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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?

Scott Elsdon's picture

After reading through some of...

After reading through some of the replies I thought I'd share my own views. Like its been said, File naming isn't that important with fast indexing services such as Google desktop or lookout for outlook. but folder structure is the be all and end all for a tidy system. As a Windows user its always frustrated me that they insist that My Documents should be where you hold everything, I fiddle a little and change it to my Data, with My Docs, My Music, My Vids, My Email ( for PST files) My Pictures etc. under that one My data folder. then items are nippy to get to straight away. There again, Its annoying when Skype or PowerDVD just dump their folders into that folder also. Grrr.

Another major bug bear is the American predisposition with the date format. Do they realise they are the only people on the planet who name things month day year ?

The reason I bring this up, is for multiple items under a My Pictures for example, I would break it into years, then each year into months then you know where and when everything is, was it in December, look to the bottom, was it Jan, hey at the top,

like this

D:\MY DATA\MY PICTURES +---Animals | +---Misc | | ---Romsey Show 2002 | ---Tamirat | ---Movies +---Bonsai +---Karate | +---Eneoda Memorial | +---Kata Diagrams | ---Shoto Journals +---Personal - Scott | +---2002 | | ---2002 04 - Allonby | +---2003 | | +---2003 01 - London | | +---2003 02 - Tennerife | | +---2003 07 - Karens Party | | +---2003 08 - Aug to Xmas | | +---2003 10 - My Dubai R & R | | +---2003 11 29 - Movers | | +---2003 11 12 - Basrah Airport | | +---2003 12 09 - RAF Bar with Movers | | ---2003 12 23 - Dubai | +---2004 | | +---2004 01 - Bahrain | | +---2004 02 - 57 Wingate Court | | +---2004 02 Feb - Mel at Palace | | +---2004 03 - Abbo | | +---2004 03 - Par-har-ties | | +---2004 04 - Duran Duran | | +---2004 04 - France Bash | | +---2004 05 - Mel's bash

I know they say its because they speak it September 11th so they write 9/11 but hell I'd say it was quarter past nine, but I wouldn't write it 15:9 pm !!!




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