How I use DevonThink - A Lighting Designers view

How a stage and television lighting designer uses DevonThink

Over the years I have used both PC and MAC computers, but for the last 15 years, I have settled on a MAC for work and personal use. When I bought my first MAC I came across DevonThink and found the concept very intriguing, but at the same time confusing. I couldn’t quite get my head around it. It all sounded a bit… well… abstract. I had more questions than answers, I also found it a little clunky, so I gave up. Just like that! I never touched it again. Maybe I was trying to overthink the whole thing. I couldn’t see the wood for the trees as it was actually very simple.

Fast forward to November 2023 and I thought that I’d give DevonThink another go. I downloaded it and installed the trial, but before the trial had ended I purchased the Pro version. Now DevonThink is the heart of how I work and run my work life. So how did this happen?

By trade, I am a stage and television lighting designer. I do many different kinds of shows and events from small 300-people business conferences to arena-sized music shows, TV and video shoots. The biggest thing about my gig is the paperwork. There can be so much of it. CAD drawings, PDFs, images, photos, and all formats of documents such as Word, Pages, and spreadsheets. Sometimes the amount of paperwork for one job can be so overwhelming.

My old method of keeping this stuff in order was to simply create a job folder in Finder with the name of the show and inside the folder there would be many sub-folders where I would put all the various assets sorted into categories as they came to me. Later, whenever I needed to access a document, I’d either go into the job folder and click through the sub-folders tree until I found what I needed, or use Spotlight to hunt the document down, which didn’t always work as I would expect. Yes, I used tags, aliases, and so on, and this simple method kind of worked, but it was slow, messy, and clumsy.

DevonThink has changed all of that now and has become the real hub of my work and has converted and improved my workflow, making me think and organise myself with more clarity. Now I can find anything that I need with speed, freeing up time to act on what I was searching for and not having to think too hard about where it is in my file structure.

So how do I use DevonThink as a stage and television lighting designer?

It took a little thinking through and a leap of faith. I did a lot of YouTube watching and reading on the DevonThink forum. Lots of experimenting was also done. It’s the best way to learn, just keep a backup that’s all! I wanted to make sure that I understood clearly what DevonThink was all about. With trepidation, I created a database called WORK. In this work group (or folder for simplicity) I created some more groups that relate to my work. These are just generic work folders that contain health and safety docs, first aid, public liability insurance docs, and other insurance documents. I also have manuals for software and lighting equipment manuals in these folders. I started with items that didn’t change very much, important to my work yes, but not accessed very often. I did a full Files and Folders Import. DevonThink was to become my go-to place, so Indexing Files and Folders was not for me. I didn’t want to use OSX Finder at all.

Once I had experimented for a while with these folders and files and was happy I decided to move over all of my work. The jobs that I am currently working on and the jobs coming up in the future. I kept the original folders in Finder for a while until I was happy and that I wasn’t going to mess it up with DevonThink. The paranoia was so much that I ran both methods at the same time until I was absolutely happy. Even then I zipped up and archived the Finder items and kept them safe for a while longer… Just in case!

After moving some items around and creating new groups, I wanted to automate the process so that when a new job came in, all the groups that I needed, along with a single “Where are we with this job?” document, would be created and populated for me ready to receive all the documents that would soon come my way.

I started by creating a template that would generate a group of folders for me. I managed to create a template called New Job, which was easy to create within DevonThink and OSX. So now when I click:

Data/New from template/Classifications/New Job

A new group is created in the Global Inbox that looks like this:

To a non-stage lighting person, this probably looks like nothing, but to me, it makes my work much easier and cleaner, and I can change the template as I go, adding and removing folders as my requirements change.

CADS: is where all the CAD drawings go to
Accommodation: Details about where I’ll be staying for the job. This would be a collection of web links, a reservations pdf, etc. I can stay in many different places on a single job!
Travel: Self-explanatory. How am I getting there? What are the details? Flight, train, and car rental dates and times.
Documents: Spreadsheets and text docs, any document that is a non-PDF.
Visuals: This is where all the visuals that I have generated for the client’s show or event using my visualisation software are kept.
Finance: All the quotes from equipment suppliers, my costs, crew costs etc. Anything to do with money!
PDFs: This folder is always the most populated as in my industry the PDF is a big deal!
Notes: Any extra notes that I might take or get about the job that I have to deal with much later on.
Kit Lists: An important one this. It has all the equipment that I will spec and use for the job. This can constantly change.
Images and graphics: Photographs of the venue, and images from the client such as set ideas, logos etc.
Inbox: Nothing in here yet.
Anything Else: This is where stuff goes that I can’t put away anywhere else for the moment, or needs me to think about it a bit more.
Capture: This is the virtualisation software I use. Many versions of a show go in here. I can create 3D renders for a client and myself that change regularly, so all the files for Capture go in here.

