Obsessions: November 2nd, 2009

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A bit of a different approach today in Obsessions: We’re going to look at three apps I’ve pointed out in the past. But these I’ve kept using, which has led to some interesting expansions of my capabilities.

I’ve been spending a lot of time on the road lately, which means I’ve been spending more time working between many machines than I would have just a few years ago. When I was working with Thirst in my early career, the most valuable lesson Rick Valicenti taught me is that I must organize and archive my work accurately and thoroughly—the thought being that you are your own librarian and historian. You never know when an unused sketch for one project will become useful to another project, and the ability to access those files in their most recent forms is absolutely crucial. So with that as a given, let’s look at how I structure and store my projects across my devices.

When I begin a project, I start by creating a folder structure for each client, then each job within that client. Each job gets a series of common folders: admin (for paperwork), assets (for photography and logotypes), ai (for illustrator files, my primary tool), psd (for photoshop files, when I move from design to finishing), production (for visual construction files), and code (for HTML, PHP, JavaScript, and the like).

As I design, I title my files in a common syntax I’ve developed over the years: job name yyyy mm dd xx. The job name is the name of the project, followed by the year in four digits, then the month and day in two digits, then a two-digit number for a version number. Using this syntax, I can keep track of every single major change to a job’s design throughout the day. The point at which a file version changes is largely reliant upon where major changes in design happen. This way, I am creating a searchable history of my work—so as time goes on, I can find specific files very easily just by knowing who it was for and the approximate date I worked on it.

Keeping files in sync across computers is absolutely crucial, considering how often I work off-site or in meetings. I do that with Dropbox, which is easily becoming the most important component in my work life. Dropbox is, at its simplest, a remote way to keep all my machines in sync. I normally work with a Mac Pro tower as my primary machine and a MacBook Pro as my secondary machine, and the iPhone as a tool for quick document retrieval while with clients—that means all those machines need to stay in sync in a way Apple’s .Me service can’t really handle. Dropbox can handle it, by opening the sync concept much wider than Apple’s closed formats allow.

Dropbox starts with my account on getDropbox.Com. The account lets me access files via the web, and uses a small app which polls my Macs for the most recent versions and keeps them in sync. My Dropbox can live anywhere on my Mac, and can contain pretty much anything. I use it to store my work folder and share folders with clients, thereby giving them easy ways to drop files (such as office documents, photography, and contracts) directly into my Mac via a web interface.

There’s an iPhone app which allows you to see those files as easily as you can on the Mac. Not only can Dropbox handle files we’re all used to dealing with, with some terminal-level work it could sync my entire home directory from machine to machine. Dropbox recognizes UNIX symlinks (very similar to Apple’s alias). By creating symlinks inside my Dropbox folder, I lead the account to various locations on my drives (mostly my home folder and font collections) and let it sync those things.

Hooked up to my Dropbox account is my 1Password keychain, which stores everything from online passwords to software keys to credit card accounts to identities used for web forms. 1Password allows you to store multiple user/pass combinations for a single site, which becomes incredibly useful in situations where I’m saving a client’s logins for web services such as Google, Facebook, or Twitter—I can log in as any user from a contextual menu available to Safari, Firefox, and a number of other browsers. By storing my 1Password keychains in my Dropbox, those items are easily synced from Mac to Mac, and a wireless sync feature allows me to save all that info on my phone for remote logins.

1Password’s most valuable feature to me is its integrated strong password generator which lets me choose random, strong passwords and immediately apply those to the form I’m filling out, then save those to my keychain file. Considering how much work all of us do online these days, these hard-to-crack passwords are absolutely key.

Keeping all my browsers in sync is just as easy using a service called Xmarks. Xmarks is a browser extension which transparently stores and updates bookmarks and passwords across browsers, and also allows access to those with an iPhone-optimized interface. Xmarks also allows for related site search from the browser address bar.

Now go forth into the world and do… whatever it is you do. Just do it without needing to wonder where all your stuff is, or what you called it, for once in your life. Enjoy!