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The more digital collages you create, the more image elements you end up collecting. It’s just a fact of life for a digital artist! I started off with a tiny collection of vintage photographs and have worked my way up to hundreds of image elements for use in my collages.
It’s smart to download and save digital elements in a specific location rather than searching for new ones every time you make a collage. You’ll save valuable time and energy by starting each collage from from a stash of images, rather than searching one-by-one for everything you need.
If you’re coming from a physical collage perspective, think of it like building up a box of papers, magazine clippings, rub-ons, etc. Same concept, just…digital!
Eventually, you’ll have so many digital collage elements that you’ll need to plan for storing them properly.
It’s not enough to just throw everything into one (computer) folder and look through the entire thing any time you want to put a collage together. That’ll drive anybody up the wall! You need to organize your digital collage element collection and make it easier on yourself to be able to find what you need.
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Before starting anything, write out a plan for how you’re going to store your image elements.
Things to consider
1. Where are you going to keep your collage elements?
This post focuses on using Canva for digital collage element organization because it’s so easy to use.
A Canva Pro subscription comes with the ability to create folders, which opens up amazing possibilities for organization. You can also store up to 1TB (huge!) worth of uploads in your account. If you mainly use Canva for your digital collages, then it makes total sense to upload your collection there to use.
Don’t have a Canva Pro account? No worries! Free Canva accounts have 5GB of storage, which is still a good amount to work with. (However, you can’t make any folders, which makes things way harder.)
Consider also uploading your fonts to Canva and use them there! (Don’t have a lot of fonts? Here’s where to get some cool free ones.)
If you don’t use Canva, or if you want to keep a backup of your digital images off of Canva (highly recommended), you’ll need to designate a place on your computer where you’ll keep your stuff.
I’d also recommend backing up your files to an external harddrive, in case of catastrophic computer failure. I use a Western Digital 8TB external harddrive, which has plenty of space for all my images and pictures.
Note: I don’t recommend storing your files on cloud storage, like Google Drive, unless you’re only using it for backups. If you use it as your main storage you’d have to re-download an element every time you want it.
2. How do you create your collages?
I always start with a background, then add a focus image on top, and any flair goes last. Therefore, my image elements are sorted roughly by “focus image” and “flair” types!
So when I want a background image, for instance, I know to just check the “backgrounds” folder. Or if I want a focus image of a person, I look in the “vintage people” folder. Need a watercolor circle? They’re in the “circles and frames” folder.
If you create collages in a different way, you may want to organize your folders differently. Are you inspired by colors? Maybe you’ll want to sort images by major color themes. Do you prefer collecting images on a specific topic (e.g. cats, family, history) and then making a collage? Folders with specific keyword topics would be your best best.
Consider your own collage-creation process, and then think of how best to organize your image elements for supporting that process. And don’t worry if you get it “wrong,” since you can always change how your organize your stuff whenever you want.
3. Will you be able to maintain your organizational system?
This is more of a practical consideration. A natural instinct is to create very specific folders for very specific images, but that can backfire BIG TIME.
If it takes you longer to sort newly downloaded images into your collection than it does to create a new collage, then something’s gone wrong. Start with more general subject folders and then see where you naturally want to expand.
For instance, if you find yourself looking for a specific kind of focus image over and over again, then a subfolder is a good idea, e.g. cats. But don’t start with ten different types of focus image subfolders that you can’t maintain because it’s too annoying to sort images into them, e.g. black cats, tan cats, orange cats, white cats, etc.
4. How will you name your files?
You can search for images using keywords on Canva, even in your own folders. That means you should name your images something descriptive before uploading them so you can find them again when searching.
Don’t make the filename too long, or you might have issues. Pick two or three keywords and the source of the image, e.g. “Vintage-Woman-1892-LibraryofCongress.png.” And then just make it a part of your workflow to rename files before sorting them into storage.
That way you’ll be able to search for images by keyword instead of individually going into each folder and looking through them.
(Admittedly I’m not the best at remembering to do this in my own collection, but it’s very helpful when you have a huge folder of images to look through!)
Once you have a solid plan for your organizational system, it’s time to go for it!
The folder system
My image element collection is sorted by image type, by which I mean I’ve sorted them into parts of the collage. For instance, all my background images are in one folder, and my focus images are in another.
I keep everything in my Canva Pro account and use folders that are organized by topic:
(Remember, only Canva Pro accounts have unlimited folders. Free accounts are stuck with only two, and you can’t upload fonts to use.)
Some of my folder labels include: florals, people (vintage and modern), texture backgrounds, painted backgrounds, frames and circles, vintage paper (this includes backgrounds and smaller paper elements), doodles, animals, insects, and holidays.
I go for more general subjects than super specific, because I don’t want to get sucked into nit-picky organizing when I’m just trying to get ready to make a new piece of art.
To create your own folder system, write down the top five or ten image types that you regularly use in your collages.
These keywords will be the basis for your own folder organization system. Don’t worry about getting it perfect at the start, since you can always tweak it to fit your needs, but remember to keep it more general at first and then get more specific once you’re comfortable with your folder system.
Making folders in Canva
This is the easiest part of the whole thing!
Sidenote: For those who want to sell their art
This is actually the second incarnation of my folder system.
Originally, I had everything sorted by image source. If I downloaded it from Pixabay, Pexels, or the Library of Congress, I had it sorted into a separate folder with that label. My thinking was that I’d know then whether I could use that particular image element in a commercial usage, or if it had a different usage license.
However, it was VERY difficult to find what I needed since obviously all the backgrounds and people and doodles were mixed in with each other. Eventually, I switched to my current folder system. I also made sure that everything in my main folders is either public domain or copyright-free, so I don’t have to worry about usage rights. Since the majority of my image elements come from public domain websites, this works well for me.
However, I do think it’s a good idea to at least make a note of where you got an image. That way, you don’t have to worry about accidentally using something that wasn’t supposed to be sold. You can do this either by renaming the file (as mentioned above) or by sorting them into a separate folder within the larger keyword folder.
Since I don’t use that many non-public domain images, I’ve put them into folders labeled with their source. I regularly download free graphics from Creative Market and occasionally buy other elements from other websites. Anytime I upload something from those places, I just put them in their own folder.
That said, this isn’t a great plan. It’s much more difficult to find something I want to use in those source folders, even with the search. But at least I don’t have to worry about accidentally using a “personal use only” element in a collage I want to sell later on.
Bonus: Save your favorite Canva elements
Did you know that you can also save Canva elements into your folders as well? No more searching for the perfect sunflower image over and over again– just save it directly into your “flowers and plants” folder for easy access!
Here’s how to do it:
1. Hover over the image you want to save until you see three dots in the upper right corner.
2. Click on the dots, which will open a menu.
3. Select “Add to folder” and then find the folder you want to save it to…and that’s it!
And that’s how to organize your digital collage elements in Canva! Super easy, right?