File Versioning & Naming Conventions

I originally wrote this back in 2010 and I think I’ve come a long way since then. Perhaps I will re-write this sometime, but until then, I enjoy! Yep, there’s a lot of reading here so I hope that if you manage to read it all you will either cement your current way of doing things, or you will learn something new. Let me know if I’ve helped, or send me your suggestions.

I’ve been evolving my file naming conventions for a long time. My two main motivators are an excellent QuarkXPress teacher (Sean Roy) who advocated being organized and experience with other designers’ working files. On many occasions I have had to pick up where others have left off and trying to understand their file structure only complicated the workflow as I sifted through their obscure naming conventions.

I would always have to review each file one at a time, understand how all the files fit together in the whole, and then rename them all so they made sense for the next person to work on the project. This is a critical skill if you’re part of a team but it is also good foresight if you work for yourself because you may find yourself coming back to these files in the future.

Be careful about renaming linked or referenced files because the next time you open the parent file (ei: .qxd, .indd, .fla) you will be asked to locate the file you just renamed. If you know you’re going to run into this problem, before you start renaming things, I recommend this method:

  1. Open the parent file and watch for warnings. Sometimes the previous user of the file will leave loose ends. Correct them, save the file. Now you know your parent file is ready to go.
  2. Before you close the parent file collect it for output. With InDesign and QuarkXPress you can do this while some other multi-file applications might not have such a feature. Choose a completely new destination for the collected files folder so that you don’t leave any room for confusion.
  3. Close the parent file.
  4. Go to the newly created collected files folder and rename one file, then open the (collected) parent file and relink it when you’re asked to locate the missing files.
  5. Repeat this process until all of the files are named intelligently.
  6. If you want, you can collect the files again just to be sure the whole package is ready for use.

Folder Naming Conventions

In the past I used to put all my projects into one folder called CLIENTS. Inside that folder were many other folders with client company names, and inside were the projects’ files. Over the years I have found that’s not the most ideal method for the way my brain operates. If that works for you – use it. Naming, sorting and conventions have to work for you, with obvious considerations mentioned below in File Naming Conventions.

I found myself having files related to family and friends as well as work, and sometimes my family and friends would become work. So I decided to place all documents related to people into a folder named PEOPLE. Each subsequent subdirectory is named after the person in control of the projects/files and after their name is the name of their company (if any). Inside there the subdirectories are named after the project type, which is usually either Web, or Business Card. Non-work related folders are named like photos, or resume etc.

Now when I glance at the people folder I see the names of everyone for whom I have related files, and what their business name is. When I do a Spotlight search on my Mac I can search a person’s name or business and it will return their folder, if I have it.

File Naming Conventions

There are many, many ways to name your files. You have to choose the right method for the project you’re working on but no matter what method you choose you absolutely must consider a few things first:

  1. If you’re part of a company or team, will the next person working on these files be able to understand the naming?
  2. It is always possible that a project will be revisited in the future, and you might not remember why you named things a certain way.
  3. Compatibility
    • Mac and PC file name compatibility. If an operating system allows you to use 256 characters it does not mean you should. Some characters are commands, such as a slash  / or :  which means change directory on Windows™ and Mac OS™, respectively.
    • Internet compatibility. You should not use spaces for web files and you cannot use commands like @, &, %, =, -, + etc.
    • Choose the names accordingly.
  4. Your file names must include room for versioning.
  5. Search-ability. Will you be able to find the file you forgot about in the future? Truncated names might work well for short file names but they’re useless for searches unless you search the truncation, which means you would need to remember, and if you remember you would not necessarily be searching your hard drive for it.

Always Keep the Original!!
This rule of thumb has stuck with me since college and it has served me well every time I followed it, and it has haunted me when I have not followed it. Ignoring it is a lazy move that can cost you more time later, so spend another 30 seconds when you’re saving files to duplicate the original and then work. I will typically Append “ORIGINAL” to the document or Photoshop layer so I can quickly identify it.

When a client supplies me with a file I will not change its name because the client has that file too, and if they reference it by name you must be able to understand. If the clients’ files are not named appropriately then you can always add to the name, like this:

