Best Practices for File Names

an open finder window showing long complicated incomprehensible file names

Have you ever seen a jumble of numbers and letters on a personalized licence plate and wondered what it means? I’m sure it is significant to the car owner, but it conveys no useful information to the rest of us. Unfortunately, many people use the same strategy for file names. It might work well for the file owner, but once team members start creating files, it quickly gets confusing. As a virtual assistant, I help my clients organize their digital files and build a naming system that works for everyone. Here are some best practices for file names.

Determine What Files You Have

Do a quick inventory to see what categories of files you have, such as contracts, documents and images for blog posts, financial statements, etc. While having an overarching naming convention is best, you can customize it for each category.

Keep File Names Short and Relevant

When I started using computers (in the mid-1980s), we had an 8-character limit for file names. And most of them looked like those incomprehensible licence plates. Fortunately, we can use much longer file names today, but that doesn’t mean we should. Short forms and acronyms can be helpful, but everyone on the team needs to know what they mean. Finding the right balance is challenging but aim for between 8 and 25 characters.

Use ISO Date Formatting

The International Standards Organization (ISO) 8601 Standard establishes a clear calendar-and-clock format understood worldwide (YYYY-MM-DD HH:MM:SS). For example, March 14th, 2023, at 10:06 p.m. would be 2023-03-14 22:00. A significant advantage of using this method is your files are listed chronologically. Imagine you have a group of files for one event, such as a blog post.

Old Method

15 Dec 2022 Blog Post
28 February 2021 Blog Image
Blog Image April 9 2023
Blog Image December 15 2022
Blog Post February 28 2021

New Method


Avoid Special Characters and Spaces

Avoid special characters, punctuation marks, accented letters, and emojis in file names. Computer operating systems use these characters for different actions, so using them in your file name may corrupt the file or make it unopenable. Only use the period to separate the file name from the extension. It should be FileName.docx. Never use File.Name.docx.

Although you can use spaces and accented letters in your file names, I do not recommend it because not all computer systems accept them. They can also cause errors when transferring files from one computer to another. This is quite common with internet downloads which convert the space character to %20 (e.g., file%20name.pdf). It converts accented letters too, so the file name fiche-école.pdf would be fiche-%C3%A9cole.pdf.

Besides accented letters, avoid these characters:

Separate File Elements

Common separators for file names are dashes, underscores, and capitalization. They help readers easily see and understand file names. You can use one or more of these methods or a combination. For instance:

  • proposal-JonesJessica.pdf
  • logo-ArtisanalCheese.pdf

Personally, I prefer dashes and capitalization because sometimes it is hard to see underscores. (Also, I can type dashes and capital letters faster than underscores.)

Make it Easy to Spell, Type, and Read

If you habitually misspell or mistype certain words, avoid using them in file names (e.g., correspondence, not correspondance). However, if you must use those words, create a keyboard shortcut or text snippet so you always type them correctly.

Some words can be spelled differently depending on where you are from. For example, Americans use ‘jewelry,’ but in Australia and Britain, the spelling is ‘jewellery,’ and in Canada, either is acceptable. Pick one spelling and stick with it.

Avoiding anagrams as file names within the same folder is a good idea. For example, it would be easy to mix up weird-things-01 with wired-things-01.

Look-alike characters (zero and the letter O, or lowercase L, uppercase i, and the number one) can be hard to discern. The file name 1Illperson (one ill person) is hard to read, so keep that in mind when creating your file nomenclature system.

Best Practices for File Names Using Versions

Use numbers to indicate the most current version of a file. And always add leading zeros to maintain the order in the file directory. Alternatively, use the ISO date format in the file name.

Old Method


New Method


Be Consistent and Write it Down!

One of the keys to organizing your online filing cabinet is consistency in file names. That is why writing down your naming convention is essential. For example, you might decide to name the files for your blogs as follows:

  • Blog Articles: YYYYMMDD-blog-title.docx
  • Blog Images: YYYYMMDD-blog-title-image-description.jpg

Alternatively, you might create a folder, Blog-YYYMM, and place all the articles and images for that month in that folder. Then, use the blog title as the file name instead of adding the date.

Whichever system you choose, write it down! Ideally, create one policy that explains your naming system. Then, create a plain-text READ-ME file for each top-level directory that explains how to name files within that directory. You will have it for reference and be able to share the information with anyone working on your behalf (like your virtual assistant).

Do you want to learn more about the best practices for file names? Reach out, and let’s chat.

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Published by Jacki Hollywood Brown

I love to help businesses succeed by designing systems, structures, and processes that improve productivity, efficiency, cohesiveness, and harmonized workplaces. While quite content to work behind the scenes, I am driven by the desire to ensure organizations have internal structures to keep things running smoothly and teams continuously improving. Let's leverage the systems, tools, and structures you already use to facilitate complex changes, ensure everyone is heard, and find a better path forward for your team.

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