Codes And Document Naming Conventions

Codes And Document Naming Conventions

Name TagsThe more I work with electronic documents, the more I become convinced that a consistent, descriptive naming convention is the biggest thing you can do to be able to find your documents later.

Having searchable PDFs is great, but using a naming convention will help to make sure that your documents are findable, not just searchable.

This includes including dates in the file name and using words in the name that will help you search for the document later.

Project Or Client Codes

If you work with clients or projects, you can go one step further and have a unique code that you include in the file name. I find this incredibly helpful to quickly zoom in on the file or folder that I am looking for using search.

I tend to use three letter codes inspired by this oldie but goodie blog post by Ben Brooks.

I was once talking to someone from an accounting firm, and she told me that they came up with a shared naming convention by which they would have a code of the first three letters of a client’s last name and the first three letters of a client’s first name in the file name.

For example, for an invoice they might have something like this:


What About Privacy?

At the NAPO conference last week, I was in a session by the Project Digital Sanity crew. They made an interesting point – if you have a situation where for privacy reasons you wouldn’t want the client name in the file name, you could use a client number instead.

What Do You Use?

These are three examples of naming codes you could use. You need to figure out what works for you and your documents.

Do you have a naming code system for your documents? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

(Photo by Mr. Eugene)

About the Author

Brooks Duncan helps individuals and small businesses go paperless. He's been an accountant, a software developer, a manager in a very large corporation, and has run DocumentSnap since 2008. You can find Brooks on Twitter at @documentsnap or @brooksduncan. Thanks for stopping by.

Leave a Reply 15 comments

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[…] am a big believer in having naming conventions for your […]

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[…] the more you will need to wade through when you or your users are looking for a document. Using a consistent and descriptive naming convention will help, but the less outdated and irrelevant information you need to wade through, the more […]

Harvey - June 13, 2014 Reply

There is another reason for putting the date first: at some point you might want to turn your document storage system into a “real” (relational) database. Such a database needs a unique keyword field, often called a “Primary Key”. A date field at the beginning would be unique if you only saved one document per day. To make the date unique you can add the time after the date. This is the way ScanSnap creates its document names. Or you could add a sequential number after the date, like: 20140613_001 etc. Either way the date/time field is a unique keyword that can be extracted and used as the primary key for each file. In the above example the first 16 characters form the primary key for a relational database.

Put more simply: you might someday want to populate an SQL (relational) database with your documents for easy searches. If you name your files with the date first, you’re most of the way to having a unique field to use as the primary key in that database.

Robert Ameeti - June 13, 2014 Reply

When you were looking for something and found that you were looking for a who or what, filters were the thing to make use of. You can always easily see all of the ‘Blow, Joe’ with a search filter. But without putting things date first, you will not easily be able to see things in relevance order as the repairs that happened 6 years ago are not going to be as relevant as those that happened in the last year or 2.

Same with bank statements.

    Carol Dubs - June 13, 2014 Reply

    That’s exactly why I put the date first. However, as Brooks said, no right way, which brings up one issue I’m working with now re how to teach my clients a consistent naming convention. I need to consider how they think and how and why they retrieve information. I believe the basic WHEN/WHERE/TITLE/WHAT/WHO parts apply to everyone, but how much of each and in what order? One client still likes to use a very detailed directory structure broken down by year and month; my suggestion to move them to Evernote, use “bigger buckets”, detailed names, and search on keywords was met with anxiety and resistance. They’d rather use a simple TITLE/WHAT format and file it in a specific directory on the hard drive. It’s works for them.

      Robert Ameeti - June 13, 2014 Reply

      Having worked in tech support for over 30 years, I fully appreciate the ‘If it works, don’t fix it’. The mantra in any support dept is ‘Don’t create support calls’.

      Having said that, if a client has any willingness to trying something new, (and if they didn’t, why did they call me?), my job is often to move them into being more efficient which sometimes is moving in the direction of using filters. Else, how can even the most meticulous detailed folder structure survive a misfiled item?

      Once learned, and used, the client is far more efficient and grateful for showing them how to not work so hard.

