File naming conventions: why you want them and how to create them

(Image source: httpsxkcd.com/1459/)

(Image source: http://sxkcd.com/1459/)

We’ve all been there: you’re asked to review the most recent draft of a document. You log-in to your organisation’s shared-folders and look for the file, but you can’t tell which version of the document you should be reviewing:

  • Grant-proposal-henry-edits-finalfinal.doc
  • Grant-proposal-final-Nora_edits_v4.doc
  • FINAL_proposal_Aug2016_kct-updated.doc

This is just one small example of an 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!

We are passionate about file naming and other information management tactics because the more organised we can be with managing our information, the more effective and efficient we can be in our human rights work. We have helped to develop file naming conventions for a number of human rights organisations, including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). Now we want to share what we’ve learned from this work.

This article will introduce you to file naming conventions: why you want them, some tips on how to create them, and a few examples for inspiration.

Why you want a file naming convention

A file naming convention is a systematic method for naming files. Your file naming convention will always be your most powerful and easy method for organising and retrieving your documents. You want to get this right the first time, so it is important to invest enough time to think about this carefully.

A consistent and descriptive file naming convention serves many purposes, often related to branding, information management, and usability. The overall goal of intentional file naming is to increase readability in file names. It empowers people new to the content to navigate files more easily, makes searching and finding documents easier by having our filenames reflect file contents, and guides file authors to develop each document around a single, concrete purpose, which reduces clutter. More concretely, it allows you to:

  • Know the content of a document without opening it.
  • Retrieve and filter documents very quickly using the search/filter function of your computer.
  • Store documents in a single folder without losing their context, if you need to.
  • Find and identify documents even if they are no longer in their original folder.
  • Easily browse long lists of files to inventory or check for missing documents.
  • Manage documents more easily on your website (often content management systems store documents in a single “uploads” directory).

As you can see, there are many situation in which it is helpful to have a file naming convention. You will want one to organise your organisation’s files so staff can find what they are looking for. You’ll definitely want one if a project requires the management of many files (such as digitising and organising scanned documents).

Not sure if any of this applies to you? One way to know if you need to pay some extra attention to the way you are naming your files is to take this golden test of a good file naming convention: Imagine if you take all your files from your whole organisation, and put them into one single folder. Can you still quickly filter down to what you want by scrolling through the file list? Or by searching for elements of file names? If the answer is yes, your file naming is good. If not, your file naming still needs some work. So read-on!

Five tips for designing your file naming convention

1. Consider how you want to retrieve the files

How you want to retrieve the files will help determine the right file naming convention for that file type.  Keep in mind that file sorting will read from left to right!

  • Starting your filename with the most important parameter/component will allow you to organise documents alphabetically (or chronologically) with that parameter without having to do any searching. For example, if your primary method of accessing a litigation case file is its number, then this should be the first element in your file naming convention: when you sort your documents in the file manager, you will see them order by case number first.
  • For dates, use YYYY-MM-DD (or YYYYMMDD, or YYMMDD, or YYMM). To ensure that files are sorted in proper chronological order the most significant date and time components should appear first followed with the least significant components. If all the other words in the filename are the same, this convention will allow us to sort by year, then month, then date. Some conventions have the date in the front of every filename because that is the most logical way for their team to retrieve files.
  • Versioning: use _v1 or -v1. If the document will be maintained over time, use the convention v1, v2, v3, etc. to depict its place in the sequence of versions. You may want to separate the “v” from the content type with an underscore (“_”). As versions are made and updated, change the version #, but keep the file name the same.
  • Sequential numbers: Make sure that, if there are going to be more than 9 files with that name (versioning, photos), it should be 01, 02, 03,.. so that it can be sorted in chronological order. Same if it is more than 99 files, it should be -001, …. -060, ..-099, ..-100

Here’s a helpful (and short) video from PC mag that highlights a few of the practices listed above:

2. Use relevant components in your filename to provide description and context

The filename should contain the essential elements of each file, dependent upon what is suitable for your retrieval needs. File names should outlast the records creator who originally named the file, so think about what information would be helpful to someone in 15 years. Potential components for human rights organisations include:

  • Name of organisation
  • Program or theme
  • Type of document
  • Geographic scope
  • Date or period
  • Language of document
  • Content type, such as “Invoice” or “Report”. This will help to maintain consistency of filenames across program areas and staff.

Keep in mind you will most likely want to use agreed-upon abbreviations for these components in order to keep the filenames short.