Finally, JOB NAME - Where are we with this Job? This is a rich text document that does what it says. It’s a part empty document with some basic information that is already in, such as the show name, client name, and dates of the event. Then under that, I insert the date and time and then add significant notes and details about the job. Changes to the show, key people’s contact details, change of times, etc., etc.

This document is the hub of the job because anywhere within the document I can place a copy link from any asset in DevonThink which will then allow me quick access to the item saving me from searching for the asset. This doc gets my daily attention as I have to keep it up to date with new and changing information and add any other asset link addresses for later use. I boil down all the important information from all the sub-folders of a job into this one document using links and edit it every day. Being able to link to other items in DevonThink in a document is one of the great advantages of using DevonThink, but you do have to keep it up to date for it to be useful.

This New Job template is created in the Global Inbox. All I do is rename the group with the show name and copy that name to the JOB NAME document within the folder, then move the lot to the JOBS group in my WORK group. Now all my jobs are in one folder.

Then the real fun starts. Items such as drawings, CADs, docs, and PDFs come via email, shared or Air Dropped to me. In the old days, I’d just gather this new stuff on my desktop and then file it into the appropriate folders in Finder. Now DevonThink AI does this for me.

I was a little skeptical about this function at first, but I found that the more data I put into DevonThink the more the AI kicked in and suggested the right folder to put items into. Now 90% of the time DevonThink knows which job group and sub-group an item needs to go. It is rather spooky to watch, but I can tell you it does work.

Each job can have lots of emails and docs. For each attachment or shared item that comes to me, I just put it into the Global Inbox, via OCR and I convert almost everything I can into a searchable PDF. Everything goes in there, but I mean everything. I print nothing, I save nothing in the usual way in Finder. I just send it to DevonThink. It’s like a “scruffy” unorganised folder where stuff just gets thrown into for sorting later. I didn’t intend to go paperless, it just happened naturally. I have invested in a scanner now so if I do get given something on paper I scan it into DevonThink and I’m done.

So I have all these items in my Global Inbox. When do I clean it up?

This usually happens at the end of the working day. I get a large glass of red wine and I go through all the items in the Global InBox. As I click each item in the Inbox the See Also & Classify tab in the inspector suggests where the item should go in my database. First I read or look at an item and act on it if I need to, copy the link item into my “Where are we with this?” document. I’m a big fan of tags, so I will tag the item, then click the suggested location in See Also & Classify, and boom it’s gone to the right group.

When I go to a meeting or an on-site location, I use my iPhone or iPad to recall everything I need to know about the job I’m working on. All at my fingertips and instantly available. No trawling through folders or searching with Spotlight. Using DevonThink To Go all my jobs and the assets for the jobs are all there. Using an Apple Pencil I can amend PDFs and schedules, etc. During the meeting, all my new notes get synced back to my MAC for sorting later on. The DevonThink sync function is taken care of using WebDav to my self-hosted Nextcloud instance. It has not let me down yet!

It has taken a bit of trial and error. Reading, watching, and listening to other DevonThink users, but without a doubt, my old cumbersome, messy workflow is now streamlined and easy. I am spending less time looking for stuff, now I’m doing stuff. My creative lighting designs may not have improved, but the way I put a job together and manage it is now at another level.

Now I can’t do without my DevonThink. I am now in the process of moving and administering all my personal stuff. I have created a new database called Personal and everything not work-related is thrown into it. I write as a hobby so I have moved my research and writing to DevonThink.

Of course, people have different jobs and have different ways of using DevonThink. My method is no big deal, but I wanted to share how I use this software. Maybe you have spotted another way of doing what I do, or maybe I have given you an idea of how to streamline your work.

Help or harm?

Dj

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:heart:
Thank you so much for sharing your journey and process, especially in such detail! I guarantee many people will read this and (1) relate to how you felt as you worked through it, and (2) find inspiration they can do the same for their purposes!

It’s interesting to me how your comments prove two things we have preached for years:

  1. If you can use the Finder, you can use DEVONthink.
  2. How would you organize in the Finder? You can almost certainly apply the same approach in DEVONthink.

Thanks again! :slight_smile:

@BLUEFROG Yes I did waffle on a bit. Yes… If you can use Finder you can use DevonThink. As I said in my article, I couldn’t see the wood for the trees, it’s obvious now, but when I first started with DevonThink I didn’t get it. The AI and search is the best…

Dj

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Del, thank you for writing this up. I’m a prospective DTP user who, like you, checked it out 15 or more years ago right after switching to Macs but waited. I read through your post pretty carefully even though my setup will look a bit different.

One question (sorry if you’ve already addressed this): do you have this same set of groups/folders for each job, or do you have only this one set of categories into which you put corresponding content for every job. If the latter, do you then use tags or some other method for indicating which job the item corresponds with?

Does my question make sense?

Thanks.

