How to organize and protect your digital files

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There are a lot of things that are essential to your creative business. A lot of these are tangible items like your finished artwork and products, works in progress, equipment and supplies, and electronics like your computer and mobile devices.

But some of your most important business assets are things that you can’t touch. However, if you lost them or couldn’t easily access them you’re pretty much screwed. These are your digital assets. Like product photos, financial records, customer contact information, your website or Etsy store.

If you’ve ever suffered a computer crash, or a virus, or was locked out of your website, you realize how essential your digital assets are to your business whether you operate it entirely online or just a portion of it. As a creative you instinctively understand the need to protect your art and the equipment and tools you use to produce it. As someone who runs a creative business, you also need to be equally protective of the digital assets that help make your business run. Here are some tips on how to organize and protect your most essential digital files.

Take a digital inventory

The first step in organizing your digital assets is to take a full inventory of what you have and where it’s currently located. What kind of digital files will you be inventorying? Basically, you need to inventory anything that you need to run your business. Write down where that asset is currently located, whether it’s on your computer, your mobile device, in a cloud service like Dropbox or Google Drive, or some other online service.

For example, I write all of my blog posts in Evernote and they also exist in final form on my blog. So in my inventory, that’s where I indicate where my blog posts are located. If you have an Etsy store, much of the information for your store may be stored on Etsy. If you have an email list, all the information about your list and your subscribers may be stored on a service like Mailchimp or Constant Contact.

Include this information in your digital inventory and include any login information you may need for any of these services. If your information is located in multiple places, write that down too. Here is a list of digital assets you may include in your inventory:

Financial and sales records

  • sales records
  • receipts
  • budgets and financial planning
  • tax documents
  • banking information

Customer information

  • contact information
  • purchasing history
  • email lists
  • communications (emails, digital notes)

Media

  • photos (product photos, photos of your studio, marketing photos, social media photos)
  • video
  • audio
  • graphics (marketing graphics like logos, website graphics, social media images)

Content

  • website/online store content
  • social media content
  • marketing assets (brochures, line sheets, product descriptions, artist statements, artist bios)

Legal

  • Consignment agreements
  • Contracts
  • Commission agreements
  • Licensing agreements

Software, apps, and services

  • Installed software (eg: Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop, etc)
  • Mobile apps (eg: Evernote)
  • Services (eg: MailChimp, website hosting, Etsy)

This is just a brief list. You may not have everything listed here or you may have other things that pertains to your particular business that aren’t listed here. The inventory allows you to see exactly what you need to allow your business to run smoothly, where it’s located, and how to access it. Once you start keeping an inventory you’ll probably find you have a lot more essential digital assets than you thought.

Organize your assets

One thing that you may notice while you’re doing your inventory is that your assets are usually not all located in the same place. Or you may have multiple copies of the same file in different locations. OR you may have different version of the same file in different locations. If you have a lot of digital assets, this can get fairly confusing really quickly and it can eventually cause you some problems.

You may not be able to quickly find what you need without sifting through dozens of files. Or you may have a newer version of a file located in one place and an older version elsewhere, and no clear indication of which file you really need. Plus, if you have someone assisting you this makes it harder for you to point them the files they may need to do their jobs.

Once you get an initial inventory of your digital files, it’s a good idea to organize them so that you can eliminate unneeded duplicates, make sure that you have the correct version of files in your inventory, and are able access any given file quickly and easily. Here are some tips on how you can make organizing your files easier.

Eliminate duplicate files wherever possible– Through the course of working with your digital assets, you may find that you have a lot copies of the same file located on your computer or other digital devices. Go through all of your files and get rid of duplicates where you can.

Designate “master” copies of duplicate files– There are some cases where you do need to keep multiple versions of the same file. For example, photographs of your artwork may be something that you have multiple versions of; such as a higher resolution version that you may use for print and media relations purposes and a lower resolution version that you use for your website or social media.

Or you may have duplicates located in multiple places to make accessing them easier. For example, you may have copies of files located both on your computer and on a cloud service like Dropbox so that you can access those files over the internet.

Determine which of the files are the “master” version of the file so that you know which file to backup or which file to go to if you need to make a copy or which file you version from. You can do this by putting them in a special folder or by color-coding the file name or adding a naming convention like “-original” or “-master” or something similar at the end of the file name.

Use naming conventions whenever possible– Speaking of naming conventions, they can be a life saver when it comes to organizing your files. Simply put, a naming convention is a system in how you name your digital files so that the name of the file can indicate what that file is. One area in which naming conventions really come in handy are when naming image files of your artwork or product images.

