Thursday, July 24, 2008

File Naming & the dumbest thing ever

John Foster in a recent episode of MacBreak Tech while in the middle of a perfectly enjoyable discussion on file naming... said the one thing you should never do is use the date in a name, that it was ‘the dumbest thing ever’.

Now, I would have a lot of crossover interests with him, having an opinion on file-naming conventions, no matter how freakin’ sad, being one. And you know, I have being doing the dumbest thing ever for... like the longest time.

Well, maybe fifteen years or so.

I have a filenaming convention which I’ve applied rigorously since deciding I needed to do it. It works for me. And I think the key to adding any element into a filename convention is to be utterly consistent. The benefits only become clear years on.

My needs in file naming are two-fold. You should be able to instantly see what a file is about just from the name and you should be able to find it years later with no real hassle. So I take the following approach:

1. I give every project a three letter acronym, whatever is intuitive is usually what I use, I don’t over-debate it.
32A (our feature film 32A)
EDI ( a script called Easy Does It we’re developing)
JPC (Janey Pictures Company, business stuff)
2. I then include the date, in reverse order and always YY.MM.DD
3. Then who it’s for, IFB, RTE, Media, Bank, Marian etc.
4. Then a narrative on what it is.

So I get files called:

32A 08.07.20 IFI my notes on press release

I can instantly see what project it relates to, when I wrote it, who it was for and what it’s about.

The joy of doing the date in the name only becomes clear when you sort by name. You instantly sort by name and date simultaneously. Projects are sorted into lists which are further sorted by date.

The story of a project becomes very clear as you peruse directory listings.

32A 07.05.02 GFF application for festival
32A 07.05.28 GFF additional notes on format and dolby
32A 07.06.04 GFF acceptance letter
32A 07.06.06 Media press release on premiere
32A 07.07.12 GFF Hotel booking form
32A 07.07.19 GFF thanks again for all

It’s pretty clear what was going on and what the sequence of communication was. The story is clear, that’s one thing I value. And no other project files are in there, if I didn’t have a date in the name, and I sorted by date, you’d see a jumble of different project files mixed together.

This particularly applies if you have an ongoing flat file approach, I have a folder on my desktop called ‘Inbox’, essentially my current working folder.

You have the benefit of the filename doing some of the work folders do, essentially I’ve built in a project folder sorted by date right into the name. I only Archive files into a hierarchy of folders every couple of months or so, and this keeps things organised even with that.

But it also helps in using Spotlight. You can also search quickly in spotlight for ‘32A 07.06“ and get just the files for that project and that exact month. I realise you can construct a spotlight query adding in a date but this is far quicker and much more intuitive.

Other benefits.

- Even after I do sort into a directory hierarchy, a file can leave it’s folder and still have the meaning in the file name.

- For sharing the file, the date of creation is embedded in the file name and if you email to other people, it doesn’t matter about when it’s saved on their system or how correctly set up their system is.

- I don’t do versioning that often, but if I do I build into the narrative, commencing with the word ‘Rev’ and a number: Rev01, Rev02 etc.

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  1. 1) you have to stick with whatever works otherwise it stops working. lots of people have some files dated in the filename and some not. that doesn't help. you found something that worked for you and have stuck with it for 15 years! bravo, sir. don't change what you are doing just because I think filename with dates in them is a dumb idea.

    2) dates are often redundant information. which doesn't help me as a content creator that has hundreds of changing assets. however, if I was in a profession that needed date based filing I might considered something so strict like what you've outlined above. the date implies that this file is never going to change after it was created, sent or printed. which is why it's got a date on it. think paperless office aka hard drive as a filing cabinet. but I'm not building things to remain filed. I'm building things that will eventually be a website or a dvd or a movie. and those things will change all the way to the last minute.

    I really only care about revisions. and we name thing like file_r1, file_r2, file_r3 etc. nothing is final in my business. so the date isn't required (beyond what the created or modified date that the Finder takes care of) and having it there doesn't help.

    3) it works as long as you know the rosetta stone to decode the terse meta data in the file name. 32A won't mean anything to anyone except you or the people that work with you. when we talked about weirdo file names we also mentioned one of the naming conventons that other people have used around us. for example:


    that's just going to generate a giant WTF from me or anyone else that stumbles on the file out of context. in this case the first six letters are redundant data. the next doesn't matter because it's the author. the four letters that follow are essential the file name, but FOUR letters, come on only four letters?!?. and finally the last of data is for whoever is posting the file to the web. why not a human readable name? why not a folder structure?

    4) putting dates in the file name doesn't also work when working across platforms. Windows allows : and / but unix doesn't like / and Mac's barf on : in a file name. that mean you have to use dots or dashes or underlines to make it work. but business people are used to / and can't understand why it "we" can't read their files on our side. better to not use a date in a filename when working in a group.

    so I'm end this by saying... whatever works for you! it's your workflow. but YOU have to stick with it. you have to train others to be this specific. otherwise it's banana land. I still think that putting a date in a file name is stupid. at least for me and the people I work with. but you've made a great case for a system that would work well for what you are using it for. good luck with that and keep doing it!

  2. Thanks John for such a considered reply...a few small points.

    You make a good point about my approach being suitable for a digital filing cabinet. It's exactly matches my role, as a company owner and producer I'm not really developing assets in the sense of content for a project.

    32A is actually the title of the film so anyone working with me wouldn't need it explained....:-)

    Yes,15 years used is probably a strict approach, but I've found the looseness of the narrative ending gives a lot of wiggle room where it's needed.

    In terms of versioning, I agree. I may have script drafts and dating is perfect for that. But it's impractical in terms of different cuts for example, an agreed numbering system would be much more useful. I may have twenty script drafts over several years but you could have twenty different sequence edits in a day.

    In the US the / is much more prevalent than in Europe for dates where a period is preferred. Interesting note and one to remember.

    And yeah, whatever works is always the way to be. Horses for courses...


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