  • IMG_0931.JPG. A common name for a photo from a digital camera but it doesn’t speak to what it is a photo of.
    • The first part of the name is obviously the same as theirs so if they ask for pic number 931 you will know.
    • After that I have included the client’s name or business name. This helps when searching your hard drive just as much as it helps when you’re looking at the files in the future and you cannot remember.
    • After the Name is the description of their [product], which essentially is the subject of the photo. Not all clients have a product so you have to have an intelligible system of naming photo contents. If it’s a house, call it house-front or house-side.
      • In this example I used house first and then front or side second. I always put the subject ahead of the information about the subject because when your computer displays your files to you, it will show them in alphabetical order. House will always appear first followed by the area of the house. But if you named it “front of house” your computer will list all the FRONTs first. If you have the front of a building and the front of a house, they’re not logically displayed now.
        • IMG_1234-REMAX_front-of-complex_1.JPG
        • IMG_1234-REMAX_front-of-complex_2.JPG
        • IMG_1234-REMAX_front-of-house_1.JPG
        • IMG_1234-REMAX_side-of-complex_1.JPG
        • IMG_1234-REMAX_side-of-house_1.JPG
        • so instead of mixing:
        • IMG_1234-REMAX_complex-front_1.JPG
        • IMG_1234-REMAX_complex-front_2.JPG
        • IMG_1234-REMAX_complex-side_1.JPG
        • IMG_1234-REMAX_house-front_1.JPG
        • IMG_1234-REMAX_house-side_1.JPG
    • Finally, a number. The number indicates how many photos there are of this type. If there are 3 different [products] and 4 photos each this will help you see that information without opening the files.

Personally, this takes too much time, so don’t bother renaming client files. Instead I will place them all into a folder such as this: “REMAX SUPPLIED PHOTOS” and then create another folder called: “REMAX WORKING.” I was taught in school to just use “working” but one day I searched my hard drive for the word working and I found a plethora of folders named working. Completely useless in that context so I began adding the client’s name to the working folder specifically for this reason. It’s not right or wrong, it just works for me. Do what works in your working environment.

File Versioning

I have a client that I have been working with since 1999. Every year or two they need files updated to match the changing times and I have found that my file naming is critical for clients that span multiple edits.

This client I create brochures, cards, tickets & passes, white boards, presentations and CD labels. Rather than go through the history I will just tell you the results of working on the same projects repeatedly.

First, expect there to be versions of the file. Why? You’re a designer and you know perfectly well that the first version is never the one that the client says is the one they want. Also, with larger clients there is often a legal review team who has to scour the documents and another panel or team that wants to put their 2 cents. You don’t always know when the next edit will come down the line and you don’t always know if what you’re working on right now will be used in it’s entirety.

For example, the client says, “Let’s start with these edits and put this text here. When the review team gets back to me I will let you know what they say and we can go from there.” Nothing wrong with that. You get to work. Later he tells you, “The review team wants this text removed and this text changed. I told them I don’t like that, so do what they said and if I can get them to change their mind I will let you know.

Ok, this is different. If you go ahead with the changes and the review team doesn’t change, then you’re fine. But what if he manages to get the review team to go BACK? This is where versioning is very handy. Here is an example with a brochure:

  • 2010_Brochure_1-10-25.indd
    • First, the year.
    • Next, the name of the document: Brochure 1 (there are 2 brochures).
    • Then the month and day I created this version of the file, Oct 25th.
  • The client asks for changes. Changes are different from Progress. When you’re progressing through the file you don’t need to create a file version. New name:
    • 2010_Brochure_1-10-26.indd
      • The new name contains the day that the change was requested.
      • Sometimes there are 2 or 3 changes in a single day, and when that happens your file can look like this:
    • 2010_Brochure_1-10-26a.indd
    • 2010_Brochure_1-10-26b.indd
    • 2010_Brochure_1-10-26c.indd
      • Obviously these file names do not convey the type of changes you’re making. I tried to include the names of the changes but I found that the date is more important than the type of change because the changes usually have to go through a review process and that takes time. You can always add the change after the date, like this:
    • 2010_Brochure_1-10-26-blacktext.indd
    • 2010_Brochure_1-10-26-whitetext.indd
    • 2010_Brochure_1-10-26-boldblacktext.indd
  • Just like original files, don’t delete the versions. When a version does not get used in the future move it to a subdirectory:
    • Brochure_1-versions/

Quite a few times a client has asked me if I have those changes we did last week or if I have the text from last year’s (file). Happily I can usually answer “Let me check… Yup, I do.

Hard Drive Space

I suspect you might have had a concern about hard drive space as you read through this. I agree. This method takes up a lot of space. To that I say: This is our business. This is how we designers make our money – creating and using files. There is no way to avoid creating, using and storing files on your computer, so why try? Instead invest in storage. I have a 1.5TB hard drive in my Mac and all of my client work is there. I have another 1TB hard drive that I use for back up of these files. And it would be prudent of me to have ANOTHER back up drive. Hard drives fail. It’s happened to me before and it cost me $800 CDN to recover SOME of the files.

You can spend your time recovering lost files, sorting through files, looking for files, recreating files or you can spend your time pleasing your client because you’re beyond prepared, organized and ultimately more profitable.

All the best!