Cameron Chapman October 21st, 2009

File Management and Organization Tools and Ideas

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 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. Evernote Open Atrium 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. Open Atrium RefWorks 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. RefWorks Dropbox 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). Dropbox Zotero 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. Zotero

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. Adobe Bridge 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. Papers 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. Launchy 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. GridIron Flow 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. ExplorerXP 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. ActionOutline 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. File Folder Organizer 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. Leap 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. Sente 5 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. Fences by Stardock

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. Moleskine 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. Moleskine 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. Hipster PDA Hipster PDA 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. PocketMod PocketMod 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.

File Management

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.

Reference Management

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. (al)

Cameron Chapman

Cameron Chapman is a professional Web and graphic designer with many years of experience. She 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.


  1. This is a fantastic list, but I’d like to mention 2 of my favorites: SuperCat and PrintFolderPro. Both are by No-Nonsense (

    SuperCat creates a searchable index (catalog) of your files. You can use it to easily locate an item on your PC or to check for duplicates and more.

    PrintFolderPro is handy utility for creating a printable tree of your system. It has some very powerful options and has saved me plenty of times.

    P.S. In your travels to prepare this post, did you happen to find a program that can manage files between 2 local directories like most FTP clients do between 2 sources? (File name, date, size same — Replace Yes, Yes To All, No, No To All) — but with the opportunity to set rules so you can do some stuff automatically?

  2. For academic papers (and other files) without the hefty price tag (donation ware only), try Celsius Library System by Dr Christian Saemann. Cross platform, and supports all kinds of files, not just PDFs

    Its main advantage is that it can automatically download information from the internet, and via its plugin technology, it can be adapted to any online database source. You can also specify plugins for formatting the bibliographic data.

  3. One app you didnt mention is Punakea! I just recently converted from keeping everything in folders. Let me give you one example why; say I download a pattern I want to save. I quickly select the file in my downloads folder, click command+P and my tagging window appears. tag the file with a tag or two: ‘resources’ and ‘patterns’. then forget about it. Punakea, if you set the preference, also manages your files, so your files get moved into a tag folder Punakea creates, with folders inside for every tag. a month later when I want that pattern, I open the main Punakea window, click the ‘resources’ tag-all files tagged resources are listed at the bottom, at the top are more tags to choose from to narrow my search. some examples of tags I have under ‘resources’: borders, PSD, inspiration, pspattern, wordpress and of course the ‘pattern’ tag I click to narrow my search some more. there I can view my patterns as a list of names, or better yet, as thumbnails, so all my patterns are laid out in front of me:

    It’s awesome for all those random tidbits you find and want to keep, but its also great for work projects, keeping client info and files handy and easy to find. I even use it to keep gift ideas for my family. while you’re browsing and see something you want to save for later purchasing, just hit the same command+P and the tagger window pops up with the webloc for the page you’re on. very handy! a quick tag with ‘gift ideas’ and ‘mom’ tucks it away for later.

  4. Nice roundup! Thanks for the mention of Fences, I’ll get it now!

    A note on Launchy: I was a former user of Lanuchy, and sure it’s a nice app, but somehow I find it slow when indexing (and later accessing) large amounts of files across multiple external USB disks.

    I ended dropping Launchy for an alternative: Everything. This little free program is way much faster, it indexed my 2.5TB of data in 1/4 the time it took Launchy (and much more faster than Google Desktop, by the way, although I understand GD indexing if far more complex). Launchy is very more UI appealing and has more eye candy, but for someone wanting a faster lightweight alternative, try Everything (found at

  5. Nice variety of tools , but I prefer Dropbox the most . Really convenient, simple and it can save lives lol.



  6. So, what happened to the mother of all good file management tools, aka Total Commander?

    Why should I use some crappy Exploder replacement when I can get the full monty with all useful bells & whistles, but no usability crappers like you usually get it with windumb programs? That things actually THAT good I’m even using it within Linux (thanks to current WINE packages, that works out pretty nice) which is my primary OS on my dev workstation.

    cu, w0lf.

  7. Surprised you didn’t include the wonderful Action Method products by Behance (

    I use their paper products when in meetings, and their online version when I’m at my desktop. The iPhone app helps keep it all connected. I also use their note-cards for my “energy line” board, which helps me manage all my products at a glance.

    They’re perfect for creatives like me.

    Great list, though, and thank you as always, for the relevant content.

    1. I agree Shawn – where is action method? I use the online and paper version and have a great reference library of files and links associated with projects.

  8. Evernote is a great piece of software! I have it on my PC and iPhone :) Although I must say, it does have some glitches :(

    1. I swear by Evernote. Even use it for my To-Dos. Sync 2 workstations and an iPhone for ubiquitous access. Life-saving piece of software.

  9. Recently have learned this lesson:

    “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.”

    But great article and thanks for the review of those tools my favorite though is not listed:

    Q-DIR; its great alternative for windows explorer. :)

  10. I never knew about Fences … God bless the programmers of Fences! … My desktop is now the most excited desktop in the company I work :)

  11. It is one of the nice article i have read this weak,I really like the way how they show the different type of online project management tools with the help of different types of slides.

  12. For organization, don’t forget about Springpad ( which is a great tool to organize content, personalize it, and share with others. For example, you can save recipes from all over the web, add them into a weekly meal planner, and print out the ingredients for a shopping list. You can also see what your friends are “springing.” The data can be easily dragged from one list to another, and with many apps, the data is given better use – like a restaurant planner working in conjunction from Yelp to help you see where you’ve eaten, your notes about those restaurants, and a way to mark which restaurants you want to go to.

  13. I love Dropbox. It does exactly what it says and just works. It’s fantastic.

    Cameron, you might want to include a mention of Mendeley in your ddesktop tools section. It’s a definite productivity enhancer for anyone doing academic work. It takes all the PDFs of papers you’ve got laying about your hard drive, extracts the citation information from them, and organizes them. When it comes to to write a paper, you can cite sources with a click and let the program keep your bibliography properly formatted as you add or remove citations.

    Best of all, if you need any help with it you can get it through the traditional email channels or near-real time on twitter (@MendeleySupport or me – @mrgunn)

  14. it baffles me that no one ever mentions the ONLY file management tool… in this post Norton Navigator world.
    i don’t know how anybody lives without it, for file management or archives or http://ftp... if you work at the computer all day and don’t use it your wasting hours a day.

    1. David,

      THANK YOU! THANK YOU!THANK YOU! I had never heard of Directory Opus until your post. I downloaded it and will NEVER have a PC without it. This has helped me so much in a recent re-structuring of my digital files. I can’t even begin to tell you how much this program helped (but I think you may know.)


  15. This is a fantastic collection of tools! While I use many of the applications (and analog tools) mentioned here, several of them were fresh. Specifically, Open Atrium and Papers are very intriguing applications for organizing my research and DIY projects.

    Thanks for the great article!

  16. It looks like some of the issues you are encountering when you file could be solved by using software to keep track of your files. You can try The Paper Tiger Filling system to help you better keep track of your files. Give it a try! We are BBB A-Rated business and are always looking for ways to help people file!

  17. Dropbox is by far my fave collaboration tool. You can share individual folders with different email addresses. You can get up to 8 gb of space free by referring folks.

    The staff at dropbox also are continually adding new features. I can see no limit to the awesomeness of dropbox…

    I am considering upgrading to the $10 a month plan- 50 gb of storage. Can’t really beat having all my graphic design files automatically backed up every time I save one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *