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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?

jake perdu's picture

Great comments. But I am...

Great comments. But I am surprised that OS programmers have not solved this issue by now. I was Y2K-ready in the '80s by naming/organizing my files then in a YYYYMMDD format for alphnumeric sorting. But in the 90s I dropped the timestamping, expecting the OS to let me have the same file names within one folder and sorting them for me based upon its OS timestamps. RIGHT! So, I still wish timestamps would act as versioning within the damn OS. Activate as default or by folder. I hate changing filenames because when I have to do some past research... well, I'll not get into that can of worms. And I basically hate both Apple and Microsoft equally when it comes to how difficult they make it to keep one's files organized. And don't get me started on how apps and OSes each handle alphanumeric sorting differently, even leading underscores. Y'argh.

So, after giving up on both Apple and Microsoft, my solution was to create twenty primary folders of ALLCAPS, the secondary folders are TitleCased folders, and the tertiary folders are lowercase. In fact, this is how I organize everything now (personal and work, but I work for myself) from my analog files (only primary categories, then by year, I don't have much paper filing) to my QuickBooks accounts to my bookmarks to my categories/tags. When I need to create a new category, I enter it on the spot into each of my systems and into my outlined, bulleted meta document, which is then published in each system for easy recall. It took me awhile to get used to this system but I swear by it now. If only I had the time to figure out how to get my TiddlyWiki to sort them by hierarchy and alphanumeric.


Once I had a concern like Nate expresses but wanted to keep my ginormous files just in case, so what I did was create a working files directory (projectnameWF) for every project to keep all my drafts separate from my current final version. This works great for print design projects but for the web or anytime I am learning a new system and know that I'll be going through numerous versions and the client will ask about "Tuesday's" version, I do something else, I create a build folder structure and store only the files that were updated that day. So, my structure looks like:


In the rare case I store two versions of the same file, I simply append a timestamp to it. I've created macros to take out some of the manual tediousness of copy'n'pasting.

I do it this way so that I can easily track down bugs and what not. Or when the client says, "You know what, let's go back to what we had Monday." Wish I understood SVN-versioning and could get it working but until then this system has worked well for me.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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