An endless gripe with Gmail has been that it uses labels in place of hierarchical folders to organise mail. This is great in some ways since we have all encountered the situation where a mail appears to belong in more than one folder, but irritating in that it isn’t possible to keep a nested set of categories for your mail.

Labs to the rescue

A recent ‘labs project’ from Google has attempted to solve this with the use of specially formatted labels – i.e. any label with a slash in it can appear like it is in a folder.

For example if we wanted a simple folder structure as follows:

We could create 4 labels:

  • People
  • People/Dave
  • People/John
  • People/Karren

And the Google “Nested Labels” Labs extension will make this show up as

Complete with the little collapse folder icon (which works) and all the expected label colours.

Seems like the problem has been solved wonderfully right? Wrong!


Unfortunately this is what our American brothers would refer to as ‘lipstick on a pig’… it’s a cosmetic fix that does nothing to alleviate the fundamental problem.

Imagine if I rename the ‘People’ label to ‘Friends’…

Uh oh. That’s very unlikely to be the result I wanted and highlights the point that all this is still just visual trickery.

In addition if you have the option to display labels in front of all the e-mails you receive you will see the full label (folder, slashes, and all) on every e-mail.

So in my opinion this lab, although really handy, rather misses the point.


What we are looking for is sub-classification and being able to treat groups of mails as if they were one item. This can, I think, be achieved in a relatively simple solution.

We need only get a little bit Meta on our labels. If we could apply labels to labels as well as to mail we would be sorted.

Imagine I have 10 mails labelled ‘John’ and 5 labelled ‘Mike’. Now all I have to do is create a ‘Friends’ label and apply that to the labels ‘John’ and ‘Mike’ and presto… all the benefits of folders with the added benefit that I could also label ‘John’ with a ‘Colleague’ label.

No mail duplication, no hard folders, multiple sub-categorisation, and the ability to manipulate mails as grouped items. Simple.

Going further

But why stop with mail? This can also be done for Contacts, Tasks, Documents, Events, etc.

In fact, why maintain separate sets of labels?

Imagine I have a group of Contacts called ‘Friends’ why do I need to manually create a label in my mail called ‘Friends’ and then create filters to add that label to all the mail from my friends?

It doesn’t seem a big step to have this label automatically applied.

And the benefit of a common label system? If one of my ‘friends’ becomes an ‘enemy’ then all the material related to that person moves automatically simplifying my filing and admin tasks.

Hiding via settings

Of course sometimes I will have labels related to one thing that I don’t want to show up everywhere – a common labels system could generate a lot of labels) – but as is already demonstrated in Gmail this is actually just a question of display and could be cleanly handled by extending the ability to ‘show/hide’ labels to the ability to ‘show/hide for each section’.

Auto filtering

Finally why can we only apply filters to mails? I should be able to set up filters for my documents, contacts, appointments, etc as well.

Imagine I’m working at a company (ABCorp) and I want to keep all the information about that company labelled together – it should be possible to create a filter that labels any item (document, mail, contact, etc) that contains the word ABCorp automatically.

So how do we make this?

At this point we have a unified simply filing system that fulfils all the benefits of labels, folders, filters and has none of the drawbacks.

Unfortunately it requires Google to modify their backend to allow application of labels to labels and it requires deep integration of their disparate services. This is no small UI fix.

I believe it is likely it could be done without breaking existing data but without access to Googles core systems it’s impossible to know.

So sadly… after you’ve slogged all the way down to here… this probably isn’t something we are going to see any time soon 🙁

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