Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Best Practices in the Paper Trail

Tips for keeping projects organized and presentable through logical naming, consistent organization and a smattering of cosmetic flourish.

In my article for starting a business, I addressed the subject of keeping a good paper trail. Since space was limited, the topic was only briefly touched upon. However, maintaining a good paper trail as a service professional is a critical enough subject that I wanted to expand on some of the ideas previously addressed.

In any business, there is “paperwork.” This can be a small drawer with a few manila folders, a hard drive full of PDF’s and Word documents, or several filing cabinets stuffed with legal documents, correspondence and sketches. As a design professional, the flow of contracts, proposals, estimates and invoices are the lifeblood of our industry. Consequently, we have piles of the stuff.

But the paper trail as a concept encompasses more than paper. It includes everything related to a project, from printed comps and faxes to archive CDs and payment stubs, and all of these things should be taken into consideration when designing the system that ties the workflow together.

Building a scalable and logical system should be an absolute priority from day one of your freelancing or business owning career. Retaining a consistent naming scheme across the board will reduce client confusion, and keeping things organized in the office will benefit you when the client wants to reprint that ad from last year, or needs yet another copy of the invoice due four months ago.

Project Naming

Proper project naming is the key that unlocks the entire organizational hierarchy. It is the stamp that adorns every piece of correspondence, reference and archive, the one tie that keeps everything ordered. The names have to make sense. They have to be scalable. They have to be simple and easily learned by anyone walking in the door. The old adage of KISS (“Keep It Simple Stupid”) has never been more pertinent.

Name projects logically. Don’t force the conventions to bend to your workflow habits, but adapt a scheme that enhances how you already work through day-to-day activities. For instance, the following pieces could all be used to build a naming code:

  • Sequential Number
  • Date or Year
  • Client
  • Medium (print, web, interactive, video, etc.)
  • Description

Some people work better with just a simple numbering system. For instance: “2003-0012” indicates project twelve in the year 2003. Or a combination of the above elements, like “00374-MS-BannerAd.” This is project #374 for Microsoft, which is designing a series of banner ads. It is important to retain some form of consecutive numbering to keep projects in order—it will be the one constant throughout the filing process. (The year technique works particularly well and is widely used, since it makes for a useful indicator when archiving and retrieving older projects.)


For everyone’s sanity, it is critical to maintain the naming scheme across all media. This includes all correspondence to clients, who are less likely to complain when they can match the contract for project “2003-045-BusinessCard” to the invoice you just sent for project “2003-045-BusinessCard.” Examples of where the client might see the project name:

  • Invoices
  • Comps
  • E-Mail (where appropriate)
  • Archive CDs
  • Online Archive

It is just as important to repeat the name on your own material, including time sheets and archive media. I often scribble the project number on printed comps, so when I find them three months later under a stack of magazines, I know immediately which folder they get routed to.

Office Organization

In a busy office, piles of paper grow like weeds in the Spring. Taming this beast requires a certain amount of effort, but retaining some semblance of organization makes everything that much easier to find.

First, keep only the paperwork that you need. Contracts, invoices and other client-viewed documents should have their own subfolder, clearly marked and isolated from the rest of the project. I like to keep printed copies of important e-mails as well. Sketches, a few comps, relevant notes and any match prints should all be filtered into the system, but remove extraneous items, like the sixteen prints testing different shades of blue on the model’s eye-shadow or the entire 33-page fax the client sent circling the two mistakes on the third paragraph of page 17.

Use the same file structure for both digital and hard copy filing. When you locate the contract for “2003-045-BusinessCard” on your hard drive, it should be found in the same place in the filing cabinet.

One final tool that I have found immensely useful is maintaining a quick and dirty database in Excel that lists every project with its proper ID number, a description, when it was started and finished, what archive disc it can be found on, how much the invoice was for and if the invoice has been paid. This handy spreadsheet provides a lightening-quick bird’s eye view of all projects’ status.


Often when I shop for equipment online, I base a lot of purchasing decisions over the look and feel of the vendor’s website. Maybe it’s my subconscious designer bias, but I often buy from sites that appear more professional.

Presentation counts. While this isn’t directly related to your company’s project naming and organization, it is a critical and too-often overlooked facet of the paper trail. As a designer, your collateral and correspondence should look good, and not like a templated Times New Roman Word document that came out of a lawyer’s office. Flex your typography skills and give them a letter your audience will want to read.

Most companies generate invoices from QuickBooks. Blah. Design your own and give it color, style and attitude. A well-designed invoice will avoid the cold look of a “generated” bill, reinforce your firm’s identity, and at the very least, give your client something nice to look at when she opens the envelope.

Also, take the time to design good correspondence. Design your own thank-you notes. When sending a letter or contract, print it on your corporate stationery and send it in a branded envelope.

After awhile, clients will begin to recognize your efforts, and the constant logo and identity impressions will prove invaluable when they call you for the next job. Retaining a professional, clean and organized image up front will help build long-lasting relationships, and will make the clients feel better about using your skills over the competition.