“An organized file is a happy file”

Let’s say you go on a trip. During this trip you realize you need a room for the night, so you find the nearest hotel or motel. When you get there the desk clerk takes you and shows you two rooms. The first one is clean, with a neatly made bed, all the complimentary toiletries arranged nicely on the bathroom counter, and the towels and sheets are crisply folded. The second one has all the same amenities– toiletries, clean sheets and towels– but housekeeping was in a rush that day, so they just opened the door, tossed everything into the room, and moved on.

Which room would you prefer?

Now, let’s say you’re working, and get a file from a client, or you’re at work and are asked to edit an already existing file. What would you like better? Would you like to open the file and find a nicely organized bunch of layers, with everything thoughtfully placed for ease of future use? Or would you prefer one where everything was tossed onto “layer 1” and you had to spend almost an hour untangling the mess of overlapping elements, just to make sense of it all?

Yeah– that’s what I thought.

Now, I have a confession to make. I’m not the most organized person on the planet. I know I’m not. I try to make a conscious effort on a daily basis to stay somewhat organized. There are days where I do well, and others– not so much. But, there are certain things in life that I need to have organized “just so.” My CDs and DVDs, for example, have a very specific filing order, and I’ve been known to spend countless hours straightening and sorting them out.

Professionally, one of the things I’m almost neurotically fanatical about is file organization. Nothing irks me more than opening a file created by someone else and finding that everything was dropped into the default layer. In my opinion, it’s poor planning and shows little foresight on the file creator’s part. Setting up a clearly labeled layer system is something that only takes a minute or two, will speed up your work in the long run, and can end up saving you (or the person who picks up the file after you) headaches later on when, six days/weeks/months down the line you’re asked by your boss or client to make changes on this file. I’ve been working this way for years, and can’t see myself working any other way.

Most of the major design-related programs (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Quark) have the capability of setting up– and working in– layers. The also have the ability to duplicate, lock, hide, and reorder the stack of layers in a file. For my work, I tend to use a similar layer setup across the board (well, except for Photoshop), which allows for a great deal of flexibility and makes my workflow that much smoother.

With that said, I give you my setup– beginning with the bottommost layer in the stack. I’m using the Illustrator setup for the example, since lately it’s been the go-to program for a lot of my work, but, like I said, the setup is pretty much the same for ID/Quark and in its own way, PS:

The layers:


These are the layers that I place at the bottom of every stack. I don’t always need to have both, but there are times when I find it nice to have the background art and whatever photography is used on separate layers.


This one’s pretty self-explanatory. This is where all the major elements are placed. As a general rule I try to keep all photography away from this layer (there are exceptions, of course) and keep the layer strictly for vector art and type. I find it especially helpful when you have multiple versions sharing a common background (say, for example, when you create business cards for different employees of the same company).


When dealing with packaging art, always, always, always put the dieline on its own layer. And please, make sure you set the dieline color as a separate spot color swatch (even if all you’re doing is mixing CMYK values). Again, it’s more for the benefit of making the pre-press and production work go that much smoother. And, believe me, much like waiters and people handling your food, your printer’s staff is one group of folks who you’ll want to make sure to be nice to. But that’s a topic for another time.


Any file information– trim size, printer and color specs– goes on this layer. Once again, I have found that it’s especially helpful for the folks on the pre-press side to have everything in a layer whose visibility can be toggled on and off. With InDesign (and I believe now Quark as well) you can create slugs into the document, so having a callout layer there may not be necessary.

Like I said before, I find that this approach to layers not only works well with Illustrator, but with InDesign and Quark files as well (BTW, Quark incorporated layers back in version 5 or 6–why it took that long, I have no idea– and I believe InDesign may have had it from the get-go). Where Photoshop is concerned, my approach is somewhat similar to Illustrator’s, but that’s a subject for next time.