Design File Management
Tom Arah explains how the standalone designer can get on top of their core file management using XP and Vista.
From the computer’s perspective file handling is straightforward. Put the folder path, file name and application extension together and you have a unique pointer to every file on your system. However...
... for the end user this ability to store files anywhere on the hard disk does nothing to help you locate and manage your files – in fact quite the reverse. The obvious solution is to store files in fixed folder locations which is why Microsoft introduced the all-encompassing My Documents folder with Windows 95. The problem is that this suggested storage system proves woefully inadequate for the designer.
My Documents, and XP’s later additions of My Pictures and My Music, were created to deal with a few file types at most. However, the designer typically works with multiple authoring applications each generating their own native file type – QXP, IND, C4D, FLA, SKP, CDR, PSD, AI, EPX, RIFF and so on – and in the special case of web authoring, hundreds of separate HTML files. More to the point each of these applications will almost certainly work by bringing together multiple component files in standard exchange formats: text in the form of the numerous Office formats; graphics in the form of EPS, CGM, TIFF, JPEG, GIF, 3DS, OBJ and so on; and multimedia in the form of MP3, WAV, WMA, WMV and so on. More often than not there will also be an associated proprietary file format used to create the exchange file, a Fireworks PNG to create a JPEG for example. To top it all there will almost certainly be another format for final output – SWF, say, or PDF - or often multiple formats - MPEG or MOV, say, for CD delivery and FLV for Flash delivery - and often in multiple versions – say varying in resolution or codec!
Myriad creative file types makes file management for the designer an especial headache
It’s not just the sheer number of files and file types that the designer has to deal with that make management complicated; there’s the workflow. Each file isn’t just associated with a particular application or applications, it’s also associated with a particular project or multiple projects. Moreover files are coming from multiple sources with bitmap images, for example, being generated, scanned, downloaded from the web, uploaded from cameras, created as screenshots and received from the client. This last external source is particularly important for the designer as it opens up the whole issue of ZIP handling and any number of other compression formats. Even worse, it expands file management to files generated by software that the designer doesn’t actually possess – Ami Pro 1.5 anyone? Working with clients is also an ongoing process which brings in the complication of handling multiple drafts for go-ahead, then proofing and final approval (thank God for PDF). Finally you’re also going to need to take care of ongoing backups and finished archives too.
So how do you stay on top of this potential chaos? Well for most designers the first thing to do is to forget about My Documents – or rather to use it for it was intended: storing your personal files. For work files, you need to create your own dedicated storage arrangement. When buying a system I’ve always found it useful to specify a second separate D:\ drive where all work can be logically contained and kept separate from the OS and apps on C:\. This also makes it much easier to backup data within the system as well as over a network. On systems without a second drive, such as notebooks, create a new master directory in the root called something all-encompassing such as “Data” and make sure all work files are kept in subfolders off it.
You then need to impose some structure within this overall data container. As you really don’t want to have to search complicated tree structures whenever you import and export files, I’d recommend storing component files within master directories for Documents, Bitmaps, Vectors, Audio, Video, Web, 3D and so on, copying in external files as appropriate from a master Received directory. Again to cut down on disk searching when opening, you can store files used to generate the component files within source-specific sub-directories such as Vector\Illustrator and also add subfolders based on major workflow sources such as Bitmaps\Screenshots. The general idea is to pool files to avoid hunting and pecking but again create additional subfolders for particular projects wherever it seems that this will make life easier, say to collect together all the screenshots for a particular walkthrough.
At the same time, parallel to this, I recommend a separate structure for the master files used to bring these components together organized on a project basis. For this I have a master Work directory divided into folders for each client with a separate folder for each project starting with its date in the form YY/MM so that these are automatically chronologically sorted. I also have a general Ongoing backup directory stored on the non-data C:\ drive to where I regularly save projects I’m working on using the application’s own backup capability to ensure that all current associated component files are included. This is just for immediate backup, all data files are also continually backed up across the network to a NAS drive sharing the same folder structure. When the project is finalized and ready to be sent off it again gets internally copied to its own directory in a master Done directory again split into client subfolders and this is where I ensure that all component, component-creating and master files are collected together ready for archiving and future retrieval.
With a reasonably logical folder structure I can be reasonably confident where to find a particular file – give or take the odd subdirectory. However with multiple folders acting as large file pools you need to be able to hone in within them. Clearly the date and size are useful here and the file extension is invaluable as it indicates broadly what a file does. To pin a file down precisely though it’s the file name that is key and so you need to have a consistent naming system. Here I recommend that every file is consistently and comprehensively prefixed starting with the customer’s name, a title for the overall project and the starting date. I also have a less-than-scientific but still useful suffixing system where early file variations and drafts are indicated as 1a, 2b, and so on while, after proofing, later drafts are shifted to x and, after final approval, the production version is given a z. A file named “d:\vector\corel\bt monitor 0708 chart1 z.cdr” tells me all I need to know about it.