Hi @Charles56 Sure no problem… Let me see now…

Yes, I do have the same groups/folders for each job. The actual new job folder is created from

Data / New from Template /Classifications / New Job which, just in case you may not know, is created by going

Data / New from Template / Open Templates folder, which will look like this:

You can take any of the other templates, modify it then do a Save As and rename it to what you need, in my case New Job

Which in my database looks like this:

What I may do over time is add a new folder and take away old ones as my requirements might change, which I’ll do in the template itself. of course you can add/remove on the fly to suit a project, but I’ve found that the list I have works well. For now.

This was how my Finder used to be structured but the best bit is the linking of documents, the searching, and the filing away using the DevonThink AI, which makes it so more slick and useful. Just throw everything into the Inbox in the Finder that DevonThink creates.

Any help?

Dj

Thank you very much. I haven’t played with templates yet, so I appreciate the nudge. And thanks again for taking the time to describe (and illustrate, too) your layout.

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Just to let you know, Mac is not an acronym, so it’s not capitalized like PC.

Very interesting.
I work in Post Production on TV and film. I have a similar set up. I don’t know if your situation works like this but I am frequently urged to use the contracting company’s email domain for the duration of the project. I find Devonthink’s ability to archive emails a lifesaver in this regard. I have a database for each email address I’ve had to use and the links in DevonThink to emails from notes and reports are very handy. Especially when you can start with linking to the emails in Mail on MacOS and then convert them to links to DevonThink.

One other thing I did in recent years and with help from people on this forum is create a kind of issue tracking system. When something crops up that needs dealing with I run a script from DevonThink that makes a set of folders (Email, Docs) for the new issue and creates a Reminder in the Mac app with a link back to the enclosing folder.
The Reminder is on a list I share with assistants and colleagues. The DevonThink link means nothing to them but for me it means I can find all the docs (PDFs, Excel etc) and emails I’ve imported in one place. There’s also a md file in the issue folder where I can jot notes about what’s happening and what’s been discussed in meetings.

Thanks for sharing your workflow, I’ll be sure to acquire some of it for my own use.

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Man, you guys make me realize I’m not just using training wheels, I’m still riding a tricycle.

Seriously, thanks for the tips. They’re a great help to a noob.

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@ibuys thats great. Thanks very much

Dj

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@SlickSlack now that email idea is a good one. I like that. The only thing about it for me is that one gig could have almost a dozen emails from different domains, but once we have settled in then those people tend to be “the team”. I have played about with importing and sorting emails, and you have given me a bit of a nudge to look at it again.

Those dozen or so domains and people can have a tonne of threads/conversations. Definitely worth a look at your idea.

Have a great day.

Dj

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For me, a Devonthink benefit is freedom from folder/group methodology
I use tags for organization, for example unique job/project tags
The other classifications are a standard set of common tags

For gigs where I am using my own email address I have done things like archive everything sent and received between two dates that covers the whole run of the project. I name the database “Project Name Email Archive” and call it done. There’s probably non-project related emails in there but it’s not worth digging them out.
I keep full email archives of all my email accounts in DevonThink databases and there’s definitely some redundancies in there somewhere but the number of times I’ve been able to open old databases from dead projects AND find all the relevant threads in my Issues folders has made it worth it.
To be more specific, the number of times it has happened has been three in the last year and a half. The last two times I came across as some kind of magician. In the second instance, because my emails for an issue were organized in thread folders in DevonThink, I threw a Smart Folder in the top level to gather them all in one place where could see the exact order things were sent by everyone involved. Anyone could have done that but I could do it faster.
I am by no means a DT wizard but I’ve read this forum and hoarded tips and ideas from everyone.

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Thank you for sharing.
Really interesting.

I’ve learn there some kind of template (actually I use to use a blank set of folder.
But moreover I’ve learn there is some kind of IA to help categorize files. Need to investigate seriously.

Help > Tutorials > Understanding the AI

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Thanks for the detailed overview. My work is very different, but in some ways I guess all independent contractors have similar requirements.

One thing I’ve found very helpful is the ability to search across databases. I’ll often create a separate database for a particular client, for instance if I’m under an NDA and want to avoid accidentally mixing materials from that client with my main research database. The cross-database search makes it much easier to find things, wherever they might be.

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thanks for sharing this … I’m really interested how people from different professions use DT to do their job more efficiently.

You most certainly do want to check out the AI. I didn’t think it would be that good, but seriously it hits 90% of the docs for filing in my global inbox. Of course it works better with more data, so get harvesting!!:+1::+1:

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This is really great, AND like you before posting, I WISH I could figure things out. And, I wish I could SEE it happen in some video which, unfortunately, I can’t even begin to think of the keywords to use to search for such a thing… So, DT just behaves like the glorified Finder it is for me. Glad others have unlocked the Grail. I will try to resume the quest but Castle Anthrax is really quite comfortable. (i.e., Pain of change > pain of same)

Either means that more people than you think can’t use the Finder, or that DT doesn’t work exactly like the Finder after all. Let’s set up a working group to get to the bottom of this :wink: