Digital Information Management for Designers: Part 2 — A System’ for File Tagging

Read the first part here.

It is easy to develop a logical system of folder hierarchy” to file away self-generated information. But, folders are limited to being containers of specific’ material. The external information that we encounter has not only increased in volume, but also is diversified over various locations of origin, applicability, and ultimately also where it gets saved to. I discovered that tagging was the best means by which I could bring a sense of sanity to this process of information documentation and retrieval. Tags are of sufficiently general form”. Tagging allows tying together widely distributed stuff — placed in various bookmarks, files, notes, folders, drives and storage media — into a common thread of thought.

Data Creation
Data Creation

After a more than justifiable amount of time spent online looking for a sane logic for implementing a system for tagging, I came away dissatisfied and decided to introspect on my own needs; and to come up with a system that I could also recommend to my students of design.

An overview of my widely distributed data of knowledge and ideas revealed that I could broadly distribute the data I had gathered, as well as stuff which I had generated on my own, into two categories:

  1. actionable items, and
  2. reference objects.

Actionable items

Actionable items are those, the completion of which, perceivably affects me — either personally or professionally. I visualise actionable items as beads which can be strung only through one of four threads, or statuses:

  • !act → currently relevant top-level items; affecting my present status
  • !ideas → determining the future me”
  • !holdunresolved items. (Or, instead use !buffer if that makes more sense to you.)
  • !someday → for example, todo: Catch up with Mr. Somebody (over a cup of coffee).”

Stuff tagged: (on) !hold … This is stuff which, if I were a Hindu warrior-Goddess, I would hold in my third hand — stuff that’s not important enough to be a high priority item, yet is not sorted-out enough to be able to be filed-away into a box. This is like the baggage from a previous relationship, the resolution, or not, of which, I feel will strongly determine my future person; and hence, it is not to be carelessly discarded from my hands. This stuff needs further processing… at an indeterminate, yet immediate future. Hence: !hold. This is different from !someday, held in the fourth hand of the goddess: information which is neither determinate, nor of immediate relevance. One needs to periodically review how long stuff has been sitting on !hold. As a personal preference, I try to ensure that !hold items get to be no more than a month old. Anything that crosses that limit, should force one to set aside some uninterrupted time to reflect, process and file it away under a reference object tag, or be discarded as inconsequential.

So, what do the first two hands of the warrior goddess hold? The dominant holds the sword (!act) and the protective second holds: !ideas. I like to differentiate between protection (armour) and defence (shield), and favour the former over the latter. I understand defensive actions as reactive” to external factors. On the other hand, protective measures are more about building up an immune system from within — a system of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. These hopefully, are better suited for an unaffected & independent journey towards achieving a happier and satisfied self. !ideas protect. !ideas determine what and where I want to be. !ideas create bridges between the future me, and the !Hold and !Someday items.

My immediately actionable items are tagged: !act.

I avoid using tags like: important. Experience has taught me that while important” files quickly accumulate (and get out of hand), in time when I looked back, more often than not, I couldn’t figure out why they could be important anymore. It makes more sense to select tag-names which will be relevant across time.

Reference items

While Reference Objects are easier to tag, their categories are more elaborate, diversified, as well as subjective to a person’s work and interests. When the number of your tags grow into the hundreds, recalling the appropriate tag on the spur of the moment can get difficult, especially if you are trying to recall a rarely used tag. In such situation, a standardised template becomes quite handy.

The Tag-Template

To overcome my tendency to forget, I use the following tag-name pattern:


ex: [ ar.material.stone ] or [ wk.acc.payment ] or [ ref.legal.ruling ]

This pattern allows me to view the tag groups in a drill-down fashion — ordered from general to specific detail of relevance. If you tag with two or three levels of detail, you will soon notice the ease of browsing in various situations. You will get sharper results in file searches. When choosing the data elements of the tag-name, follow a logical sequence that you would also normally use when searching for a targeted file. The strength of your tag-naming convention will be dependent on the proposed naming structure and the quality and quantity of the data elements chosen to build it.

The TAG-view in iOS Files app
The TAG-view in iOS Files app

I simply use a period ( . ) as the sub-category separator. For the sake of readability, I abbreviate the kingdom part. In my case, it is: ar. for Architecture, id. for Interior design, wk. for work, etc,. Per my needs, I have defined about 10 kingdoms. I sometimes abbreviate tribe heads as well: acc. for accounts.

In absolutely unavoidable cases, one could expand the template further to four levels, but I usually find such level of detail both unnecessary and tedious:


ex: [ ar.material.stone.granite ]

Overcoming Cross-Systems Incompatibility

Since no universal standard exists for preserving file-tags when moving data between operating systems or cloud backup services, there is always the fear of tag-loss. As such, to be on the safe side, I also tend to append the [tag-names] to the file name within square brackets like this:

Stone_House_03 [!ideas ar.construction_method ar.ruin ar.material.stone].png

Since the trailing part is accessible to system-wide search (via Spotlight/ Windows Search), it need not remain visible to the user in Finder or Explorer views.

Note that I always use lowercase tags. I also try and avoid using plurals and hyphens as far as possible. I use the underscore _ as a delimiter in compound tag-names (for example: ar.construction_method). I also avoid using spaces or other special characters such as: # $ % & ' @ ^ \ / ` ~ + - – , ; = ) (.

As with every system, there are a few exceptions (!ideas - in my case is plural), but consistently following these rules prevents tag-duplication and ensures accuracy in the search results later on.1

On Windows, the process of tagging files is quite convoluted and time consuming, hence I recommend to use a 3rd party tagging app: TagSpaces2. While adding tags is pretty straightforward within MacOS Finder, when your list of tags grows into the hundreds, getting an overview of your tags is not easy; and quickly, tag-management will get cumbersome. As such, I recommend to maintain a list of your tags in a separate text file until they become second-nature to you.

I access all-my-tags.txt” file from within Shortcuts.app on iOS to quickly lookup, and also partly to automate the long-form file-naming process. Those readers who are adept at the MacOS command-line can come up with an Automator workflow or Apple script for use with Finder or Hazel. More to come on that in Part-3 of this series.

Colour Labels (MacOS + iOS specific)

I recommend using colour labels for quick visual identification of tag categories. Specifically, I use different colours for each kingdom category.

Finally, Check these out for tooling yourselves up…



  1. Some search tools do not work with spaces. Additionally, they may not treat the symbols: - and + as boolean search operands NOT and AND respectively.

  2. TagSpaces is a free & open source application for file navigation and data management. It helps users organize files, photos and other documents on their local drives. It is compatible with Windows, Linux, Mac, Android, iPhone, Firefox and Chrome. The link points to the community’ version, but there is also a paid Pro version with additional features, if thats what you need.

Up next Digital Information Management for Designers: Part 1 Architecture, Memory, and Time
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