✱ The Best Way to Name Your Files

This article was inspired by David Sparks’ article on Macworld.com, which is a great read. His article focuses mostly on the files we collect and archive, and I wanted to focus more on how we should name the files we create from scratch. David is a productivity and automation guru. Check out his MacSparky website and Mac Power Users podcast for more great tips. 

When I taught at Cal Poly in the Architecture Department, I had a few annually recurring lectures on subjects like setting up good folder structures, how often to save your files, and even how to name your files. Yes, I know these are BORING but they are completely necessary if you’re going to be a power user because we have to be organized. It’s time to come to grips with just how many files we create and what we are going to do when we need to find them later. Do a little house keeping now, set up some good habits, and you’ll never have to worry about it again.

Let’s take a look at how to name your files and why you would even consider reading this article. I know, you probably already know how to do this because you’ve been doing it for sooo long Ms. Smarty Pants… but chances are you could be doing things better. And that’s the point of this article.

The Best Way to Name Your Files

There are two types of files on your computer. The ones you make, and the ones you collect. You are either making stuff and saving it to your hard drive or you are collecting things like images, utility bills, PDF’s, invoices, 3d models to put in your scenes, texture files, etc. You choose what these files are called and where they are stored. Where they are stored is becoming less and less of a decision with things like iCloud and the super-quick Spotlight search. iCloud doesn’t let you decide where to store files because it keeps apps’ files sandboxed per program. Spotlight searches everywhere regardless of where you keep your things saved.

If you become disciplined with file naming, where you put the file almost doesn’t matter anymore. I’m not saying you should just throw everything in one big heap in your Documents folder, but it’s starting to get to the point where that is acceptable. And what I’m about to tell you will make it so you could do just that if you choose... But please don’t :) Like I said, I’ll go over folder structures in another article. The following 6ish tips are platform agnostic. 

6ish Basic File Naming Rules of Thumb

1. Be descriptive

We no longer live in a world where you can only have a file name that’s 8 characters long. Yes, I used computers then. I’m old. And that’s really the point of your new file naming system - you will get old and forget what you named things. The goal here is to come up with a recipe that has a structure easy enough to follow that you’ll actually use it. Don’t make it too complicated, but include enough information so the names are organized and easy to discern. In other words, don’t make names so that you have to decode them. Make them so you can just read them.

I love how David says to assume senility in his article: 

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.

Be descriptive so you can search with normal language to find your files later. 

What do you do two years down the road when you need to find a 3d model for your portfolio to get a new job and the file is named “Study Final Final 5b No Really This Is Final zzzzz.skp”? How many other files do you have with the word “final” in it? Stop it. That isn’t descriptive. Use your big words. It isn’t a good idea to name your files “Untitled” or “3d Model” or “Research Paper” either, even if they are in a folder with a different project name than the others. What matters are the FILE names when searching later on down the road.

1b. Finally 

Never use the word “final” in a file name. Ever. Srsly. It seems that architecture students 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 make a new version of the file.

2. Be consistent

Once you develop your own (or steal my) technique, you need to use it. All the time. Every day. Everywhere. Use project or client names in every file, every time.

3. Use lowercase letters only

This is part of our “consistency” concept. When you look at a folder full of files it just looks better when you use the same case conventions. And we care how things look, don't we?

4. Don’t use special characters

Letter and numbers are fine of course, but computers don’t always know what to do with certain characters and symbols. Stick with the basics and you’ll be fine. Spaces are ok of course. Even the internet has learned how to deal with spaces in file names, although%20it%20isn’t%20pretty. If you don’t like or can’t read that, use underscores or dashes between words like_this or like-this. Those are much more internet and website friendly. It seems like almost everything ends up on the web nowadays, so save yourself some time in the future by naming things web-ready today if you think your work will end up there. 

5. Use dates in your file names

Why? Don’t we already have a modification date for each file? Yes, but having the date at the beginning of a file name ensures no matter where the file ends up that it is sorted the same way everywhere. 

6. Use version numbers in files you create

To use an analog term, create a paper trail with your digital files. Not to mention this will totally save your life when the current file you’re working on gets corrupted and you have to start over. Oh yeah! You don’t have to because you have a version that is only 15 minutes old! Like I said, life saver. This doesn’t just go for crazy intricate 3d models. This goes for TPS reports too.


So here’s what your file names should look like following these 6 rules:

2012-06-28 idyllwild library - sd - exterior massing model 04.skp

Always start with the date in YYYY-MM-DD format (also known as ISO 8601 format). Then include descriptive text. This means having a project name, company name, client name, job name, etc. just after the date. Include the phase of the project if you can. In this case, “sd” stands for schematic design which is an early phase of an architectural project. Then describe the contents of the file itself and add a version number if you make more than one version of the file THE SAME DAY.

