Managing the files and reference materials that you’ve compiled over the course of a project (or even your entire career) can be a daunting task. You need to organize invoices, proposals, creative files, mock-ups, research sources and a myriad of other folders and files for later reference. And let’s face it: most operating systems have inadequate file management tools for power users.
Below are a number of apps and resources that you can use to manage your files and resources. Some are Web-based, some desktop-based and some are analog (i.e. paper-and-pen-based). The one that’s right for you will depend largely on your workflow and what you need to keep organized.
1. Online Tools
A number of online tools are out there to organize your references and even your files in some cases. Below are some of the best. An online tool might work best for you if you do a lot of research for your projects or if you need to be able to access your information from multiple computers.
Evernote is an online notebook that lets you capture information from all over the Web and then access it from anywhere. You can add notes, add media files, take screenshots and more. Evernote indexes all of your information automatically, and you can add tags and keep separate notebooks for separate subjects. Free and premium ($5 per month) accounts are available.
Open Atrium is really an open-source Intranet platform, but it has features useful for keeping track of research and projects, most notably a wiki and blog feature. Because it lets multiple users share resources, it’s a great solution to consider if you need to keep multiple team members connected and informed.
RefWorks is an online research management and collaboration tool. It lets you share information with others and collaborate on projects. You can add optional modules, including ones that give you mobile access. An annual license is $100 and includes feature upgrades and support.
Dropbox is a file-synching app that lets you sync files across multiple computers and online. It also allows you to share files with others and serves as an online backup solution. Dropbox is really a hybrid solution: the downloadable app integrates with the Web service, making it easier and more streamlined. 2 GB of storage and transfer is free; bigger accounts are paid ($9.99 per month for 50 GB and $19.99 per month for 100 GB).
Zotero is a free Firefox plug-in that lets you capture websites, links, documents and other media. It includes tools to let you organize the information that you capture, including separate files and tagging. It also lets you access your library from anywhere and cite from OpenOffice or MS Word.
2. Desktop Tools
Desktop tools tend to focus more on file management and less on research and resource management than online apps. If you need to keep a large volume of files accessible and organized, one of the apps below will likely fit your needs. There is an option to fit every budget, operating system and need.
Adobe Bridge CS4
Adobe Bridge is a media manager that comes with most Adobe Creative Suite products. It makes managing your creative assets easy, with features to keep files organized and easy to find.
Papers (Mac OS X)
Papers is a desktop app for organizing your research into your own personal libary, iTunes-style. You can organize research into collections, search within your library, share your research and import from any PDF. Papers is a paid app, but only $42 for a license. An iPhone version is also available for $9.99, which syncs with the desktop version.
Launchy (Windows and Linux)
Launchy is a complete file indexer for Windows and Linux. It’s intended to replace your start menu, desktop icons and other file managers and be a one-stop app for launching programs and documents. You can set up keyboard shortcuts to access your most commonly used programs faster.
GridIron Flow (Windows XP/Vista, Mac OS 10.5)
Flow’s approach to file management is more visual than most other apps. You can organize all of your project files into a single view and see how they relate to each another and where they’re located (even if they’re on a disc you burned months back). It also includes other handy features for project management, including time- and asset-tracking. The biggest drawback to Flow is the price: a single license is $299, though bulk discounts are available.
ExplorerXP (Windows 2000/XP)
ExplorerXP is a free beefed-up version of the standard Windows Explorer program. Its major differences are tabbed browsing of multiple folders and display of file sizes.
ActionOutline (Windows 2000/XP/Vista)
ActionOutline stores information in an Explorer-like tree structure. You can rearrange branches, export to external files, search and otherwise organize your information. Licenses range from $39.95 to $79.95.
File Folder Organizer (Windows 95/98/2000/Me/NT 4.0/XP)
File Folder Organizer keeps an electronic record of how your paper and physical files are organized. Your documents and files are organized in a tree-like structure, letting you find what you need before digging through a pile of paper. Licenses start at $39.95.
Leap (Mac OS 10.5.5/10.6)
Leap is a Mac OS X file manager that uses OpenMeta tag conventions, allowing you to share tags across multiple programs. Leap lets you rate files and organize them in other ways, including grouping similar files together automatically. A single license is $59.
Sente 5 (Mac OS 10.4 and higher)
Sente 5 is “like iTunes for academic literature.” It has the familiar iTunes-like interface and lets you store PDFs and other files as well as search online reference databases. It includes plenty of tools to help you find information, whether the information is stored on your machine or somewhere online. A 30-day free trial version is available. Single-user licenses are $129.95, though educational and bulk discounts are available.
