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What’s Your Back-Up Plan?

Do you backup your creative work in a haphazard manner? Crossing your fingers and hoping for the best? It's time to get smart about data redundancy, or pay the price.

If you haven’t already experienced it first-hand, you’ve certainly witnessed a friend going through it: That particular 21st century pain of total, irreparable data loss. It begins with a horrible sinking feeling in your stomach as you realize a huge portion of your creative work has been vaporized – and, “Oh God!”, you failed to back it up.

As graphic designer and musician Scott Hansen puts it: “It’s easy to forget that as computer-based creatives, everything we’ve ever done, all of our intellectual property, is sitting in a little metal box and there are a lot of things that can go wrong with that box.” And, eventually, something will go wrong.

Daring Fireball’s John Gruber says, “If you don’t back up daily – or at least very regularly – you’re foolish.” But what’s the best way to go about it? To simplify the decision process, I sifted through a slew of blog posts from professional designers, photographers, bloggers, and others to extract some best practices for creating a backup system.

Let’s start with the basics of creating a backup system:

General Backup Guidelines

1. Make your work ORGANIZED.

Professional photographer Chase Jarvis wrote such a great post about “backup theory” – accompanied by a very informative workflow video –  that we’ve pulled in his guidelines wholesale here. Because Chase is a photographer, he talks primarily about images, but these simple rules apply to backing up any kind of data

You should be able to easily navigate, save, and locate files in an organized folder structure. For starters, I recommend what’s commonly called reverse-date naming, combined with some convenient, recognizable text. For example, if I shot images for an Apple campaign today, June 22, 2010, on my #1 Nikon D3s camera, I would rename the images using the convention 20100622_Apple_1_[camera file name] or similar and put them in a folder referencing that info as such. […] The important takeaway from this point is whatever you do, make it organized. That goes for files, folders, and overall folder structure. Be sure to AVOID folder names like NEW PICTURES, or YESTERDAY’S PARTY.

2. Choose the right STORAGE MEDIUM.

Use portable, external hard drives and – perhaps even RAIDed storage – at your home, office, or studio to store your work. I do not use DVDs or CDs. There is all sorts of data that says use this or that or gold-plated whatevers. I find that research incomplete and flawed. We use hard drives. And LOTS of them. […] As a general rule, if you can afford it, purchase more storage than you think you’ll need. Also note that, relatively speaking, you’re purchasing according to economies of scale. Thus, a 200GB hard drive may cost $100, or $0.50/GB; whereas 500GB hard drive may cost $150, or $0.30/GB.


[Before you begin work on your original files], I recommend copying the original data to a sacred place, in a sound file structure, where it’s not altered. I strongly recommend this is a separate drive from your computer’s hard drive. Upload or copy images onto your computer’s hard drive or into your preferred viewing or editing software for manipulation or reference ONLY AFTER you have a clean copy saved (and never altered) somewhere safe.

4. Make it REDUNDANT.

In order for your backup protocol to be effective, it’s absolutely crucial that your files be in at least two different locations as soon after creating the images as possible. Creating two copies of the original data is the most important step in backing up data. However unlikely, hard drives and memory cards do sometimes FAIL. Don’t subject yourself to having only one copy of your precious photos or videos. It’s not worth it.

5. Keep ‘em SEPARATE.

Remember why you keep originals of your will in the bank’s safe-deposit box and copies at home? This is a similar concept. Now that you’ve got two separate copies, on separate drive, with the exact same data on them, do your best to keep them separated. Try keeping one at home and one at the office. Or one at your house and one at your moms. This is the most far-reaching component of the backup protocol and protects you from the more extreme events like theft or fire. Statistically, it’s unlikely that this will happen, however it’s the best way to truly protect yourself from catastrophic loss.


A backup strategy is only effective if you can maintain it. Even if you’re not a pro photographer, keeping extra copies of your files according to a well organized, established protocol will help keep your precious files safe for the long haul.

The Best Apps for Backups

Now that you have some basic guidelines for backing up, let’s look at some of the best apps to help you make it happen. We referenced great posts from illustrator/designer Frank Chimero, tech blogger John Gruber, associate creative director Antonio Carusone, designer/musician Scott Hansen, blogger Ben Brooks, and others to distill three key apps:

1. SuperDuper: Clone your internal hard drive to an external backup.

SuperDuper is an excellent tool for creating local backups of your internal hard drive. As Gruber puts it, “SuperDuper creates a bootable clone of your startup drive. With Time Machine, if your startup drive goes kaput, you’ve got to go through a lengthy restore process (and, in the case of hardware failure on the kaput drive, you need an extra bootable volume to restore to). With SuperDuper, you just plug in the clone, reboot, and you’re back up.”

