The problem with a folder-based filing system is that some items belong in more than one folder. You see this in real life with paper documents: Should loan statements go into "Personal Finance" or "Tax Info"? Do take-out menus go in the kitchen junk drawer or the one in the TV stand?
We have the same problem with computer files. Aliases (or shortcuts, on Windows) can only take you so far.
Instead of spending precious hours duplicating and aliasing your files into more and more Byzantine folder hierarchies, try approaching the task from a "Google" point of view — where you rely more on metadata to sort and find files, and less on their physical location. By tagging a single file with multiple keywords or phrases, you can easily retrieve it from even the biggest hard drive or server without having to know its folder hierarchy. I've heard this philosophy called "Piling, not Filing."
Adobe Bridge, included free with all Adobe Creative Suite products, lets you do this (as does OS X and Windows — more on that below). But if you're a designer working with any Adobe software, Bridge is the one to focus on. And the new "Flatten View" button in CS3's Filter panel makes it even easier.
Open Adobe Bridge CS3 from the Programs or Applications folder on your hard drive, or by clicking the shortcut to Bridge button from any of the Creative Suite programs' Control panels. Once Bridge is open make sure you're using the default arrangement of panels (Window > Workspace > Default) so you can follow along.
In the main Bridge window, select a folder on your hard drive from either the Folders or Favorites panel at the upper left. As usual, Bridge shows you thumbnail previews of the folder's contents in the large Content pane.
Bridge CS3 has a new Filter panel at the lower left of the window, listing metadata categories of the thumbnails you're looking at. For example, if the folder you selected has 36 files in it, the File Type metadata section in the Filter panel might break it down like this:
Illustrator document: 3
Photoshop document: 10
TIFF document: 19
Word document: 4
You can click any of these entries to make Bridge "filter the view" — to show you only the thumbnails of the File Type you selected, temporarily hiding the other ones. Click the entry again to toggle it off , and you're seeing all the files in the selected folder again.
The other categories in the Filter panel — Date Created, Date Modified, Keywords, and more — work the same way, and you can select multiple entries from any of these categories. For example, you could select "Illustrator documents: 10" and the most recent entries in the Date Modified category to see just the Illustrator files you edited in the past couple weeks.
Right now you're like, "Big deal. The Finder/Explorer can do the same thing, sort of, if I view the contents as a list and sort them by file type." But, a) Remember that Bridge can show you thumbnail previews as you do this, which is not possible in any list view in Windows or Mac OS X; b) You can filter with any keywords the files have been tagged with — more on this later on; and c) in CS3, you can use the Filter panel in combination with "flattened" views to do cross-folder filtering and sorting.
Flatten the View
If the folder you selected in Folders or Favorites contained not only the 36 files but also some subfolders, the Content area will also show you their folder icons by default. The metadata of the files contained in any of these subfolders aren't listed in the Filter panel. You need to double-click a subfolder in order to see these. In other words, the Filter panel only shows you metadata from one folder level's worth of files at a time.
But that's just the default behavior. Instead of drilling down into a subfolder, then moving back up to the parent folder, then drilling down into another subfolder, and yadda yadda, go back to the parent folder and click on the Flatten View icon at the top left of the Filter panel. It's easy to miss as it's about four microns in diameter. Look for the tiny icon of a folder with a red circle/slash on top, and click it.
In a few moments — depending on how many files those subfolders contained — you're looking at a thumbnail of every single file contained in the parent folder, even the ones in its sub and sub-subfolders. (Note how the "Look In" menu at the top of the Bridge window reports the parent folder name followed by "+ subfolders".) The subfolders haven't been deleted — nothing has been moved around on the hard drive — they're just temporarily hidden. You can click the Flatten View icon again to toggle it off, if you want to verify it for yourself.
Now that you're looking at all the files in the parent folder, the Filter panel aggregates all the metadata associated with each file.
So, if you had applied the keyword "logo" to various logos in various subfolders in the parent folder, after you turn on Flatten View you'll see a listing like "logo: 11" in the Keywords section of the Filter panel. Select that entry and instantly, all the other thumbnails disappear except for the eleven pieces of artwork tagged with "logo" which had been scattered throughout the subfolders. You can click on an individual file to see its folder path in the Bridge window status bar.
From here you can do all sorts of things, such as compare the logos close-up in the Preview panel, open them, create a contact sheet in InDesign or Photoshop (from the Tools menu in Bridge), check to see which Pantone colors they use (in the Metadata panel at right), and so on.
Bridge Keyword Secrets
As you view filtered groups of files, it's a good idea to start applying keywords to what you end up with. That way, the next time you want to see the same files, you can just click a keyword entry or two in the Filter panel. The fastest way to batch apply keywords to files is to create and apply a metadata template in Bridge from the Tools menu, but you don't need to get that advanced.
Just select all the thumbnails you want to apply a keyword to and then click the checkbox of one or more keywords in the Keyword panel at the right of the window. (If the keyword you want isn't in the list, you'll have to create it first. More on that below.) That action applies the keyword to each file.
It's most helpful if you tag files with more than one keyword, because you never know what you'll be filtering or searching for in the future. Conveniently, the Filter panel always has an entry for "No Keywords." Select that entry to see which files in the current view lack even a single keyword.
Keywords and other metadata you apply to files in Bridge are cross-platform and available to any user who's looking at the file's thumbnail in Bridge, even over a network. Even if a file's keywords aren't part of your own Keywords list (because they were created and applied by another Bridge user) they still appear in your Filter panel and can be used there to filter the view like the other metadata.
In your Keywords panel, these "non-native" keywords appear in italics, grouped under an "Other Keywords" category. To add one of these to your permanent list of keywords, select it and choose Keep Persistent from the Keywords panel menu or contextual menu; or drag and drop it onto any of your existing sets of keywords.
In the middle of the summer, Adobe released an important update to Bridge CS3 — version 2.1.0 — that greatly enhanced the utility of keywords in the program. Now, finally, we can easily import and export keywords, edit them in a tab-delimited file, and create deep hierarchies of nested keywords.
My favorite new feature, though, is a simple one: Add a bunch of new keywords at once. It's not intuitive at all, so read this closely: To quickly add multiple keywords in Bridge CS3, click inside the new *Find Keyword* field (part of the 2.1.0 update) at the bottom of the Keywords panel. Then, enter your keywords or keyphrases in the field, each one separated by a comma or semicolon. Finally, click the New Keyword or New Sub Keyword icon directly to the right of the field, and each one is added individually to your list.
For detailed information on how the new Bridge CS3 keyword features work, read this Adobe Tech Note:
Changes to Bridge keyword functionality with Bridge CS3 2.1 update