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Best Practices in File Naming

Updated April 2020

Every office has its own small conventions about routine things — where you keep your coffee mugs, where you leave your trash for recycling, or how you switch off the A/C when you leave the office in the evening.

File naming is just like that. It’s a small, yet important detail that helps your routine workflows run smoothly.

We’ve all been there: you’re asked to review the most recent draft of a document. You log into your company file folder organizer and look for the file, but you can’t tell which version of the document you should be reviewing:

  • Smart_file_organizer_final.doc
  • Final_smart_file_organizer_Victoria_edits.doc
  • Smart_file_organizer_FINAL_last.doc

This is just one small example of information management weakness that can cause a lot of unnecessary frustration. Imagine how much more productive you and your colleagues could be if you knew what each file contained before you opened it!

How to become more productive at work | Free Guide + 5 steps to organize your digital library

Proper document management is a road to organization’s efficiency. File naming is one of its most important parts. Let’s take a look at how to name your files and what mistakes to avoid on your way.

What are file naming conventions?

File naming conventions are specific frameworks for naming digital files in a descriptive, accurate, and consistent manner. They provide information about the file content. These frameworks also show how the file is related to other files in its group. The best file names also help to understand what is inside the file before opening it.

Once you become disciplined with file naming and choose your own file naming convention, it won’t matter any more where you put your file. You should not care much about folder structure if you can easily search across your files.

Best file names are…

Before you develop your unique file naming convention, you have to understand that best file names are:

  • Unique — if you do not have a system for keeping your file names unique, you risk overwriting them and losing all your data. In collaborative environments, it’s common to intentionally overwrite files.
For example, you get a new invoice from Aсme Corporation called Acme_invoice.pdf, dated yesterday. You might get a warning that you have the same file in the folder called Acme. You might also assume that since the invoice came in yesterday, someone else put it there. You remember that the accounting saved this invoice yesterday, hence the new one has to be the most recent and you replace it. Everything falls into pieces when your accountant asks you about the last Acme invoice and you understand that you replaced the one from the last month.
Unique file names
  • Indicative — it may seem strange, but people frequently believe that it is quite understandable to other team members what they meant by a certain file name. In reality, each person has his own naming convention, which might not work for the rest of the team.
Let’s return to our Acme_invoice example. You call the file Acme_invoice_pdf. But, you accountancy search for invoices by date or invoice number and you have not indicated any. Your name is useless in this case.
Using dates instead of words like 'last'
  • In-line with business processes — if you work in a team your file names should be in line with its needs. Do talk with your colleagues and indicate people who do the most day-to-day work first. They are the ones who will know what really makes sense in file naming for your team. Make uniform rules for everybody.
  • Consistent — when you have chosen any file naming strategy, just stick to it. Being organized is like keeping fit. Change doesn’t happen overnight. It is a long-term strategy. You need to make changes that are right for your business and that will last, rather than hop on a fad diet. When you get a feeling that you’ve found a solution you can live with, stick to it!

Tips for file naming

1. Use unique identifier

Start your file name with the most important component. It can be a project name, number or creator. Use data in your identifier. It can be a year, month and date. Use YYYYMMDD or YYMMDD for dates: this format is an international standard and will allow files to be sorted chronologically — especially if the date is located at the beginning of the file. You can also indicate the location if it is important to indicate the place where this image or video was taken.

Unique identifiers

2. Keep file names descriptive

I love the way David Sparks, the author of bestseller Paperless, talks about this: “Don’t get cryptic. Pretend future you will be drunk or senile (or both) when looking at these filenames and make the name easy to understand”. Do not make file names in a way that you require to decode them in future. Make them so you can just read them.

Descriptive file names

3. Avoid special characters and spaces

Special characters such as ~ ! @ # $ % ^ & * ( ) ` ; < > ? , [ ] { } ‘ ” and | should be avoided.

Do not use spaces either. Some software will not recognize file names with spaces. Use these alternatives instead:

✔Underscores (e.g. file_name.xxx)

✔Dashes (e.g. file-name.xxx)

✔No separation (e.g. filename.xxx)

4. Don’t forget your zeros in sequential numbering

If you’re using a sequential numbering system, you’d better add leading zeros for numbers 0-9. This will help you maintain the numeric order in file names, on the one hand. And you’ll add more clarity to the system, on the other hand.

Zeros in sequential numbering

5. Use lower case

If you start capitalizing letters, you will not remember when to capitalize. Your files will have inconsistent names or you’ll spend a lot more time than necessary keeping it straight. Just always use lower case and forget about it.

6. Keep your file names short

Your file names better to be short, ideally — under 20 characters. This is usually more than enough to describe all the minimum relevant information about an asset.

Short filenames

7. Never use the word “final”

Never use the word “final” in a file name. Ever. Seriously. It’s a poor file naming convention. It seems that students at their first job have this problem the most, but the pros do it too. Maybe it has to do with wanting to be done.

We all know it isn’t the final version. You know there’s still something that’s screwed up. It’s not final, and probably never will be. Just Save As… and care about version control.

Not use the word 'final' in the record

8. Document file naming conventions & get others onboard

For better consistency, write down all your naming conventions & distribute them to your team. This could be a simple text file shared with all the departments and newcomers so they could refer to it later.

Look through this example of file naming conventions developed by African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). The document has simple but useful practices on how to name files for the partners.

Also, consider organizing internal training on the best ways to name files. This could be a brief workshop where you present your file naming conventions, dwell on them & the importance to use them. Ask your colleagues for feedback – you might hear a few more interesting ideas on file naming.

9. Automate the process

Use digital asset management software to simplify your file naming conventions. Do you know, which is the most problematic point in file naming? The overwhelming quantity of versions. If you have many clients and/or projects you have tons of versions of files. You have to keep all of them in order to avoid chaos.

Here, asset management systems like Pics.io will help you to end with a simple and efficient document organizer, where new revisions are simply piled up on top of each other, like layers in Photoshop, and you can’t mess up this order.

It may probably take some time to fully implement a new file naming system in your team. People may be reluctant to learn new tricks. But in the long run everybody is bound to grasp the benefit of a uniform company-wide file naming policy.

If you are already using or thinking of a DAM platform, the file name is an essential piece of metadata that supports system organization, drives search performance, and helps to make sure that shared assets are easily understood. So let consistent file naming become part of your lifestyle! You won’t regret it.

For more tips on effective files organization consult our Smart File Organizer and recent article on file organization for creative agencies.

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Pics.io Team
Welcome to Pics.io blog, where you'll get useful tips, resources & best practices on how digital asset management can help your business to manage & distribute digital content on top of cloud storage.