Best Digital Hygiene Techniques: The Ultimate Guide for 2023

By Jon Henning •  Updated: 05/08/22 •  18 min read

Imagine losing 3 years of work in a split second. Thousands of your most important files — gone in an instant due to something easily preventable. In 2011, I lost over 10 years of files due to a hard drive failure.

Despite my many attempts to bring my files back to life with just about every file recovery software you can imagine, it was a hopeless cause. My hard drive had sustained physical damage, and it was irreparable.

Years of valuable data, gone in an instant.

Digital Hygiene Techniques for Architects and Designers

And these weren’t just project files and work-related stuff. I lost personal photos — moments I know that I’ll never get back.

In my third year of architecture school, I had learned my lesson.

My hard drive suddenly died AGAIN… but I was prepared. I had created a fail-safe file system that not only made it nearly impossible for me to ever lose my files, but I became much more organized in the process.

Ever since then, I’ve become obsessed with digital hygiene and creating a file system that allows me to put my focus where I need it to be — designing, creating, and writing.

As architects and designers, we constantly rely on our technology to help us accomplish our work. Our laptops, tablets, and even our phones are necessary tools as a part of any modernized architectural design process. Since we rely on our technology to help us do our work, it’s important that we also learn to practice good digital hygiene.

We owe it to our clients to have a file system that protects our hard work…

By having good digital hygiene, you can ensure that your project files are safe and secure — and you can keep everyone happy.

Now, let me explain this strange phrase.

In this article, I’ll show you how to “get it together” when it comes to optimizing your digital workflow. I’ll walk you through how to set up a fail-safe file system that can withstand the test of time, and how to deter even the most seasoned cyber criminals from stealing your work.

Here’s how to take your digital hygiene practices to the next level.

Setting Up a File System to Organize Your Work

Have you ever found yourself opening file-after-file on your hard drive, hoping that one of them is the latest iteration of your design? I’ve been there… sifting through seemingly endless amounts of folders trying to find the latest iteration of my design.

As architectural designers, we are constantly working with digital files. Whether we’re creating models or drawings, digital files are a necessary part of our workflow. If these files aren’t properly organized, it can lead to lost work and frustration.

I’m going to share a file system that I use daily, which allows for easy retrieval of information. But before we dive into that, let’s go over some of the basics of digital hygiene.

Industry Standard File Organization Systems:

There are many ways to organize your digital files, but there are a few industry-standard systems that are commonly used. These systems help to keep everyone on the same page and make it easy to find specific files.

For General Files

It’s important to distinguish files from other people on your team, but it also helps to keep all of your files in order chronologically — which is extremely useful when you’re sifting through walls of old files in an “archive” folder for some specific reference.

For example, we name our Sketchup files in this format:

Date: This is to track daily changes. start with the year, then month, then day.

You’ll know exactly when the file was created, for which project, and who worked on it.

By default, Windows and Mac systems organize files based on date (thanks to metadata). But it’s good practice to put the date in the actual file name at the beginning, in case for some reason the metadata in the file changes for some reason.

Project Code: use your project name, but be sure to keep it brief. If you have a long project name, considering shortening it. For example, if your project is called “The Yorkshire Pudding Hotel”, consider creating a codename version of it — such as “YPH”.

If you use project numbers in your project organization system, this is a good place to use that as well. However, it’s best to use alpha code rather than numeric codes for fast readability. Think about when you’re sending these files out to people.

What’s easier to remember? A project called “003.8792.0100” or “YPH” (Yorkshire Pudding Hotel)?

Version: This is to track major file changes. It’s wise to integrate a “version” number into your file name for further organization. This can simply be “V1” or “V5”, and so on. Only update the version number for major changes in your project — such as removing an entire section of a building, or creating an entirely new design concept.

Initials: For general ‘working’ files, slide your initials in at the end. This just helps to show who worked on the file.

Want to be more creative with your file naming? Be my guest.

But, as a general rule-of-thumb:

✔️ Write the date first. This will sort your files chronologically.

✔️ Make your file name as short as possible. Less is more.

❌ Don’t use spaces. Some programs simply don’t read spaces in file names, so use underscores or hyphens to separate text.

Here’s what a proper file name should look like:

For Drawing Sets and Plan Sheets

Standard practices exist, such as using an identification method for drawing sheets. This usually entails adding a letter to the end of the file name that corresponds with the sheet number. For example, if you have a drawing set that’s 20 sheets, your files would be named something like:

“ProjectName_A101_SD_A.001.pdf” through “ProjectName_A120_SD_0010.pdf”

There are many different ways to organize your digital files, but the most important thing is that you have a system that works for you.

Typical Design Project File Naming Conventions

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has a set of file naming conventions that many architectural firms follow. While you may not be working for a firm, these guidelines are still useful to know.

Project Number: The project number is typically the first four digits of the file name and corresponds to the year the project was started.

Office Location: The office location is typically the next two digits of the file name and corresponds to the city or state where the work is being done.

Project Type: The project type is typically the next one to three letters of the file name and corresponds to the type of project (e.g.Residential, Commercial, etc.).

Discipline: The discipline is typically the next one to two letters of the file name and corresponds to the type of work being done (e.g., SD for Schematic Design).

Sequential Number: The sequential number is typically the last four digits of the file name and corresponds to the order in which the file was created.

Once you have your file organization locked in, we’re going to want to set up a system to create redundancy with our files — that is, a system that helps back up all of our design work and intellectual property in the event of hardware failure or system data corruption.

Creating Redundancy With Backups

As an architect, designer, or digital creator, you know that redundancy is key in the design process. The same goes for storing your digital files. To protect your work, you should have a redundant storage system setup for store all of your projects. A redundant storage system is a way to set up your storage devices which helps protect your work in the event of a data loss.

It’s important to understand that our files will ALWAYS be stored somewhere physical. Even if you’re exclusively working in “the cloud”, your files exist on a server, and that server lives somewhere physical on earth. This is why it’s important to consider having both options for file storage – physical hardware, as well as cloud storage.

Backup Sequence Diagram

It’s a good idea to have multiple storage types integrated into your file system — ideally, 3:

1. Cloud Storage (virtual backups)

2. Solid State Drive (short term backups / working files)

3. Hard Disk Drive (long term backups)

In my 3rd year of my B.Arch curriculum, I was scrambling to get a project finished. I was working on my final model, and I had my laptop set up right next to it as I worked on it. Sure enough, I wasn’t paying attention and a block fell over onto my laptop – a direct hit on the keyboard.

Immediately, my laptop greeted me with the “blue screen of death” — letting me know that all of my hopes and dreams of becoming an architect had died right then and there. The block that fell on my laptop hit my hard drive directly, which had all of my files and my operating system installed on it.

BUT, luckily I had already learned of the importance of creating a redundant file system!

Since I was using Dropbox, all of my files were automatically synchronized to the cloud. I simply had to log on to a different computer, and all of my files were right where I left them. The data I lost was only a few minutes of drafting time, which I was able to crank out right away and get back on track.

Having a redundant file storage system saved me an indescribable amount of time recovering my data.

Now, let’s take a look at how you can create a file backup system.

How to Create a File Backup System

As design programs become more and more sophisticated, project files are becoming larger. This is why it’s important to have a file storage system that can handle large files.

Now, I’ll explain why I chose the hard drives I use in my system.

File Storage Hardware:

Generally, there are two types of hard drives to choose from these days: hard disk drives, and solid-state drives.

A hard disk drive is the traditional spinning disk type of drive that has been around for decades. They are larger in physical size, slower, and require more power to operate.

A solid-state drive is a newer technology that uses flash memory instead of spinning disks. They are smaller in physical size, faster, use less power, and generate less heat.

In terms of capacity, hard disk drives tend to be much larger than solid-state drives. However, if you’re willing to shell out more money for a large solid state drive, it could be well worth the investment.

Solid-state drives are significantly faster than hard disk drives. This is because they have no moving parts, allowing them to access data much faster than hard disk drives.

With a solid-state drive, you’ll be able to access your files instantaneously.

Some folks may say that Hard Disk Drives are becoming obsolete these days, however, they’re still a viable option for file storage hardware — especially for large projects. They’re also less expensive than Solid State Drives. But be weary, they do have a higher risk of failure since they operate on mechanical parts.

Like the story I shared earlier, all it took was a hard “thump” to my hard disk drive to completely destroy it.

If you’re curious about my own system, this is my current setup:

Create a Hybrid File Storage System
Best Internal Hard Drives

If you’re considering buying a new hard drive, read this article that covers some of the best hard drives to use for architects, designers, and digital creators.

If you’re interested in creating a faster and more reliable storage system, you should definitely consider upgrading your hard drives. Additionally, you can take your file storage system a step further and integrate a cloud storage system that allows you to automatically back up your work.

Cloud Storage Systems:

“Cloud storage” is a service that allows you to store your data on a remote server. The second way to create redundancy is by using cloud storage. This could be something like Dropbox, Google Drive, or iCloud.

Best Cloud Storage Services
For Architects and Designers

Want to make your files impossible to lose? Back them up in a Cloud Service! Here are the best cloud storage services for architects and designers.

If you’re considering using a cloud storage service for your design work, check out this article that covers some of the best cloud storage services to use for architectural design work. In that article, I rank the current top cloud storage services based on the above criteria.

With all that being said, you really should invest in a redundant file storage system.

Keep your files safe and your clients happy.

Maintaining System Security and Software Updates

In this section, we’re going to look at some ways you can make your system more secure — virtually, and physically.

Physically Secure Your Devices

The first way is somewhat obvious — but make sure that wherever you’re working, your tech is physically secure. That might seem obvious, but I remember hearing stories of students in architecture school who had their laptops and other devices stolen because they simply didn’t lock their stuff away when they left the studio.

Whether they were walking down the hallway to grab something out of the vending machine, or they got sidetracked in conversations with other folks in the surrounding studios — the speed at which something can go missing is honestly baffling.

If you have access to a locker, use it! Store your computer away when you aren’t working on it.

