Everyone has their own methods for naming files, and what you find on the hard drive depends on the type of work you do and how that work is organized, as well as how logical the file-namer might be. It seems like a little thing—micromanagement, even—to specify how files are to be saved, but it will prevent countless hours of frustration later, and it’s important to establish the project protocol during that first meeting so there’s no confusion.

First, identify what is the most important aspect of this project—what makes this project different than all the others in one, broad stroke? If you were completely finished and you were putting this project in a proverbial box, what would you write on the lid? For television productions, it may be the episode number or the date, while for documentarians it may be the subject matter. Ad agencies may classify the project by client name, particularly if that client may have an ongoing campaign or multiple types of projects, such as print and commercial video. That is the first part of the file name and everyone working on that project starts the file name with the agreed text. This will keep all the files together when sorted alphabetically and gives a known term to search for when trying to locate a particular file.

The subsequent parts of the file name will follow suit. If this is for television, it might be Episode number, followed by scene number, followed by keyword description—something to jog the memory when simple numbers don’t help. An example might be “E32.sc5.POVCharlie_dinner.” Of course, if your software permits it, you can include spaces to clean it up, but keep in mind that you can usually see only so much of the file name on the list. If you create a long file name, with formatted naming conventions the first part of the files names are all the same, and you don’t want to look at a whole list that reads “Episode 32, scene 5, ...”

Other naming examples might be:

Documentarian—“African Lions, 4-2018, Pride at sunset, KR”

Ad Agency—“Tide.Fall19.CleanStories.Emma.v3”

In the documentarian example, I ended the file name with initials. In some circumstances, an individual takes ownership of a portion of the project and clear identification is necessary for file safety as well as accountability. In the ad example, I imagined a commercial in which people are sharing stories, and this file would be the Tide Fall campaign of 2019, “Clean Stories,” Emma’s footage, version 3, implying that two other versions have pre-existed this file. In cases where changes may be made and unmade, maintaining older versions of certain aspects may be necessary until the final decision, and it is important to always use the most recent version unless otherwise directed, particularly in collaborative environments.

Ideally, all teams would be working with a shared storage system that comes complete with the necessary software to keep all files organized. Sharebrowser, the EVO software by Studio Network Solutions, locks at the file level so several people can be working in the same folder but no one can make changes to a file once it’s open and active, which prevents accidentally saving over changes and eliminates the need for both initials and versions. Notes and comments can be left with the footage and every team member has access.

If you’re not quite there yet, start with strict organization and naming conventions. It will make the whole process easier, from locating files while you’re working on the project to archiving them later. It also follows a logic—a language you and your team share—so if anyone finds a random file, the name alone will identify it so it can be returned home safely.

It’s important to think long term with every business decision and even something as simple as file naming can have an impact. After five years, files organized by seasons would get confusing without including the year, and episode names can be both lengthy and forgettable while the actual date and actual episode number will always be clear. At the same time, starting the file with the date is not helpful if your team works on several projects at once.

With a little forethought, a naming convention can be generated that makes sense to everyone. If some team members feel like it cramps their style, just tell them to funnel the lost creative energy into the project instead. Then compliment their t-shirt and shorts, thus celebrating the lack of dress code and subtly reminding them not to sweat the small stuff.