SuperDuper has a built-in scheduler, so you can tailor your backups to a schedule that makes sense for you. It also has Smart Update, so it only copies files and folders that are new or have changed. Depending on your level of obsessiveness, you’ll want to use SuperDuper to clone your hard drive to one or two external drives. See more thoughts from Gruber on why you might want two.

[For Macs only. Please share your favorite PC options in the comments.]

2. Dropbox: Back up your working files to the cloud.

Dropbox is a remote, or “cloud,” storage solution that performs two functions: 1) It creates a Dropbox folder on your desktop that you can seamlessly sync across all of your computers – desktop, laptop, smartphone, etc. And, 2) It stores them in the cloud, so they’re always backed up and accessible from the Dropbox website no matter what happens to your computer.However, because Dropbox is always automatically syncing your stuff, it’s not a great solution for backing up huge amounts of data. This is why most creatives use it primarily for accessing and backing up current files and crucial data. For example:  personal or client work that’s in development (Photoshop, InDesign, Final Draft, etc files), Keynote or Powerpoint files for important presentations, copies of your resume or CV, archival backups of your blog, and so on.

Basically, the stuff you need to access to for your day-to-day worklife. If your hard drive fails, it’s good have immediate access to this stuff, without going through any kind of “restore” process.

[For Mac, PC, and Mobile.]

3. BackBlaze: Back up your archival files to the cloud.

Another popular cloud storage solution is BackBlaze. You can have it run in the background automatically backing up your files all the time, or you can program it to run scheduled backups. After that, it only backs up files that are new or have changed, which means that the very first backup might take a long time (depending on how much data you have), and then the incremental backups are smaller.

BackBlaze can also backup multiple computers, external hard drives, and works with Macs and PCs. The best part is, Backblaze gives you unlimited storage for $5 a month. And if something goes wrong, you don’t have to spend 76 hours downloading all your archival data from the cloud. They’ll just mail it to you on DVD or USB drive.

Many folks use BackBlaze in combination with Dropbox for cloud storage due to their different strengths. Dropbox makes your files available on any computer and keeps them handy – making it best for drafts, work in progress, and crucial (but low-volume) data. While Backblaze is very cost effective for backing up huge amounts of data that you want to keep secure, but don’t need access to on a regular basis.

[For Mac and PC.]


Of course, there are tons of other apps you can use for creating backups – like iBackup, iDisk, and Backup Magic, to name just a few. The ones I’ve mentioned above seem to be the most popular with creative professionals (who like to write about their backup systems).What your system needs will depend on your workflow, the size of the files you regularly manipulate, and other factors. The key takeaway here is to get a backup system in place asap – then you can refine it as you go along.

What’s Your Approach?

Do you have a backup system in place?

Are there particular apps that you’d recommend?

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (22)
  • Charlie Wood

    For the data on my Mac, I use both SuperDuper and Time Machine (the belt-and-suspenders approach).

    For data in Google Apps (both personal and work) I use Spanning Backup ( It’s awesome! I may be biased though–I run Spanning Cloud Apps, which makes Spanning Backup. 🙂


  • James

    Have an iMac 27inch with on average 250Gb Data. Backed up constantly with Time Machine to a Seagate 2Tb Harddrive. Plus, synchronized (User Folder) daily with my Macbook using Chronosync. Weekly back up (entire disk) onto portable Lacie 1Tb, using Carbon Copy Cloner, taken immediately home.
    Maybe there’s an easier way?

  • Fabio Pili -

    James, that is almost a photocopy of my previous backup plan. I even wrote an article about it (…. Problem is that after some months I got tired of updating the offsite drives. In my opinion, backup should be frictionless, so I’m now using Backblaze for my offsite backups. Initial upload took almost three months, but after that, my 1mb upload handles just fine the amount of work I produce during a day.

  • Jeremy

    I have two methods that I use to keep my files backed up and in sync.
    1. Archive and Storage – I use flickr and Google Storage to back up and store all of my archived files and photos.
    2. Working files (syncing between machines) – I use Dropbox and SugarSync which give me enough free space to work with.

    If you don’t have Dropbox or SugarSync. I highly recommend them. Use my affiliate links below for Free Bonus space!

    Dropbox (250MB Free)

    SugarSync (500MB Free)

  • jtlowe

    I use TimeMachine to backup to network storage. I also like to create a Subversion repository on an external storage space, that I commit changes to. This not only protects from data loss but allows me to retrieve different revisions of files instead of trying to sift through a Time Machine or other backup.