XP Explorer’s file handling is often embarrassing.
With an organizational system in place, we now need a file management application and the obvious solution is Windows Explorer. Unfortunately it would be difficult to think of a less promising solution. Because we’ve had to dispense with My Documents et al, the only route in to our files is via My Computer and some awkward initial drilling down. It also means that the main navigation links in Explorer’s side taskbar are useless and bizarrely we can’t customize them. The Favourites menu looks like it will do the job but bizarrely this lists all your web bookmarks! And don’t get me started on the appalling “user-friendly” Search Companion dog-thing which somehow manages to make a simple task into a confusing and laborious multi-step chore.
Thankfully all is not lost. To begin, with you can create a shortcut on the Desktop to your main D:\ drive or Data directory and then add this to your QuickLaunch bar by Ctrl+dragging. Even better, if you hold down Shift when double-clicking to open this shortcut or any other folder icon, Windows Explorer’s near-useless task pane is replaced by a Folders view which shows a tree view of your folders including access to network folders. This isn’t just much better for navigation, it makes it much easier to copy and move files by dragging rather than using the awkward cut-navigate-paste or multiple window systems. It’s such a step up that many users will want to set this as their default Explorer Setup via Tools > Folder Options. Although it’s not ideal, you can also create a dedicated folder in your Favourites bookmarks for storing file locations and relatively quickly navigate between your main top-level folders via that. Finally you can also save common searches so that you can keep contact with the lovable Search Companion to a minimum.
Unfortunately, when you’ve managed to navigate to the right directory, Windows Explorer again proves embarrassingly underpowered. From the designer’s point of view clearly it’s a massive advantage to be able to see the contents of your files and it looks like the Thumbnails view obliges. However only the main bitmap formats are supported natively and third-party support is patchy to say the least. In any case the fixed thumbnail size is too small to be truly useful. The end result is that for most tasks designers will be forced to work in the Details list view especially as this is the only view in which you can sort files by clicking on the Name, Size, Date and Type column headers.
With features such as a dual pane view and file filtering the free PowerDesk leaves Explorer trailing
With a bit of effort XP’s Explorer can be made about serviceable, but clearly it’s not ideal - and I rarely use it. Instead for the last decade or so I’ve been using versions of PowerDesk (www.v-com.com) for my file handling and it’s one of the few applications which I automatically load every day. PowerDesk immediately addresses most of Explorer’s most obvious failings. To begin with, it provides a tree view panel by default, offers a toolbar for quick access to all drives and its Favourites menu is designed for storing your most commonly used folders. In addition its separate no-frills File Finder program with its multiple tabs in which you set search criteria is far superior to Explorer’s.
As well as plugging these gaps, PowerDesk offers better handling of ZIP compressed folders and capabilities such as batch renaming. It also offers the crucial ability to filter file listings so that you can quickly hide cluttering sub-directories, for example, or limit your view to a particular file type and then sort these by date or file size. Even better, PowerDesk offers a dual pane view – when working with source and target folders this is such an obvious benefit that, having experienced it, it’s difficult to imagine life without it. And I’ve saved the best for last - VCOM provides all this file handling power for free.
The free PowerDesk Standard puts Explorer to shame, so what more does the full PowerDesk Pro 6 ($40) offer? There’s a host of new power starting with the ability to save workspace and folder setups for instant re-loading and support for no less than 32 compression formats. There’s also support for thumbnails, which is disabled in the freeware version, and, far more useful, the ability to open a full-size preview pane. Previewing only works with certain file types and, understandably, most design formats outside the obvious bitmap standards aren’t included. However the ability to dig into a compressed LZH file that you’ve received and to view, say, the XLS file that it contains is invaluable. And yes Ami Pro and copying to the clipboard are supported too. In addition PowerDesk 6 also provides a number of integrated utilities for handling FTP, enhancing Windows’ File Open and Save Dialogs and for synchronizing folders. The latter is especially powerful but I wouldn’t want to rely on manual backup so strongly recommend another utility, SecondCopy ($30 from www.centered.com), which lets you set up automatic backups across the network and even remotely via FTP.
