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What's in a Project Name?

Since I started at Vertigo, here are a few of the projects I've worked on:

  • Michelangelo
  • Nash
  • Whiskeytown
  • Gobstopper

These are our internal project code names. The names are chosen alphabetically from a set of items; every new project gets a name from the set. We start with A, and when we finally arrive at Z, we pick a new set of items for project name inspiration. Can you guess which set each of the above project names is from? No cheating!

We've come up with the following loose guidelines for project naming:

  1. We prefer one word names.
  2. They should be relatively easy to pronounce and easy to spell.
  3. They have to be client friendly.
  4. They should be globally unique across the company. No duplicates.
  5. We need a reasonable number of items in the set to choose from, in A-Z order.

Of course, no entry on naming would be complete without a reference to the classic Salon article from the pinnacle of the dot-com craze, The Name Game:

In the end, however, attempting to quantify the benefits of a naming project may be just as small-minded as, well, attempting to quantify the benefits of a name. For the lucky client who truly clicks with his or her namer, the collateral benefits go far beyond nomenclature. There are new words to learn. Fun games to play. And, in the case of the Monkeys, unimpeachable warmth and love. "We got so much more than a name," says Robin Bahr of 98point6. "I mean, I got a name for my daughter. One of our senior executives identified strongly with 'Mescalanza.' No one calls him Jim anymore. His name is Mescalanza." Meanwhile, she says, "our senior manager for Internet development just fell in love with the name 'Jamcracker.' And so today, the Harvey meeting is known as the Jamcracker meeting. There are 300 people at this company who identify Jamcracker with Harvey."

Bahr claps her hands over her mouth. "Oh my God," she says. "I forgot. I shouldn't be mentioning these names to a reporter. Technically, we don't have ownership of those names. Jamcracker is still the Monkeys' property."

Bahr stops for a moment, as if listening to herself. Then she bursts out laughing. "Listen," she says. "I take it back. You write whatever you want to write. If someone out there wants to name their company Jamcracker, God bless them. And good luck to them."

The challenge, then, is coming up with new sets to inspire project names. We began with Microsoft's list of project code names and Apple's list of project code names as our spirit guides.

Here are some of the sets we've considered for project naming at various points:

Types of Food
Video games (Atari 2600, Arcade, etc)
Brands of Beer
Roman Emperors
Cartoon characters / shows
Mythological names / gods
Cars
GUIDs (a personal favorite)
Gemstones
Types of Coffee drinks
States
Counties
Plants
Hitchcock films
Dog breeds
Colors
Famous Explorers
Trees
IRS Tax Forms
English monarchs
Famous People (eg, Sagan)
Wikipedia article names
Single letters (including unicode)
Radio alphabet
Candy brands
Dinosaurs
Historical Sites
City street names
IKEA product names
Types of Fasteners (nut, bolt, rivet, etc)
Ski resorts
National Parks
Mountain Peaks
World War II era ships
Birds
Beaches
Bridges
Web 2.0 names
Warcraft realm names
Cheeses
Countries
Cereal brands

If there are there any sets I haven't listed here that you think would make for good project names, feel free to link them in the comments.

It's always fun to pick out a new name when starting a project. It's amazing how quickly we plow through an entire A-Z series in a set; we've been through almost four since I started in 2005. That's how we do it. But how do you name your projects?

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror