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Vox Populi: Best practices for file naming

If it wasn't apparent from my pathetic cry for help the other day, even I -- one of your more theoretically productive persons in North America -- struggle with what to call things.

Tags, files, and -- dear Lord -- the innumerable assets associated with making web sites, graphics, audio, and video projects; it's all a hopeless jumble unless you have some kind of mature system in place for what you call your stuff and its various iterations. Of course, if you're like me -- and I hope that you are not -- you still have lots of things on your desktop with names like "thing-2 finalFinal! v3 (with new changes) 05b.psd".

For prior art, I still treasure this Jurassic thread on What Do I Know where people share their thoughts on this age-old problem, but, frankly I haven't seen many good resources out there on best practices for naming.

Anyhow, during a recent MacBreak shoot, I noticed that Alex and his team seem to have a pretty fly system for naming the video files that eventually get turned into their big-time IPTV shows. Thus, I turned to Pixel Corps' Research Division Lead, Ben Durbin (co-star of Phone Guy #5) for insight and sane help. And, brother, did he ever give it to me (see below the cut for Ben's detailed awesomeness).

But, just so I don't lose you, do give me your best tips in comments: What are your favorite current conventions for naming files? How does your team show iterations and versions? Do you rely more on Folder organization than file names in your work? How have Spotlight, Quicksilver, and the like changed the way you think about this stuff?

Ben shares how Pixel Corps does it, video style:

We're still settling into best practices that are shared amongst all the teams, but here are some themes:

File names are a set of fields separated by underscores. We share files on linux servers, so while manageable, we consider spaces in filenames to be lowercase b bad.

If it's an established or long-term project, we try to keep the codes for the various fields to three letters. This allows for more fields without having the file names get too long.

If it's not an established project, we favor readability (longer field names) and consistency. Even if your field data are arbitrarily chosen, as long as you're naming things consistently, you can always use batch renaming to convert a given field into a code later.

When possible, the fields are arranged left to right from general to specific.

Files that may have iterations get a three-digit, padded iteration number as their final field.

Even when we use folder structures with multiple subfolders, the project code fields stays as a prefix of all files, so that if files get misplaced, they're still easily findable (example: all post files for a MacBreak episode will start with "mbk_eps_episodeNumber_" regardless of where they sit in the folder structure).


As you've probably noticed, the problem with file names in general is that they only give you a single "view" and aren't applicable to other ways in which you might want to see/sort the files in other contexts. Advanced users can get all grep-daddy with it, but they're in the minority. At best, file naming structures are a "good enough" solution that works well most of the time if you don't have a more robust metadata system in place.

The problem with metadata systems, of course is that they tend to either be proprietary or only applicable to certain file types. Are we going to use annotations on all of our Quicktime movies? Create some custom xml format that gets parsed by a proprietary app? Structured Spotlight comments? The check-in comments of a versioning system like Subversion? The lack of a good, widely-accepted metadata framework that is spoken by all OSes and/or that can be embedded into most file types lead many people to resort to file naming structures and leave it at that.

Dang. Thanks for that, Ben!

To repeat:

What are your favorite current conventions for naming files? How does your team show iterations and versions? Do you rely more on Folder organization than file names in your work? How have Spotlight, Quicksilver, and the like changed the way you think about this stuff?

Peter Garner's picture

Hi Merlin, File naming is...

Hi Merlin,

File naming is good, and I'm all for people naming files effectively; it sure makes my job easier. As a self-employed translator, I get Word files from clients just about every day--sometimes with very good names, sometimes with horrible names. Thing is, I can't change the file name because then I screw up whatever file system THEY have in place. So I usually just tag "-E" onto the end of the file, indicating that it is the English version.

What I really hate is when clients use sentence-like file names. Since I use the first version of Word for OS X, which for some very special reason does not allow file names longer than 31 characters, I often have to re-name such files. In these cases, I try to use as much of the client's file name as possible, while still adding the "-E" tag at the end. I haven't had any complaints so far.

But all this is a long prelude to the fact that in my situation, file SYSTEM is much more important than file name. Mine is pretty straighforward. I have a folder just below my home directory with all that year's files. It's called "2006." The rest goes like this: 2006 > client name > project name > individual files. For really big projects involving lots of documents, I'll sometimes have project subfolders for original versions and translations. I also colour-code folders so I can tell at a glance what clients have translations, revisions or invoices pending.

The nice thing about this system is that it makes Quicksilver searching a snap. I usually just type in a few letters of the client name and I have immediate access to all that year's projects. From there, it's just a few arrow keys away from the file I need.

I rarely need to use Spotlight with this system. The only exception is when I need to find a term or a phrase for a translation that I'm pretty sure I have previously translated for another client, but I can't remember which one. That's when the power of Spotlight really shines through. Otherwise, I've always thought it was a crutch for people with messy file systems. ;-)

Love your site man. My morning shave is so much better since you posted that tip about using a shaving brush (last year?). Who knew you'd find a tip like that on a "tech" blog?




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