If you’re taking photos of your artwork with a digital camera, you’ll notice that the camera generates a generic file name like “DSC001.jpg” or “IMG_1500.jpg” for every image. Those files name tells you nothing about what the image is about, the subject matter of the image, or anything that can help you find a specific file on your computer quickly. A good system of naming conventions can help with that.

How you set up your own conventions for naming your files is up to you and depends on what kind of files and depends on what kind of files you’re organizing and how you tend to categorize things in your business.

For example, all of my jewelry have both a name and a product number that I use to inventory them, so I use both of these elements in the naming convention for my product images (eg. bb2001_Yellow_Hillsides_Earrings). Often, I have multiple shots of the same item, so in addition to the the product number and the jewelry name, I’ll also add a number at the end of the file, so I can tell whether it’s photo #1 or #2 and so on (eg. bb2001_Yellow_Hillsides_Earrings1, bb2001_Yellow_Hillsides_Earrings2).

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With this method I can use the search feature on my computer to find a specific product photo using either the inventory number or the product name. This method has worked quite well for me so far. Here are a couple of tips to help you develop your own naming conventions:

1. Choose elements that will help you describe what the file is; such as inventory number, names, dates, location, potential file use (is the file for print purposes? Social media? Public relations?), or file type.

2. Organize the elements in the file name by order of importance. So what’s the most important thing you need to know about a file when you’re looking for it? Is it the inventory number? Is it the date? Is it which social media channel you’re using the file for? For me, the inventory number was the most important element, then the product name. When you’re developing your naming convention, start by the element you’re most likely to search for first. Then add the next important element and keep going from there.

3. Use underscores to separate elements in the file names instead of spaces, dashes or other characters. Why? Using underscores will make it easier to find your files using your computer’s search feature rather than using dashes or other characters.

4. Choose only as many elements as needed to identify your file. If you don’t need a date or a location or some other element to help you figure what a particular file is, don’t use it in your naming convention. Remember that most computers only allow a certain amount of characters in file names. So only use the elements you need to identify a particular type of file.

5. Use different naming conventions for different types of files as needed. You probably don’t need to use the exact same type of naming convention for social media images or financial documents as you do for product images.

6. Be consistent. Apply the same naming convention to each file type consistently. If you decide that you want to name your social media images first by subject, then by channel, then by date, name them all that way. If you find that another naming convention would work better, don’t suddenly switch starting with new files. If you can, go back to the old files and rename them.

7. Use abbreviations where possible. If you’re finding that your file names are getting really long, use abbreviations where appropriate. For example I name my social media images by the subject matter of the image, the date, and then the channel. Instead of typing out the entire social media channel name (e.g. FollowFriday_07.15.16_Instagram), I’ll abbreviate the name of the social media channel to shorten the file name (e.g. FollowFriday_07.15.16_IG). And be sure to be consistent with your abbreviations as well.

Use folders to organize your files

Give some thought to how you organize your folder system on your computer and (if you use one) your cloud storage service. Throwing everything into one folder or a series of ill-defined folders can make a big unorganized mess. It can also be a big time waster to have drill through multiple levels of folders to get to the file you need as well.

Like naming conventions, how you set up your folder system is entirely up to you and it should be set up in a way that allows you to get to things easily and quickly. Here are some tips on he you can set up your digital folder system.

1. Use broad categories to create your folders. When your developing your system of folders, think of the broad categories you organize your business around; “Financials”, “Marketing”, “Photos”, “Contracts”, “Website”, “Past Projects”, “Current Projects”, etc. If you share your computer with partners, assistances, or family members, create separate folders for them.

2. Use subfolders where needed. You can further organize your files with your main folders by using subfolders. Unlike your main folders, subfolders can be more specific. While you shouldn’t worry too much about how deep your make your subfolder system, you also don’t want to have a bunch of subfolders that only have 1 file in it.

3. Consider naming conventions for certain subfolders. Say for example that a lot of your work is project based and you create a subfolder for each project. Consider creating a naming convention for each project subfolder so you can quickly scroll through your all of your subfolders.

4. Use special characters to help organize subfolders. Most folders and subfolders are automatically arranged alphabetically. If you have a folder that you want to pin to the top of your folder list, add a symbol (such as: ! ~ * @) to the beginning of the folder name. This works well with folders that are especially important to you.

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Back it all up

Once your filing system is under control, you need to make sure that you keep all of your files backed up and secure. Losing your digital assets because of a computer failure can cripple your business for days, even weeks. Creating a back up system and backing up your files needs to be a regular part of your business routine.