Vista Explorer provides a more visual and attractive environment
By ignoring My Documents and Windows Explorer and using your own file management strategy and utilities it’s possible to take control of file handling under XP – but it’s clearly an indictment of Microsoft that that should be necessary. As such, I was especially keen to see how Microsoft would reinvent Windows’ file handling in the new Vista. My initial reaction was disappointment. The cringe-worthy “My Documents” has gone but the same principle lives on with separate preset folders for Documents, Music and Pictures – fine for home users but nothing else. Likewise Vista’s Explorer looks relatively little changed from the XP version - there’s certainly nothing like the PowerDesk-style dual pane view that I was hoping for.
Look a bit deeper though and it becomes apparent that the changes to Vista’s file handling are more far-reaching than they appear at first. To begin with, XP’s pathetic taskpane has been replaced by a new Navigation panel which provides instant access to a list of Favourite disk locations (no web bookmarks!). For some reason there’s no Add to Favourites command, but right-click on an empty space and select Open Favourites Folder and you can add your own shortcuts. At the bottom of the Navigation pane, there’s also a Folders panel that you can drag up to provide the essential tree view of your system. Vista even adds a file handling innovation with its interactive Address Bar which not only displays the current folder location but provides dropdowns at each level of the path showing alternative subdirectories that you can quickly jump to.
The real difference between Vista and XP becomes apparent in the file handling within each directory. To begin with Vista’s resizable thumbnails makes this visual approach more usable while, even in list view, a large thumbnail of the selected file is displayed in the new Details panel at the bottom of the screen along with additional information such as file size, tags and author. Even better, hidden away as an option in the Organize menu’s Layout command, is the ability to open a full-size Preview pane similar to the PowerDesk capability. Current file support is pretty miserable but this should change - assuming developers ever notice that the capability is there.
A more subtle but even more significant change is that Name, Date, Type and Size column headers are now provided for file sorting in all views including Thumbnails. Even better, if you click on the down arrow next to the column header, you’ll find extra commands which allow you to group similar items together or stack them which creates “virtual folders” that you can drill through to. This is particularly useful with the Type options where a list of all file types is shown complete with check boxes so that you can quickly filter your directory to show, say, only the PNG and GIF files and then drill through to deal with these separately.
Vista’s instant search offers far more flexible file management
Filtering by type is extremely useful but what about filtering by name? This is where Vista really comes into its own – simply type into the new Search Bar at the top of the window to the right of the Address Bar and the number of matching files displayed narrows down with each letter that you type – profoundly satisfying as well as useful. However you might be in for a surprise when you see which files it has picked out. To begin with, the number of hits might be higher than you expect because Vista’s search: automatically looks in all subdirectories of the current directory; isn’t limited to the beginning of the filename; and can also find matches in the actual content of supported files. In addition some files that you expect to be there might be missing as searching is limited to the beginning of words.
Clearly we need to think about this a little more to take full control. The automatic searching of subfolders is invaluable as it means that you can effectively limit or extend your scope as desired, even treating your entire data collection as a single virtual folder. The searching of the entire filename is just as useful as it means you can search on any element in your file naming convention. And searching only from the beginning of words proves useful too as, with YYMM naming, a search for 06 finds all files from 2006 rather than those from 2006 and any June. However you do need to be able to limit searches to filenames to avoid false positives. This is easily done by making sure that your data directories aren’t included in Vista’s index which is handled by Control Panel’s Indexing Options. Alternatively, for faster searching, you can index your files but then limit searches to filenames by entering “name:” before your search term. You can also use the logical operators AND, OR and NOT and treat the extension as part of the filename.
Put it all together and the implications are enormous. In particular because of our underlying hierarchical tree arrangement and strict naming convention it’s simple to search just within images, say, or Illustrator files or archived versions of a particular customer’s production files or all JPEG and GIF files from 2007. Moreover, as the search results are returned as a virtual folder, you can then quickly sort, group, stack or filter them. And if there are particular searches that you use regularly, these can even be saved as a Search folder and quickly accessed directly from the Navigation pane.
Compared to what went before this is extraordinary power and an extraordinary turnaround. Forget about those first impressions and the restrictive handholding of preset folders; with a logical folder and naming structure Vista’s new search capabilities mean that you can access your files anyway you want, irrespective of their physical location on your hard disk. Of course Vista Explorer is by no means perfect – and for starters I hope that Microsoft will add a split view, customisable keyboard shortcuts and integrate instant searching into the standard File Open dialog. However, underneath its deliberately – almost perversely – unassuming surface, Vista offers some serious file management power. At last.
Tom Arah is the webmaster of designer-info.com. He has been a professional designer working with computer software since 1987. He also offers training and consultancy and since 1997 has been the contributing editor covering design issues for PC Pro, the UK's biggest-selling (and best) computer monthly.