Fences by Stardock (Windows XP/Vista/7)
Fences is an innovative program that organizes your desktop more effectively. You can shade individual areas of your desktop to group icons and then move and resize them as needed. It’s free for personal use.
3. Analog Tools
Not everyone wants to organize their work with digital tools. Sometimes analog works just fine. The beauty of analog apps is that they’re generally low-cost and easy to use, with no learning curve. Here are a handful of tools that people are using to manage their references and research.
The Moleskine—that ubiquitous little black notebook—has gained quite a cult following. It’s pretty much all I use to keep notes for story ideas (both fiction and non). According to the marketing information included with each Moleskine notebook, this is the same type of notebook used by Hemingway, Picasso and van Gogh.
People have taken the basic Moleskine, though, and hacked it in a ton of different ways to suit their needs. Whether customizing every page in the notebook or simply adding a few flourishes, people have done just about everything to the Moleskine to make it more practical.
Here are some additional resources for customizing your Moleskine or notebook:
The Moleskine Multi-Tab Hacl
This post from Loose Wire Blog showcases how to hack your Moleskine to include multiple organizational tabs.
The Monster Collection of Moleskine Tips, Tricks, and Hacks
This article from FreelanceSwitch offers a ton of resources for customizing and hacking your Moleskine notebook.
PigPogPDA: A Moleskine Hacked into a Complete System
This post from PigPog shows the complete setup for a simplified GTD system that could be modified for other uses.
Creating a Custom Moleskine Planner
Another article on increasing the organizational capability of the basic Moleskine.
The Hipster PDA is a productivity system that was developed by Merlin Mann of 43 Folders. In its most basic form, it consists of colored index cards, a binder clip and a pen. People have taken that functionality to a whole new level in many cases, though, and created templates that can be added onto the index cards (even going so far as to devise a sundial template). A system to definitely check out if you’re into analog tools.
The PocketMod is similar in concept to the Hipster PDA but consists of a single sheet of folded-up paper. You can print a new one as often as you like, and there are templates for creating them with just the pages you need. The templates available are fantastic and include everything from productivity and organizational tools to games.
4. Using Your OS’ Built-In Tools
Not everyone wants to use new software to manage their files. After all, the point of good file management is to simplify things. Adding yet another app could push you in the opposite direction, depending on your workflow. And with some careful planning, you can adapt to using your operating system’s built-in file-management tools for most if not all of your needs.
Managing files using the tools built into your operating system takes a bit more planning and maintenance than using most dedicated add-ons. First, you’ll need to figure out what kind of file structure works best for you. Would you prefer to keep things on your desktop? In your “Documents” folder? Are you comfortable searching for files or do you want to be able to navigate there (this may largely depend on your OS, as some are better at one than the other)?
Setting up folders for each major project you work on is a good start. My primary folders include “Websites” (which has files for any Web design and coding projects that I work on, as well as works in progress for my personal blog), “Work” (which contains the blog posts I write for other blogs, graphic design work and other paid work not in the “Websites” folder) and “Writing” (which contains all of the fiction and other writing projects that I work on). I also have primary folders for photos and taxes and other important documents. On my desktop I have two more important folders: “New Fonts” and “New Brushes.” These are where I put new font and brush files that I’ve downloaded but have yet to install (I’m a huge addict of both and sometimes go on sprees downloading new ones for hours).
Within each primary folder, I have sub-folders for each client (or each major writing project in the “Writing” folder), and then each individual project for each client has its own sub-folder. This system works well for me, and because I’m on a Mac I can color-code my folders to indicate whether the project is done, waiting for revisions or in progress.
Think about your own workflow and what type of file structure makes sense for you. Maintenance is important with this kind of setup. Make sure that you save files in the appropriate folders, or else finding them later may be difficult. Set up a naming convention for your folders and files, too, so that you have some idea of what they’re called in case you need to search for them.
Managing references and research with built-in tools is a bit trickier than managing files. The simplest way to do it is to set up a dedicated folder for your research and reference files. You can do this either on a per-project, per-client or system-wide basis. Put PDFs and text documents in this folder. Many people forget one crucial thing with this kind of setup, and that is including where a file or piece of information has come from. For PDF and media files, add the URL of the source as a comment in the meta information; for text files, add it to the top of the text file.
About the Author
Cameron Chapman is a professional Web and graphic designer with over six years of experience. She also writes for a number of blogs, including her own, Cameron Chapman On Writing. She’s also the author of Internet Famous: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Online Celebrity.