Tips for Creative & Digital Archives

Graphic. Title text, "Tips for Organizing Digital Libraries," overlaid on a photo of manila folders.

Digital archival is an important part of a designer’s job. A creative or digital archive includes all the computer files of client copy, client-supplied graphics, logos, design files, and final art. Digital archives are important for designers to complete day-to-day jobs. We as designers refer to examples of past works to make new pitches; update or otherwise recycle projects or parts of projects; and maintain backups for preservation and version control.

Creative and digital archives are primarily digital because a digital format is the native product of design applications. Also, digital artwork is easy to share between clients, designers, and vendors. As a result, many designers go paperless and store everything on a computer hard drive or with an online cloud service.

Yet maintaining all the digital files that go into an archive can become an afterthought as daily tasks and urgent projects snatch attention. The longer the digital archive stays in disarray, the longer it takes designers to find files, assets, and presentation pieces—and the mounting disorganization leads to frustration!

Instead, keep creative archives and digital libraries clean and orderly. Digital archival is easy to set up and maintain with a good strategy.

I like to file away client projects, creative assets, and stock graphics different ways, depending on how I search for them. Digital archives and naming conventions can of course vary from company to company, but many of these tips span the industry as general best practices.

Create a parent directory for each client.

Assign each client a folder; nest client sub-committees as more folders inside. To different projects for sub-committees from the parent, I like to add a folder labeled “Generic” to contain the digital files for the parent company at large.

Graphic. Illustration of a series of folders labeled with the names of clients.

Organize the projects:

Inside each client folder, create folders for the client projects. There are so many ways to do this, and it may vary depending on the size of the client, how much work they require, and how often.

Digital Archives By date.

Create folders for each project and label with a date and relevant keywords. I like to label dates in the format YYYY-MM-DD with hyphens and zeroes for single digits (e.g. 2018-08-23). This method is helpful when:

  •  the client is small
  •  projects are non-repetitive
  •  projects don’t arise as often
Graphic. Illustration of a series of folders labeled with a project start date and brief description.

Digital Archives By project type.

Create folders for each project type, and then nestle inside folders for relevant projects. Some projects are repetitive and can be grouped together. This might be by media, such as “Emails” and “Flyers,” or this might be by major event, such as “Annual Tournament” or “Networker.”

Also maintain master templates separately from production pieces. This preserves the original versions and helps users locate files faster. (A master template is visited often during production, where each file produced from the master receives a new name and folder; however, old production pieces aren’t returned to as often.)

This method is helpful when:

  •  projects are repetitive
  •  projects arise more often
Graphic. Illustration of a series of folders labeled by project type, then sorted by date.

Digital Archives By Project Step.

Small projects can be further organized by project steps. I often organize logo and visual identity projects this way so the folders mimic my creative process. Since some files might be re-visited later, dates are less helpful. An alphabetical naming convention places steps out of order. Instead, name step folders appropriately and prepend a number, such as “0 Archive,” “1 Logo”, “2 Mood Boards,” “3 Sitemap”, “4 Wireframes,” “5 Mockups,” and so on.

Graphic. Illustration of a series of folders labeled by project step number.

Stock Graphics vs. Other Digital Archives

Designers reference and use stock graphics differently than client work. Generally, stock graphic digital archives need to be modular and recyclable.

Firstly, multiple digital files may link to a single stock graphic. (This practice is ideal, since reusing a file reduces file space and storage needs, centralizes edits, and is generally easier to locate.) It makes sense, then, to store stock graphics in one, easy to find location, rather than subdividing stock graphics by dates, project types, steps, or other methods.

Secondly, stock graphics require a greater awareness of licensing and usage restrictions. Client work, generally speaking, is copyrighted to the client upon the designer’s receipt of final payment. Each party understands and gives permissions as need to complete the project. Stock graphics, on the other hand, may differ from those permissions. For example, a designer may assign the client copyright to the final, finished work but retain license ownership to the stock graphics used therein. For another example, a designer may elect to use stock graphics purchased at zero cost—but must obey a license that forbids the graphics’ usage in commercial works.

Thirdly, the designer may invent original stock graphics that are used from client to client.

Because of the differences in shared links, licensing, reusability, and sometimes originality, digital archives of stock graphics also organized differently.

Organizing Stock Photos & Graphics Digital Archives

First, I created two sub-folders inside my stock graphics folder: “CC0” and “Purchased – Standard.” My clients don’t require extended licensing, but if they did, I’d add another “Purchased – Extended.” Additionally, I also liked having my “Logos” and “Original” graphics folders here too.

Afterwards, I apply the following naming convention to my purchased stock graphics in their digital archive:

Vendor IDnumber – keyword, keyword, keyword

The vendor and stock ID number identify the graphic’s source if I need to re-download the file, purchase an extended license, or find similar graphics. Next, the string of keywords helps me query the digital library. I further apply broad terms that can group items, such as “mockup,” “background,” and “portrait,” as well as distinguish items, like “woman,” “close-up,” and “abstract.”

Graphic. Illustration of a series of stock graphics with the naming convention "Vendor," "ID Number," and "Tag(s)".

Finally, also consider saving a JPEG or PNG version of each stock graphic, if it itself is not one. This allows me to search by thumbnail image without opening additional programs. It’s also helpful for coworkers to find the files too when they don’t have Adobe applications or other special programs to preview files.

Partner and sponsor logos have usage to stock graphics but don’t require as much documentation.

Other graphics aren’t actually stock, but are used in similar fashion—partner and sponsor logos. These aren’t actually design clients, and so don’t require their own client directory, but a centralized location is still key. Logos can be grouped by naming conventions alone. Alternatively, larger organizations with logo variations for departments and committees might benefit from folders too. The key here is to be consistent. Give folders to all, or develop a naming convention that can be used for all.