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What's Your Back-Up Plan?

What's Your Back-Up Plan?
Published February 9, 2011 by Jocelyn K. Glei
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 about 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.

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