How to Work Faster and Stay Organized on Your Mac (or PC)

Is your desktop scattered with Photoshop files, scanned sketches, and email messages?

Have you ever searched your computer for several minutes trying to find a certain drawing you did last week?

Do you want an easy way to keep your work readily accessible for you to use on your mailers, fliers, and postcards?

Every illustrator should keep his work area tidy. This applies to the digital desktop also. In the following article, I’ll outline some of the methods I use to keep my files organized on my own computer. I’m not saying that my way is the best or only way, but hopefully I will get you thinking about your own system. It can be a great way to get you working more efficiently so you have more time to meet those deadlines.

How to Archive Your Work Efficiently

The first thing you should think about is your file system. Here are some tips to consider:

  • Create a main “Art” folder

All of my artwork is encompassed in one single section on my computer. That way, I don’t have random stuff lying around everywhere. Pick a folder, any folder, and keep it all in there. I usually just create a “Art” or “Illustration” folder somewhere in my Documents folder.

  • Keep your folder structure organized

Now that you have one main folder, you can start dividing it into parts. Start with the most general and get more specific. I start with creating a folder for every year (2005, 2006, 2007,…). Then I arrange by client, then project.

  • Keep everything in its place

Every “project” folder has the same set of folders within it. I keep it consistent so I know exactly what is in each one, and therefore find things more easily when I need them. I divide everything for a project into these folders: Documents (for emails, instructions, contracts, etc.), Process (for sketches, studies, and reference), Finals (for all my finished paintings and original Photoshop files), and Delivery (for all the files that I have compressed, converted, renamed, or otherwise prepared for final delivery to my client).

Keep Track of Your Daily Tasks

Having an organized folder system is well and great, but it can be troublesome to dig through it each day just to get the same file you’ve been working on for the past week. So, for day-to-day work I like to use aliases, or shortcuts. In Mac OS X, you can easily create one by clicking and dragging a file while holding the option+command keys. This is the system that I’ve created for my own work using aliases on Mac OS X (but can easily be applied to a PC also).

  1. Create three folders and name them Inbox, Outbox, and Jobs. I also like to give them different icon pictures so I can distinguish between them.
  2. Place each folder in your dock (or another convenient place, like your desktop).
  3. When you get a new job and have created a project folder for it, place an alias to it in your Jobs folder. This will help you keep track of stuff you are currently working on without having to sift through your other files. When a job is completed, just delete the alias, and it will still remain archived within your system.
  4. At the start of each day, go to your Jobs folder and find the specific files that you will be working on that day, such as a specific Photoshop painting that you will be finishing. Create an alias to that file and drag it into your Inbox. Also keep any other files that need attention here. These include email attachments, downloads, and any other files that you may gather during the day that need to be sorted. My goal each day is to empty my Inbox.
  5. My Outbox contains aliases to common places on my computer so that I can sort my files more easily. These places include not only my Illustration folder, but also places for my Finances, Blogs, Pictures, Music, Videos, etc. I have my Inbox and Outbox set up so that when they are both open, they sit side-by-side. That way, I can take all the random files in my Inbox and quickly drag them over to my Outbox to sort them to the various places on my computer.

Have Your Art Readily Available

When I finish a painting, I am far from done with it. I still need all my artwork to be easily accessible for mailers, emails, websites, and so forth.

File Types

I’ll usually keep two specific file types on hand for each piece of artwork I produce — a flattened Photoshop or Tiff file, and a JPEG. The first one is great because it is uncompressed and can be used for postcards, prints, and other tasks that require a higher quality file. I keep a JPEG because it is easier and faster to compress for email and websites.

Using iPhoto

Macs come with a great piece of software called iPhoto, which is usually used for digital photos. It is also great for digital artwork. In the latest version of iPhoto, you can use multiple libraries, so I have a separate library for my family photos, my Photoshop files, and my JPEG’s. You can choose which library to open by pressing the option key while the application is loading.

Some tips for using iPhoto:

    • You can use Albums to sort your images, but I like to use Film Rolls. That way, I can see all the groups at once as opposed to only one at a time. Go to View–>Film Rolls. You can move images to a different group by clicking and dragging it to the title at the top of the film roll. You can also select your images, then go to File–>Create Film Roll to create a new group.
    • Within iPhoto, you can easily email any picture by just clicking the Email button at the bottom of the window.
    • Click and drag any image to the Photoshop icon in the dock to open it.
    • You can use keywords to keep track of the different types of illustrations, such as black and white, spots, line drawings, portraits, etc.


While you are in the process or organizing your digital artwork, please take a moment to create a backup plan. These files are the only copies you have of your digital artwork! Be sure to keep them safe.

Be sure to backup…

…each project, including your original layered files, sketches, documents, etc. I would suggest burning them to a disc.
…your iPhoto libraries. You can easily backup to CD or DVD by going to Share–>Burn.
…your entire computer. The best thing would be to create a bootable clone on an external hard drive.

You should now be prepared for any computer problems that may fall upon you. Be sure to also keep at least one copy of your artwork away from your studio to account for a fire or natural disaster.

Now that I’ve shown you my organization system, I’d love to hear what you think. Do you have any other great ideas for keeping those files in check? Is there something I could do better? Let other readers know by leaving a comment at