Sidebar: Version numbers are important. Not all files will get them (like the ones you collect online for instance). I keep tons of versions of files so I can go back in time to review process, grab something out of an older version to put into a new one, and have a record of my work. Don’t throw away old versions! Are they really taking up too much space on your 2 terabyte hard drive? The answer is no. You probably only need the most recent couple of versions on your Dropbox, but archive the old ones for posterity in a separate folder called “Archive”. 

Lastly, always end with a file extension. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen my students look for a file only to not be able to open it three years later because they can’t remember what program they made it in or because they deleted the software off their computer even if they were lucky enough to find it in the first place. It happens all the time. I also include extra spaces and dashes in the filename for the simple reason of making them easier to read. 



Click on this image to see an example of tags and comments

Extra credit: you can add additional metadata to files by using the Get Info... command on them in Finder on the Mac. This allows you to add comments, keywords and even tags to files (in Mac OS X Mavericks and newer).



You’ll need to apply the same rules or come up with something similar for files you collect from other people or online. You're going to have to do this because no one else is as smart as you with your new file naming skills.

Now that you have mastered this technique, teach it to someone else. Just be sure to give all the credit to me.


Additional tips to make the process easier using automation utilities:

On my Mac*, I use a couple of applications to help me take this to the next level. First up is Smile Software's TextExpander. It's a godsend for turning small text snippets into full-on magically delicious words on your screen. I love it for a myriad of reasons. I use it for turning repetitive things I type every day into shortcuts. For instance, if I type “wwork” it automatically expands into my work address. This is great on Google Maps or for putting my address into a web form. If I type “etet” it expands into my email address. It works great for file naming ever since I stole David’s shortcut for adding the date stamp to the beginning of my file names. I don’t even have to know what day it is. All I have to do is type “.ds” and today’s date automatically appears right where my cursor is. 2012-06-30 See? BAM! My computer knows the date and I don’t have to anymore. Awesome. We live in the future. 

My TextExpander snippets library

My TextExpander snippets library

Next is Default Folder X, which replaces the Open and Save dialog boxes in my applications. This utility is a huge time saver, especially if you have many hard drives connected to your Mac either locally or over a network. In this instance, it also allows me to add Spotlight comments to my file’s metadata for helping me find things later. Spotlight is great for finding things fast no matter where they are on my Mac, and this adds some octane booster to its search abilities. The benefit here is that I can add my comments when I'm saving the file so I get to skip the added steps of doing the Get Info... command on the file later (which I mentioned earlier). Here's what the developer has to say (emphasis mine):

Make better use of Spotlight. Apple introduced Spotlight and Smart Folders in Mac OS 10.4, but there’s still no way to easily add keywords and comments to files as you create them. Default Folder X fixes this by letting you enter Spotlight comments and OpenMeta tags when you save a file.

The Default Folder X save dialog boX


The Default Folder X save dialog boX

See the last part of the image above with the large, blue magnifying glass? That’s where you can enter these comments as you save your file. Mysteriously easy. I put things in that box that will help me find the file even easier in the future. This is part of that senility clause.

Me (thinking): Hm. I need to find a corten steel texture for this new project I’m working on. What did I name that file I built that corten panel fence in 5 years ago? 

Spotlight search (option + spacebar on my Mac): corten fence

Computer: Here’s that model you did of the Idyllwild Library 5 years ago that has a corten fence in it with the texture you need right now.

Me (out loud): I’m a genius! I’m so glad I filled out that spotlight comment when I saved that file. It didn’t even have “corten fence” in the file name!

My actual Spotlight search query


My actual Spotlight search query

Can you do this without Default Folder? Yes, of course, but it makes it so much easier by allowing you to add comments during the act of saving your file. This is just one of the reasons I use Default Folder X. It does a ton more.

So, in summary:

Do’s:

  • Be descriptive
  • Be consistent
  • Include version numbers
  • Assume senility

Don’ts:

  • Include the word “Final” in the title. It never is final. Amirite?
  • Be cryptic
  • Forget the file extension
  • Use special characters

I can’t tell you how many times this has saved me when I needed to find something later. Take your time and tailor it to your needs. Once you do, you’ll never have to think about it again. This new system may seem overwhelming at first, but setting this up now is a lot easier than doing it later. 

* Yes, these tips apply only if you’re a Mac user. If you’re on Windows, I don’t know of any software that does the same things, but there probably are some. If you know of them, please leave a message in the comments. All of the file naming techniques apply to whatever operating system you religiously dedicate your waking hours to worshipping.


Updated 2014-11-28 - More information added to reflect the addition of Tags to the Get Info... command in Mac OS X Finder.


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