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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?

Markus's picture

I also use a date...

I also use a date system for file naming, but quite a simple one: Project contexts are defined by folder names, file names reflect the state the file is in. When I work on literary projects like a short story, the earlier drafts can become an important source of inspiration (and fun) later on. I rely on spotlight for finding stuff; usually it diggs up different versions of the file. Color Labels also play an important role here. I have five main folders for my files in my document folder(sorry for the clumsy translation):

1_current Projects project-related files, with relevant reference material (in folders) 2_Archive (with finished (sub-)projects etc...) 3_Someday,Maybe (e.g. training programs for my plan to get used to sport one day) 4_Templates (letters, angry letters, business cards, GTD list templates...) 5_Lit (short stories and the like which should not get confused with the rest)

Inside folder 1, I keep a seperate subset of folders for my current dissertation project, which I often transfer to an usb stick and back, when I work at the PC (sigh) at the office. I have aliasses of the main folders in the dock. I found that custom folder icons for these folders help me a lot when I look for them in the dock.

The files inside are named "YYMMDD enter_long_filename". when there are multiple versions on one day, I add an optional "-a", "-b", or "-c" later on. I started this system after 2000, so two letters for the year are enough. Microsoft word is a problem here, because filename limitations only allow for "061024-b filename".

By the way, when working with scientific literature, I label essays and other stuff I keep as a hardcopy with this system as well. I enter the number in Bookends, so I can create temporary citations with it. On each hardcopy, I note the bookends number, so that I don't have to interrupt writing to look up things like "Allen, David (2001): Getting things done. p.53ff" but instead my note on the cover tells me to enter "{060514-a}, p.53ff".




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