An alternative option to locking up your device is to simply use a security cable. Many computers have locking ports built-in to them. A security cable is just metal cable that you can “lock” into the chassis of your laptop, then lock the other end of the security cable onto a table or desk.

Laptop Security Cable
Compatible with Windows
Jon Henning (me) earns a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

By spending a little bit of money today on a laptop security cable, you can save yourself potentially thousands of dollars (and a lot of headaches) with a laptop security cable. If you’re curious, here are two great options to pick from:

The Kensington cable locking system is compatible with many of the latest Windows laptops and mobile workstations.

Universal Dock Lock
Compatible with Mac and Windows
Jon Henning (me) earns a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

This is an excellent all-rounder solution for all types of laptops — Windows and MacBook alike. Essentially, you would leave the dock sitting in place at all times, which is great for having on your studio desk or somewhere that is relatively permanent. The key is an electronic “Smart Key”, which works by scanning over the proximity sensor to unlock your device.

You probably shouldn’t rely on this as a permanent “secure” option (in other words, don’t just ‘lock’ your device and leave it there for long periods of time) but it will certainly make it a bit more challenging for people trying to score themselves a 5-finger discount on your hard-earned tech.

Protect Yourself from Cyber Attacks

This could be an entire article in and of itself, but here are some key takeaways that can help you keep your files safe.

It’s important to ask yourself if it’s even necessary to have a VPN service.

One of the downsides of having a VPN service is that it does typically slow down your overall internet speed.

1. Make sure that your operating system is up-to-date.

This also includes your hardware drivers. If you use antiviral software, these programs will send you reminders to update your system. One of the easiest ways that people lose data is because their systems are out-of-date, which makes it easy for hackers to access your important files.

I strongly recommend that for any major operating system updates (for both Windows and Mac) that you back up your system beforehand. There’s always the possibility that the installation could fail for some reason, which can cause data loss.I’ve actually only had this happen once when I was updating my Windows OS, and my desktop lost power in the middle of the update. Since the update was only halfway finished, the installation corrupted the hard drive I was using at the time. Luckily, I was using my hybridized hard drive setup, so only the “operating system” hard drive had to be wiped and reformatted.

2. Use a VPN to Secure Your Wifi

A VPN is a virtual private network service (VPN), or in other words, a server. When you connect to WiFi over a VPN, it creates an encrypted “tunnel” through the internet, by which you can secure any data that travels between your device (client), and the destination website (host). This “tunnel” is created when the server (VPN) applies an encryption protocol to the data that you send and receive. Data that is encrypted is secured, providing you a layer of protection in the virtual universe.

3. Stay on password-protected WiFi connections

If you can help it, make sure that the wifi that you’re using requires a password to access it. This means it would be considered a “private” network, rather than a “public” network. Granted, a private network may not be accessible in every location you might be working in — say a coffee shop that offers free wifi… but in any case, I recommend that you use a VPN.

4. Update Your Applications

Similar to updating your operating system, it’s important to keep applications up-to-date if you can. For any subscription-based software that you’re probably using — like Adobe Creative Cloud — updates are pushed for “free” as you continue to pay for the subscription. Other applications such as AutoCAD, Revit, and Rhino will sometimes cost an additional fee to “upgrade” to a new version.

If you’re using a student version of the software — at least with Autodesk products in my experience — you can simply download the latest version to use.

But be careful with backwards compatibility.

Many of the drafting and design programs we use are not made to be backwards compatible. Once you upgrade your model — like in Revit, for example — you can’t open it in an older version of the software.

Use your discretion when choosing to update your drafting software. I’ve always found that it’s usually safe to “upgrade” every 2 years — so in other words, if it’s 2022, you should use a version that is from 2020. This just ensures that if you’re working on a team of people, there’s a greater chance that people will have an older version of the software instead of the most current release. It’s kind of a rule of thumb in many ways in our industry — and my experience working in corporate design firms has confirmed this.

Use a Password Manager

If you’re somebody that uses the same password for everything, I’m here to tell you that it’s only a matter of time before you get hacked. There’s no better time than now to start changing your passwords to be unique for every application you use. If you use a password manager, you don’t have to try to guess your passwords over and over again.

There are a handful of password managers out there — and one may even come with the cyber security system you use. But if you want to see some of the best ones available today, make sure you check out this post that compares the top password manger systems.

Key Takeaways

Here are the key takeaways you’ll want to focus on to improve your digital hygiene:

  1. Get your file system set up, and be sure to use the AIA standard naming conventions for your file names.
  2. Create redundancy with your file storage devices, and make sure that your data can be easily backed up.
  3. Make sure your operating system is up to date, and consider using a VPN to help protect your data online. Don’t use the same password for everything, and consider using a password manager to keep track of all of your passwords.

By following these guidelines, you can ensure that your digital files are properly organized and protected.

As always, I’d love to hear from you! Do you have any digital hygiene tips that you’d like to share?

Let me know in the comments below!

Cheers, my friends.

Jon Henning

Hi, I'm Jon. I write about emerging technology in architecture, engineering and design, and I want to help you push boundaries with the latest tech trends in the AEC industry.

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