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Folder Hierarchy Best Practices for Digital Asset Management

By Edward Smith | November 26, 2012

When a folder hierarchy is shared between multiple people or departments (such as a shared file server), things often get messy because everyone thinks about organizing and finding files in different ways. This article takes an in-depth look at why folder hierarchies are important and provides best practices for folder organization. If you don't have the bandwidth at the moment to read an entire article, my earlier Tips for Setting Up An Organized Folder Structure provides a short list of ideas to get you quickly started.

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Do I Really Need a Folder Hierarchy?



Similar to the reasons mentioned in the Filenaming Best Practices article, you could store all of your files in one folder and then use a digital asset management system to find everything by keywords or other metadata. Here's some reasons why this usually isn't a good approach.

Access Outside of the DAM

A well-structured folder hierarchy makes it easy for anyone to find what they're looking for, especially when they're not using a DAM. Many DAM systems use an open file repository that can be accessed like a normal folder. Administrators can provide basic access so authorized users just go to a regular old folder to find what they need or add files - no special software or training required.

Organization

Folders provide another level of organization in addition to keywords, taxonomies, folksonomies, categories and other ways of grouping files in within a DAM. Need to quickly group several files together? Put them in a folder! The folder will group the items within the DAM as well as for any other external users.

Automatic Cataloging

Many DAM systems have features for automatically cataloging one or more specified "hot folders". Need to catalog a file so that it's available in the DAM? Just place it into the appropriate folder.

An Absolute Location

While keywords and other metadata within a DAM can change, the path to a file is absolute. If you place a file within a folder, it will still be there when you look for it later (unless someone with the right file permissions moves it). Search results can change as options and information within the DAM change, but the folder the file is stored within will always be the "truth" - a place where you know you can find the file.

Performance

A Windows file server can theoretically hold 4,294,967,295 files in one folder, and a folder on a Mac file server can theoretically hold 2,147,483,648. However, you would have a difficult time viewing that folder as your file manager (Explorer on Windows, Finder on Mac) choked on the contents trying to display the mile long list of filenames, dates and thumbnails. Even in the tens of thousands of items range, performance can suffer when too many files are stuffed into one folder. Storing files in a multiple folders can improve performance both inside and out of your DAM.

Best Practices

Below is a list of folder organization best practices that has been expanded from the original article, 5 Tips for Setting up an Organized Folder Structure.

Create a Folder Template

Create an empty group of folders and subfolders as a template if the same subfolders will be used throughout the folder structure, or if you anticipate creating folders in the future that need a common group of subfolders. This will allow you to quickly copy and paste the template of subfolders into new folders instead of manually creating each subfolder. For example, every folder created inside the "Projects" folder could use a template of "Artwork", "Layout", "Fonts" and "Text" subfolders.

Determine Folder Direction

Do you create a "2012" folder inside of the "Events" folder, or create an "Events" folder inside of the "2012" folder? The answer to this question usually depends on how people will browse your folder structure and how often new folders will need to be created.

Determine Level of Granularity

It may be unrealistic to create every single folder that will ever be needed up front, so there will usually be a level at which users can create their own subfolders. A good approach is to determine the first two, three or four levels in the hierarchy and then let users create subfolders for the lower levels. For example, you could have a folder called "Projects" where users would could create subfolders as needed.

Don't "Float" Folders

Placing a space, underscore, or other special characters at the beginning of a folder name will force the folder to "float" to the top of alphabetically sorted lists. However this trick can lead to problems since the folder does not appear in its usual place. For example, someone browsing for the "Projects" folder may miss the "_Projects" folder at the top of the list expecting to see it between the "Marketing" and "Research" folders, and end up creating a duplicate "Projects" folder without the underscore in front.

Don't Use Mac-specific Options

The Mac OS Finder lets OS X users do cool things like apply color labels to folders and apply custom icons to folders instead of using the generic folder icon. People may become accustomed to seeing this on the Mac, or rely on it assuming that windows users can see it too. Also keep in mind that the following characters are allowed on Mac, but not on Windows: / : * ? " | [ ] & $

Use Folder Names to Apply Keywords

Some DAM systems and search tools will generate keywords based on the folders where files are stored. When setting up your folder structure think about keywords that would be applied based on folder names. For example, a file in a folder called "Holiday Party" inside the "Events" folder will appear in search results for "holiday", "party", or "events".

Avoid Redundancy Traps

Try not to create folders with overlapping categories. If you have a top level folder called "Pictures" and another top level folder called "People" you probably don't want to copy a picture of a person into both folders. Instead eliminate one folder or the other, or place one folder inside of the other. For example, the "Pictures" folder could go inside the "People" folder.

Create a Cheat Sheet

Document your folder hierarchy rules and conventions. You don't need to create anything complex, just a listing of what goes at each level of the hierarchy along with a list of "DOs" and "DON'Ts" based on these best practices.

Consider Starting Over

Start fresh with a new, clean, and well planned folder structure if your existing folder structure is too disorganized. This can be done by moving existing items into the correct place within the new structure, or by choosing a cutoff date at which point the old location becomes a read-only archive where any changes must be copied to the new location.

Summary



These best practices can apply to anyone, but the real power is combining the above tips with a digital asset management system to get the best of both words - browsing and searching. There may be exceptions to these recommendations based on your workflow, so don't be afraid to stray from these points and do what works best.

How do you organize your folders and subfolders? Do any of your folder structures intentionally or unintentionally stray from the above guidelines? Share your folder structure examples using the DAM Coalition Twitter and Facebook accounts. You'll also be able to comment in this article when the site relaunches and that is happening very soon.
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