is to straight up lose my mind. If I’ve employed a naming convention that gives me results like these instead:

  • AC1-ContentAudit-20131201.xls
  • AC5-ContentAudit-20151201.xls
  • ACB-ContentAudit-20141201.xls

Then I just double-click and go about my day.

My naming rules appear to be:

  • Avoid using spaces in filenames
  • Avoid underscores
  • Use abbreviations that correspond to parent folders, preferably the greatest common factor
  • Follow the same syntax within a folder
  • Include a date of some kind
  • Pay attention to the default sorting setting
  • Create filenames that allow you to distinguish one file from another in a list of search results

Like I hinted at above, if you can establish a structure, document it, teach it to your team, and practice it with integrity, then you stand a good chance of creating a file location system that’s easy to both navigate and search.

Suggestions Welcome

We use Dropbox for most of our design files, and we have some work to do to create a manageable structure for storing and tracking working files vs. files that have been sent for review vs. files that are approved. If you have any recommendations, we’d love to hear them.

Thanks so much for reading!


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