For example, a file naming convention may include the following components, in the following order:

[YYMMDD]_[Project]_[Country]_[Event]-[number].xxx

Examples of filenames based on this convention:

  • 160301_HRC_Geneva_launch-001.jpg
  • 151208_HURIDOCS_Casebox_Improvements.pdf
  • 160126_HURIDOCS_EHRAC_meeting_notes.rtf
  • 160219_SRJI_Moscow_meeting-001.jpg

3. Keep the filename a reasonable length

Long file names do not work well with some types of software so it’s best to keep them short. To achieve this, you could consider:

  • Shortening the year to 2 numbers
  • Abbreviate file name components (e.g. use “inv” instead of “invoice”, or “fr” instead of “francais”)
  • Use as few words as possible to convey the identity of the document

4. Avoid special characters and spaces

  • Special characters such as  ~ ! @ # $ % ^ & * ( ) ` ; < > ? , [ ] { } ‘ ” and | should be avoided.
  • Do not use spaces. 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)
    • Camel case, where the first letter of each section of text is capitalized (e.g. FileName.xxx)

5. Document and share your file naming convention, and get your team on-board!

Make it easy on your time to understand, use and find the file naming convention by documenting it and putting in a place that is easy to find. You might want to include this documentation in a readme.txt file in the main shared folder. See the example file naming convention txt file under the examples below.

Hold a short (and fun?) internal training session to explain why the new file naming convention is so important to use, and how it works. Create a video that goes through the key points of the convention.

The good, the bad, and the inconsistent: Examples of file naming conventions

Example of a file naming convention for human rights organisations

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, we worked with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) to create file naming conventions in preparation for file migration and digitisation projects. We are sharing documentation of both conventions so that you can see how different organisations approach this effort.

Case studies

  • Here is a case study from Stanford University Libraries that describes the organized and thorough method they used to name the thousands of image files of tiles collected from the ocean floor. It’s an interesting example because the filenames themselves provided the key data of each image. Researchers were able to easily search and sort based on the file naming convention.
  • Here is another case study from Stanford University Libraries, but this one explains a file naming convention gone wrong. This example highlights the importance of: consistent file naming, using descriptive components, and including a readme.txt file to explain the project and the file naming convention!

Example of a digital photo file naming convention

Professional photographers also use file naming conventions to organise their photos. A photographer may take thousands photos in a single shoot, and they do not depend on file names produced by their camera, or rely on folder structures. Rather, they typically use a file naming convention, such as: [Date] – [place or event] – [number] – [comment].

Examples:

  • 2011.11.11-kampala-riot-000001.tiff
  • 2011.11.11-kampala-riot-000002.tiff
  • 2011.11.11-kampala-riot-000003.tiff
  • 2011.11.11-kampala-riot-000004.tiff
  • 2011.11.11-kampala-riot-000004-cropped-slider660x510.jpg

As you can see, the photos above relate to riots that took place in Kampala on 11 November 2011. They were shot in TIFF format. The last photo is derivative of the previous one: its an image cropped for the slider of the NGO’s website. Even if there are tens of thousands of photos in the same folder, it’s easy to filter for “kampala” and “riot”. Photography software like Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop allows you to batch rename files as above.

Example of using a file naming convention when scanning documents

If you’re using a scanner to digitise documents, it will typically produce PDF documents with filenames like: 20120202095112663.pdf. This is not very helpful for browsing thousands of documents in your file manager! Instead, using a file naming convention will result with document names like the following: ICJ-submission-CAT47-Greece-20111011.pdf. You can guess what this document is about without opening it. In this case, it’s a submission by the International Commission of Jurists to the Committee Against Torture at its 47th session, on 11 October 2011, concerning Greece.

Enjoying the fruits of your labor: how to find your file

Using a consistent file naming convention will let you find what you’re looking for by utilising your computer’s sort and search features. In the screenshot below, the file names automatically sort in order of date. If you forget the date, you can also search by filename components.

(Image source: httpwww.summarycrime.com/2010/12/using-ipad-in-legal-practice-part-1.html)

(Image source: http://www.summarycrime.com/2010/12/using-ipad-in-legal-practice-part-1.html)

Batch file renaming tools

Have a lot of files already that you want to rename according to your new file naming convention? Here are a few applications you could try:


This article was written by Kristin Antin, with contributed content from Misty Avila of Aspiration, Maya Richman of the engine room, and Nora Erdmann, Bert Verstappen and Daniel D’Esposito of HURIDOCS.

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