Wednesday, January 4, 2012

File Naming Conventions are Really Data Management Rules

How you name your files is important.  In fact, it is crucial that you name them properly.  Since file naming procedures are so important why do so many companies (and individuals) do it so poorly?

In our design process we need and use many different types of files.  We share files.  We send files.  We receive files.  We use files like crazy!!  How do you know which file is the right file?  Which one is the latest version?  Which file goes with which submittal package?  Is it a concept plan?  Is it just a “one of” exhibit?  Does it need to be updated when the design is updated?  How do we collaborate with other departments?  How do we incorporate third party files?  File naming conventions are difficult to manage because there are many issues to consider.  That’s why so many of us do poorly in this part of the design process.  Yes, file naming is part of the design process, unfortunately.

The name of your file is irrelevant.  It can be as simple as FILE-01.dwg.  Your next file can be called FILE-02.dwg.  It really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that you are using the correct file at the correct time in the proper place.  If you have created a list of file names to use then you have started off on the wrong step.  Instead, create a method to name your files that includes their saved location.  The method is in the method, not in the naming.

Any person that understands the method should be able to read a file name and know exactly what is in it.  Also, anyone that understands the method should be able to create a name for that file.  When your users look at FILE-01.dwg they should know immediately what is in it and how it is being used.

There are two important aspects to naming your files that you want to keep in mind; Keep it Simple, and Files are Data.  Stop thinking about them as drawings, that comes later.  Once you have completed your file naming conventions you will have two types of DWG files (assuming you are using AutoCAD or its verticals); Data files and Drawing files.

Data files are your base files.  They contain the linework, points, aerials, and other data that your model (2D or 3D) is derived from.  This data will be shared amongst your coworkers and used to create Drawing files.  Drawing files do not contain linework (or at least very little).  They do contain titleblocks, notes, dimensions and sheet type information (drawing numbers, etc.)  A mistake we made years ago when switching from board drafting to CAD drafting was to keep calling these files we made drawings (on a side note, one other thing we need to stop doing in AutoCAD is to stop naming our text styles after the Leroy Lettering Guide-CAD noobs have no idea what they mean).

Once a database of linework has been created, I (as well as anyone) can now use that data to create an unlimited amount of drawing files that are always up to date, model wise.  That’s the beauty of this system.  If I create a drawing file that includes my model (linework) information in it then I have to recreate that linework, copy and paste, save as, or something, every time I need a new drawing.  This simplifies things.  It’s data management.

What does this have to do with file naming conventions?  Great question.  Your file name needs to reflect the content of the file.  I know, big surprise.  But before your name can reflect the file, the contents of the file must be determined.  What is your file going to contain?  Ok, name it that.

What should be in your file’s name?  Start it with a project identifier of some sort.  Keep it short.  Then a description.  If the project number is “ABCD”, then start all of project ABCD’s files with ABCD.  Then a hyphen (-) then a brief description.  If your file is the cover sheet to your drawing set, name it ABCD-Cover.dwg.  Simple.  If it’s the cover sheet for a DO submittal, name it ABCD-Cover-DO.dwg.  I know exactly what it is.  If it’s a data file of the proposed linework, name it ABCD-Base.dwg, or ABCD-Proposed.dwg.  If it’s existing data (linework) name it ABCD-Existing.dwg.  Establish a naming convention for existing data and for proposed data and for any other type of data file you will need.  Better yet, establish a method for creating file names, then you won’t have to create a list.  Having a short list of data types is ok.  There will be file types (existing, proposed, etc.) that will be used in almost every project.

Remember, Xrefs are your friends.  Now that we have our data files established (ABCD-Existing.DWG and ABCD-Proposed.dwg) we can create almost any drawing we want to.  Reference those files accordingly and annotate till your heart’s content.

Two more things then we will wrap this up.  Folders.  Back in the day we called them directories.  Then Windows 95 came along.  Create a project folder using your companies established project folder template.  This template should contain a series of subfolders where your files are placed.  This too is data management.  Your base files (the data files you xref into your sheet or drawing files) can go in a folder while your drawing files can go in another.  Create subfolders for different departments (surveying, engineering, planning, etc.).  How these folders are organized is not exactly critical.  The critical point is that there is a simple organizational plan that is implemented every time and that it is consistent.  Feel free to adapt these standard folders as you try them out, use them, and see what works and what doesn’t.  It’s ok to (gasp!!) change things if they can work in a better way.  If they only argument you have is “I just don’t like it” then you need to learn to live with it.  It’s not broken, you are having a difficult time adapting.  But if there is a real reason then yes change it.

What do you do with revisions?  Nothing.  Or at least very little.  Do not copy the file and name it NEW.  Never do that, ever.  Also, never name a file OLD.  Never ever.  My policy is to not change the name at all.  Copy the file and rename that to Revision 1.  If the file name says Revision, or REV, or my preferred notation “R” then it is a previous version.  Which version is ABCD-Base-R01.dwg?  The first version of the proposed linework data file.  What is the current version?  ABCD-Base.dwg.  I always know which file is the current version because of this method.  AND (this is a big AND, and very important) my xrefs are never broken.  NEVER.  They are always pointed at the latest and most current version.  When that file changes I copy and rename it with an R02.  The lower the number, the earlier it is.  Just like with drawing revision numbers in your title block/revision block.  Another thing to avoid is dates.  Just because a file was made on a certain date doesn’t mean it’s the latest, greatest or most current.  Save your dates for when you submit a set of drawings to the client or agency.  Every time you submit drawings archive it.  Create a DWFx file and add the submittal date to the file name or to the subfolder name where you are saving the files.  The DWFx file is static and a great record of exactly what was sent.  It can be marked up (with Design Review), printed and xrefed into your other files.

This was kind of long and convoluted I know.  But in review, create a data management system that is simple.  From that create a naming convention that clearly defines what the file is.  Use subfolders to organize your data.  Do not rename files to indicate that it is the latest, establish that the file is the latest and all previous versions have the special designation.  Keep it simple and create method to generate the file names instead of using a list.


  1. I have a very similar model standardized in my office. Thanks for a little validation of what my coworkers responded to with groans and eye-rolls.


  2. Not a problem. I've been using CAD software for nearly 20 years now and I have found that methods similar to this one work very well. Keep the faith brother!! (said in my best Hulk Hogan voice)

  3. I should have added that if you use Autodesk Vault, it will automate this process for you and manage your file names, folders, etc. You should look into it.

  4. I use exactly the same technique Brian. the only difference is that I create a sub folder in every drawing Data!) folder called 'Old versions'.

    In the Old versions folder goes the R1, R2 versions of my files. This means that anyone searching for a drawing file finds the current version first - and then has to drill down to find older versions.

  5. That's a great tip and one that I use too! It helps to organize the archived files and keeps the current working folder neat and tidy.



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