When developing your backup system, you have several options:

1. Back up to an external drive– If you have an external hard drive, you can use your computer’s backup software (for PCs use File History or Windows Backup, for Mac use Time Machine) to save a copy of your files on that hard drive. The great thing about using an external drive is that the only cost is purchasing the drive. And your file backup is only a USB connection away. If your internet goes down, you’ll still be able to access your files. The downside is that your hard drive can be vulnerable to things like fire and theft. Plus…just like your computer, external drives can fail as well.

2. Use a backup service– Another method is backing up your files over the internet using a service like Crashplan, Carbonite, BackBlaze, or IDrive. The benefit of using a backup service is that your files are backed up automatically on the service’s web storage system. So you don’t have to reminder yourself to do a back up and you don’t have to worry so much about theft, fire or other disasters that could befall your local external drive. The downside of using a backup service is that you will incur a monthly cost (usually around $5 per month) and the actual backup tends to be slower than using an external drive.

3. Back up to cloud storage service– A lot of people use a cloud service like Google Drive, Dropbox, or Box as a “backup” service for their files. While a lot of these services have plans that are completely free, don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re the same as using something like Carbonite or Crashplan. A dedicated backup service backs up your computer at specific points in time, in much the same that Time Machine or Windows Backup does. If something happens to your computer and you want to restore it back to the way it was last Tuesday, a backup service will allow you to do so. Cloud storage is good for making specific files available for you outside of your computer. It does not create a backup that you can restore your computer from. That’s the big downside of using cloud storage as a backup system.

4. Use a variety of different methods– A lot of computer security experts will recommend that you use a combination of backup options that allow you use both an “onsite” method (like an external drive) and an “offsite” method (such as back up service or cloud storage) so that you have multiple backups that you can access at any time. For example, you could back up your computer to a local external drive using Time Machine (Mac) or File History (PC) and then save a copy of that backup to a cloud storage service like Google Drive. Or you can use a backup service and manually back up your computer to an external drive as well. Using a combination of methods gives you a multiple layers of security for your files.

Once you decide on a method, create a plan to keep things backed up and stick to it. If you’re going to back up your files using an external hard drive, decide how often you’re going to back up (once a month should be the absolute minimum), put an appointment on your schedule and stick to it. And don’t forget to back up any assets that are stored on a mobile device like a phone or a tablet.

Keep It Secure

In addition to regularly backing up your files you also want to make sure that you keep your computer safe from viruses, hacks and other kinds of computer ‘malware’. One seriously heinous type of malware that’s been on the rise lately is called “ransomware”. Ransomware essentially holds access to your computer or your data files hostage while the attackers demands money from you to release them. Ransomware can not only temporarily put your business at a standstill, it can also cost a lot of money to regain access to your files.

Regularly backing up your digital assets will make it easier to restore your files if you ever get hit with a virus or if you become a target for ransomware, but preventing these incidents is always much better than recovering from one.

Secure your computer and all of your online accounts with strong passwords (a combination of letters, numbers, and characters) and don’t use the same password for every account. Make sure that you change your passwords on a regular basis. For more tips on how to choose good passwords, check out this post.

Install anti-virus and firewall software on your computer to help block viruses and hackers and keep it up to date. Most of all, carefully monitor your own online behavior. A lot of viruses and attacks can be attributed to being careless with basic computer security. Avoid clicking on dodgy online ads (viruses can be transmitted through them). Don’t click on links in emails that claim to come from your bank or emails requesting password or financial information. And don’t download software and apps from software providers you’re not familiar with. Be sure to check out this awesome article on ransomware from Lifehacker.

Keep It Organized

Now that you have your files properly organized, backed up and secure, come up with a plan to keep them that way. Schedule some time on your calendar once a month or once a quarter to go through and clean up and reorganize your files. Update your digital inventory. Make sure that your folders are organized and update your naming conventions and filing system as needed. And delete old and outdated files and folders on a regular basis.

Conclusion

The task of organizing and securing your most important digital files often isn’t something that a lot of creatives think of, but can be vitally crucial to the smooth operation of your business. Having an organized digital filing system will can save you time during your day to day tasks and a good back up system and security will help keep your digital assets safe.

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One Response to How to organize and protect your digital files

  1. Joan Chamberlain July 26, 2016 at 9:18 pm #

    Great article. Exactly what I need right now. As a visual artist, sometimes it seems I generate images faster than I can stuff them in folders. I was just thinking about how I can corral everything for easy retrieval, and this information gives me a place to start. Thank you!

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