        Brooks Duncan - June 13, 2014 Reply

        Excellent point Robert, thanks. I spent seven years in tech support so I can appreciate your thoughts. 🙂

John Shanderuk - June 13, 2014 Reply

I use the name, then what it is then the date (Year-Month-Day)

Like this

US Bank Statement 2014-06-13


I fix cars so I have folders for all the customers and have files for all the repair orders.

Blow, Joe RO 21455 2014-06-13

I use FileCenter and it makes it real easy to do this and it is not a database so if you ever quit using the software or backup in the cloud everything is easy to find.

I used to put the date first but it was really hard to look at things sorting a list because list was sorted by date first and not who or what you were looking for.

Just my 2 cents

    Brooks Duncan - June 13, 2014 Reply

    Great thanks John, a lot of people like putting date last. No right or wrong way to do it. 100% personal preference. Great naming scheme.

Carol Dubs - June 11, 2014 Reply

Naming is so important. Once I began digitizing everything, I found I needed a consistent set up rules applicable to a wide variety of documents. I came up with some of the same rules as above, with a few additions:

1. Use the following format: WHEN_WHERE_TITLE_WHAT_WHO. Not all documents will have all data parts
2. No spaces or underscores within each data part. Instead, use Initial Caps
3. Concatenate data parts with underscores

WHEN refers either to the date of document creation or the document’s data period. Ex: 20140611 for email received, 2013 for client’s tax return, 2014 for book copyright date. Sometimes I will need both dates: ex: email about a client’s 2013 tax return. In that case, the 2013 becomes part of the title (see ex below)

WHERE is the document source, if applicable – SunTrust, DocumentSnap, WellsFargo, SleeterGroup, IRS, etc.

TITLE is an optional document title. Applicable if an ebook, article, or I want to emphasize the content in the name.

WHAT is the document type: Statement, TaxReturn, BlogPost. As I begin to use Evernote for a lot of document storage and retrieval, I’m using tags for this function. In process of working that out.

WHO refers to owner/recipient of data. Use a 3 character alpha-numeric for a client. If I leave it out, it’s usually in-house

20140603_DocumentSnap_CodesAndDocumentNaming_BlogPost (WHEN_WHERE_TITLE_WHAT)


20141014_2013December_FinancialStatements_BC1 (WHEN_TITLE_WHAT_WHO)

20140515_IRS_2012Form1040_DelinquencyNotice_JK2 (WHEN_WHERE_TITLE_WHAT_WHO)

I used to abbreviate in order to keep down length, but I find that like underscores and initial caps, the full word makes a document name easier to recognize: BlogPost vs. BlgPst. Not everyone would agree with me, but I’ll spend more time on the name and end up with a longer name just so it’s more readable for both me and any clients/others I send it to.

Robert Ameeti - June 11, 2014 Reply

In our real world, we use 20140531_Comcast_Bill_DungBr1.pdf

We found that we did not need the spaces between the year, month, and day.

We kept consistent components between each piece of metadata so that they can be automagically pulled apart later if needed.

We also avoided used caps to visually differentiate between last name and first name, while also using a number at the end to ensure the ability to have unique codes amongst near identical names such as Jim Ellis, and Jill Ellingson.

There are other tricks as each situation needs to be individually assessed.

    Robert Ameeti - June 11, 2014 Reply

    Wow. We used consistent concatenating characters, the underscore.

    We used caps to visually differentiate …

      Brooks Duncan - June 11, 2014 Reply

      Thanks for the tips Robert. Sounds like you have a great system.

Harvey - June 8, 2014 Reply

About a decade earlier photographers ran into the same problem of how to organize and name their photographs so that they could be searched efficiently. The field was called Digital Asset Management (DAM). I now have over 50,000 digital images in my photography database (Lightroom). Without a good DAM system, finding anything would be hopeless.

The case for a good DAM system is the same whether the assets are photographs, MP3 music files, or scanned documents. In each case metadata is applied to the files to make it easier to find them.

The best book I’ve found on the subject is Peter Krough’s The DAM Book – Digital Asset management for Photographers.


The file naming convention and discussion of keywords and other metadata, although focused on photographers, can easily be applied to scanned documents in a paperless environment.

    Brooks Duncan - June 8, 2014 Reply

    Great point Harvey and you are right – the issues are very similar. Thanks for the book recommendation!

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