  • Ryan Parker

    Couldn’t agree more. This is fundamental blocking and tackling.

    I have a small 320GB G-Drive (named “Live”) that holds everything I work on. It’s easy to take with me for remote work. I use SuperDuper to back up “Live” to a 1.5TB partition of a 2TB drive (named “Backup”) every night. The 500GB partition of the 2TB drive (named “Restore”) is where Time Machine backs up my local drive every hour. Although my data is held in two places, I’d be more comfortable with a third level of off-site security. Working on that…

    Take a few minutes and watch this killer video about Chase Jarvis’ photography workflow. It’s cool to see and should give you some ideas…

  • GraphicDesignBoss

    This is a great list of options.

    I have a 2 Terra-byte external hard drive which I run time machine on nowadays. Not being that tech savvy I’ve always struggled with automating the process.

    Being an experienced designer who is self employed, I reckon I’m pretty fortunate as I have a reasonable cash flow. I wondered what solutions designers who are just starting out could use.

    I did blog on attempting to answer this question on 3 Cheap Ways To Back Up Your Work For A Design Business On A Budget

  • Deskthoughts On...

    Backup is a must, and it’s better not to get a hard lesson on it like I did some time ago.

    After that, I buckup my works on external drive and online both.

    And one more thing – every application that I work with has autosave option enabled and configured to do so every 2 minutes.

  • Laura

    This is great! I shared the link on my blog!


  • Jared C.

    Nice post. I ditched cable TV last year in favour of streamed and downloaded video content services.

    I created a triple-redundant sync and back-up solution to make it considerably harder to lose anything.

    Of course, I felt the need to document the whole thing in a technical diagram…

  • Guest

    Thanks for sharing these tips! This is definitely applicable even on workplace.

  • Jon Carlson

    CrashPlan is free and automatic for backing up between your computers and to friends computers (Yes, you need remote backup too). The benefit of backing up to a remote friend is that you can do the bulk of your backup and restore locally if you have a lot of data. You can backup to the CrashPlan cloud too for a reasonable fee of $50 per year. Full disclosure: I’m a CrashPlan employee so don’t take my word for it. Check it out for yourself.

  • Ambuehl

    This is really nice tip to ensure your backup plan which we often forget or does not like due to heavy file uploading..I see one App Stellar Drive Clone which is good for cloning and backup App for cloning your Mac hard drive or volume to a safer backup destination…

  • Shoshi

    For backups that I don’t have to worry about, I absolutely love Backblaze. Heaven forbid something should ever happen to my computer or any of the places it resides, but no matter what I know that even my files from this morning will be recoverable. I’ve lived through the death of so many hard drives that it’s nice to know someone is being paid to take care of my data.

    Also, Dropbox is perfect for active projects, particularly the design related ones. I find that code usually ends up on another server or git repository, and I feel it is safe there.

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  • Damurm

    Decision process d-determine problem e-eval-facts,c-collect info, i-impose plan s-sum up facts i-intro altern. o-ongoing n-never give up. d e c i s i o n

  • dissertation

    that is a good post! thanks for sharing!

  • neben

    Thanks for putting this into a graph, it makes it really much easier to visualize!

    Does your sound system allows you to sync music from several room ( and can it be controlled from a remote device (except the universal tv controller) like an iDevice??).

    Sonos is kinda good in that way bu seems way too expensive. I’m wondering if ,in that case, there could be any DIY system…

  • Jared C.

    You can use AirPlay to stream to different set ups in different rooms

  • christinaxio

    hip hop jewelry wholesaleI always visit new blog everyday and i found your  blog.

  • Online Music Storage

    Thank you so much for sharing this great ideas. I would love to read your post. I like to backup  my files through online storage.. Thank you..

  • Houston Web Designers

    Backups are indeed very important for our data and files. It is great that there are articles such as this one that provide helpful information in effectively keeping our data safe and secured. Thanks for sharing a very informative article.

  • Ruby Badcoe

    These are good instructions for personal record keeping.
    This type of data isn’t usually big and can be stored at home. Having a back-up
    plan is really a wise recommendation. Having multiple and off-site backups are
    very useful too. When it comes to your files, you can never be too sure. Thanks
    too for sharing some neat applications

    Ruby Badcoe

  • Pieter-Pleun Korevaar

    The Synology NAS at our office automatically makes an incremental backup to Amazon S3 bucket every night.

  • Frank Roberts

    Got to get backup up to date and that really can only mean the Cloud for the safest surest backup http://computerfile-backuptips

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