Strawberry, Chocolate, or Manila?

Today I want to boldly confront one of the most controversial issues of our time: file folder color choice.  I know there is a school of thought, that says if your file folders are a variety of stimulating colors, they will encourage more use, but I want to make a case for the classic manila folder. There are reasons why it works.


Manila is so much more than just a non-color. It is restful on the eyes and it doesn’t create distraction. When you write on a manila tab, it reads more visibly than a more darkly colored tab. The most important feature of filing is find-ability and visibility serves find-ability.

Single supply

Clients will often show me a partially-developed system and ask for my help in fully developing it. For example, I might get “I put all my current medical files in this red folder and that works really well for me.” Meanwhile the other files do not have such reliable homes. The problem is, we tend to have more categories than there are color choices.  The reason the red folder works well is because it stands out, but it condemns the non-colored folders to obscurity. If you do manage to assign a different color and pattern to every different folder then you get the Where’s Waldo  effect, where there’s too much visual noise. Also, when you run out of a certain color, then you have a barrier to creating a new file. Finally, you are less inclined to rotate your files, if it means being sure you have the right folder colors on hand first.

Time and Space

When you’re using just one color, you don’t waste a second trying to figure out the right color choice. Also, you just need to keep one box of manila files on your shelf, not several for multiple color choices.  These seconds and inches may sound small, but they are details that can add up to hours and shelves.

Keeping product choices simple goes beyond manila folders. Being organized is not about getting everything into pretty containers. Being organized is more about taking the less important stuff out of the way, so that you can get to the most important stuff. You don’t need to look very hard to identify the most important stuff. The challenge is to recognize the less important stuff, like wasting time, dithering over folder colors. Besides, a clear desk is way prettier than a pile of papers waiting to get filed into the right colors.