Catch-Up: Working Smarter (Part One)

Before The Main Feature…

A short time ago, I did an event where—for a couple of reasons, maybe the foremost of which was that I was asked to do it at the last minute—rather than doing a show that was all about the latest and greatest new CC features alone, included some good-old fundamentals and best-practice techniques. It’s something that I come across as lacking in many places, and is a hindrance to embracing all that modern design workflows could be.

The basic underlying message is that as much as possible, you should try to use the features—both old and new, and I presented a broad mix of both—in Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign to make all of your work:

  • In an environment tailored to workflow and purpose, with workspaces and shortcuts
  • Non-destructive, and as editable as possible, at any point, by employing adjustment layers, masks and smart objects
  • Repeatable (by implementing styles, templates, presets, objects) and
  • Automated, where possible utilising features, scripts and actions

The feedback from that event was mixed, but positive in the main and I’m mentioning this because it was at that time when I was concluding pulling together my case and arguments for having this blog, which—if you have read the first post or the about page—is aimed primarily at those who have just been so busy they’ve been “left behind” somewhat.

One of the few negative comments I read homed in on one point in particular from my presentation; it was along the lines of suggesting that everyone who uses Photoshop already knows what an adjustment layer is. You would think that were true—of course, it isn’t—and this can be easily illustrated if you read some of the tutorials out there (printed or posted) where you’ll still find lots of reference to destructive adjustments in popular circulation. I still meet a significant number of people that duplicate layers and fire up ⌘-M to make a curves adjustment in a RGB or CMYK (we’ll go to that topic another day) document, for example. They even use the eraser on the duplicated layer! Insert image of horrified, screaming person here—ok, maybe not—but all joking aside it is so in more places than you’d think.

Adjustment layers, however are not the main feature of this article—although they may be involved in a supporting role; the main event here is something that debuted back in CS2 (May 2005) and has recently had a major power-up in Photoshop CC: Smart Objects.

Smart Objects, eh?

Although we are talking about Photoshop Smart Objects here, it may be probably easiest to explain using InDesign as an example.

With InDesign—which, in the unlikely event you don’t know, is a page-layout program—you can place image and graphic files onto pages or into layouts (to-may-toe/toe-mah-to) and then apply various effects to them, such as a drop-shadow, maybe. You’re not actually changing the data of the files themselves, just the appearance of those instances within the layout—it is just an InDesign effect.

Smart objects kind of work like that in Photoshop, except it is a layer that contains the instance, rather than part of a page. That instance can be created in several different ways: from a layer, or layer group within the Photoshop file itself (don’t freak out: an explanation will follow!) from an external Photoshop or Illustrator file, or from pasted data.

Why Should I Care?

Time is money? The Advantages of Smart Objects are many, and to name but a few (from Photoshop online help) with Smart Objects you can:

  • Perform nondestructive transforms. You can scale, rotate, skew, distort, perspective transform, or warp a layer without losing original image data or quality because the transforms don’t affect the original data.
  • Work with vector data, such as vector artwork from Illustrator, that otherwise would be rasterized in Photoshop.
  • Perform nondestructive filtering. You can edit filters applied to Smart Objects at any time.
  • Edit one Smart Object and automatically update all its linked instances.
  • Apply a layer mask that’s either linked or unlinked to the Smart Object layer.
  • Try various designs with low-resolution placeholder images that you later replace with final versions.

For Starters, A simple Technique.

Now you know what a Smart Object is, and what some of the advantages are, let’s just try one simple, five-minute technique to give you an immediate illustration of part of the first point in the advantages we just looked at.

I’ve made a file available for you to download, if you want to, or you could use any of your own files. The file is at:

Step 1

Step One: When you get the file open in Photoshop, the rasterTree layer should be active. Go to Edit > Free Transform or use the shortcut ⌘-T (Ctrl-T on Windows). Scale the tree down until it is quite tiny, as shown below (or even smaller if you like).

Smart Objects 02Step Two: Apply the transformation, by either hitting Enter or Return or by clicking the Tick mark in the Control Strip.

Step Three: Choose Free Transform again, and this time scale the tree back up to approximately the original size.

Step 3

You can see that when you downsized the tree, Photoshop had to throw some information away and now that you have made the tree larger again, Photoshop has had to make an educated guess and introduce information. It doesn’t look great though does it?

Step 4

Now turn off that layer, make the rasterTree Smart Object layer visible and active, and repeat the steps you made with the first layer. Compare the results! Photoshop only changed your view of the file, it didn’t have to modify any of the information. You could transform this is many ways—infinitely—for as long as it remained a smart object.

That’s it for this week—in next week’s post we will look at the ways you can make smart objects, and a couple of useful techniques we can employ. We’ll also see how

If you just can’t wait until next Friday to get stuck in, then here are some resources for you to get your teeth into.


There’s a video available on the learn and support tab of the Photoshop section on

On Adobe TV:

Applying Filters nondestructively using Smart Filters

Opening an image as a Smart Object

In The Family:

My good friend and colleague Richard Curtis, has plenty of Smart Object goodness on his Imaging/Photography blog, the most recent of which being: #CreativeFriday – Photoshop 2014 – Deep Dive on Linked Smart Objects and Layer Comps

More resources and more Smart Objects next Friday!

Thought for the Week: Now is the time to get stuck in!

Creation On The Move

Eagle Sketch

Think back even just a few years and our working world (never mind the World itself) was a very different place. In the inaugural post of this blog last week, I mentioned the rapid pace of change that is a huge factor in the way we work in our industry, and this week I’d like to focus on how that has changed—and continues to change—the ways that I work and think; the way it has liberated me.

Four years ago, I was still lugging a sketchbook and loads of mark-making tools around with me. One colleague even used to joke at the time that if my bag was ever mislaid and found, that it was likely to be taken into a local school as the contents—pencil cases, jotter pads and such like—resembled the paraphernalia associated with young students.

Why did I carry all that stuff? Because travel is a big part of what I do, and being frequently on trains and planes gives me plenty of time to think, and then sit back and chill, because there’s literally nothing else to do. I’d try and shun sitting there browsing the web without purpose. I worked that screen all day and it’s just too easy to fall into that as a habit and miss the world around you—besides there’s only so much Facebook you can take. So I’d try and relax.

That’s when the ideas come.

It used to be just a pencil and sketchbook, but eventually I found myself carrying around pencils, pens, fine-liners, brush-pens, graphite sticks, charcoal, putty and plastic erasers, sharpeners, sandpaper—and more besides. This stuff wasn’t always gainfully employed, it was very much a case of “But for a horse…” and all that. Yes, I probably am quite barmy—but it’s served well so far.

My workflow at the time then involved me arriving at home or the studio, scanning the stuff that was useful. Following that it was into Photoshop for clean-up and maybe further work, or branching off into Illustrator or Flash from there.

By around 2008 my workflow had streamlined a bit, as the iPhone meant that it was possible to just snap the page, then just email the image to myself. It didn’t matter if the shot wasn’t square-on most of the time as I could utilise the Perspective mode of the Crop Tool in Photoshop sorted that out—the Perspective Crop Tool wasn’t around then.

The iPad did not have the same camera capabilities as the iPhone, so it didn’t get in on the act immediately, but when Adobe Ideas and Photoshop Touch arrived a couple of years later, my phone went back to being a phone—and of course a camera—most of the time.

An app that allowed me to work on pixels with layers and selection tools and filters and adjustments and send it to Photoshop or on-the-go push that to my camera roll and then use it as a guide layer in an app that gave me useable vectors in Illustrator? Shut-Up!

It was the beginning of the end of my—among other things, frankly, very heavy—bag full of drawing stuff. The knockout blow was delivered this year when we released Sketch, Line, Photoshop Mix, Lightroom Mobile and Voice, and also when I got my hands on my first pressure-sensitive iPad stylus’.


There’s everything I need to bring my ideas to life in those tools. I can sketch from images I have captured on-the-go, refine them and/or rapidly mash them up and add effects, use them as drawing reference and if I want to, record a fully-soundtracked video to realise my concepts. Boom!


I make so much more now than I have done in years! I’m more productive, and happy to be so, as these things don’t just have utility, they are a whole lot of fun. It’s really difficult not to brim over with enthusiasm with them, it really is. I can try out new techniques and experiment as things are getting done so much faster; it really has changed my life!

By-the-way, did I mention that we made these apps free? £0. Free. Get in!

So, in case you were wondering, the sketching-bag still exists, and in fact when you’re reading this it’ll most likely be with me in the Canary Islands, sans tech, of course—I’m on vacation. In my work bag, I do sometimes carry the odd small moleskin and a couple of drawing tools, but they don’t really see much action these days—it’s probably a security-blanket thing; just in case. These days, I create on the move.

Thought for the week: Imagination is more important than knowledge – Einstein

Welcome to The Design Jungle

It’s a jungle out there.

One of the dictionary definitions of a jungle—apart from the obvious, dense vegetation interpretation—is “a situation or place of bewildering complexity or brutal competitiveness”. Mapping that definition to the creative industry is my conclusion, arrived at by talking to many designers, artworkers and digital artists over the last few years, and especially the last two, since the advent of Creative Cloud. The rapid pace of change in the world and our industry—new devices, new standards, new formats and more—could easily fit the description of bewildering complexity.

Cover of report

Adobe’s New Creatives report, which surveyed over a thousand U.S. creatives and was published in June 2014 makes for some interesting reading, and let’s use a couple-or-so of the findings of that report in this definition.

75% of creatives believe the industry has changed more in the last five years than the previous fifty.

As someone who has been present in the industry for just over three of the decades referred to, I am largely in agreement with this statement, even though it is quite likely that the vast majority of respondents in the survey were not present at the time when Apple-Macs—as they were then referred to—started to appear in place of drawing-boards in the studio.

The Desktop Publishing Revolution—how antiquated that sounds, these days—was revolutionary, changing the entry points and individual capabilities within the industry but it was still only essentially a different set of tools to publish to the print world. The web revolution that followed soon thereafter, was when things really started to change; increasingly creatives had to begin to come to terms with the limitations of formats, and concepts that had previously been the domain of specialists exclusively, such as video, animation and more.

Even so, given that we are more than twenty-years-in to the web, the change for many of us has been way-short of rapid. It has snowballed, and for myself I think that the snowball began to gain momentum in 2007, when the iPhone debuted. The shift was hardly perceptible at first, probably because early-adopters of these devices were well-off, or maybe total tech-heads, but they have become increasingly commonplace here, now.

Do you have an iPad? Did you have an iPad in 2010? You may well have but even if that is so there were no where near as many around as there are now, and there are also so many different kinds of tablet devices around. There weren’t any—what I would consider full-size—slate or tablet computers to speak of until relatively recently; the first generation Surface from Microsoft didn’t appear until 2012, and Wacom introduced their Cintiq companion in 2013—aimed at digital artists and illustrators, the Companions are a great piece of kit by the way—but there’s never long to wait before a new piece of tech arrives. Something else to publish to, something else that content can be consumed on, or another platform we can work on.

We expect to able to work from anywhere, at any time, on any device.

So, we have all of these wonderful things appearing, but it’s no longer just about consuming content on our devices, we increasingly expect to be able to work on them too, and a third of the respondents to the New Creatives survey confirm this.

Personally, I have almost always taken work home, to get out of the office or studio ahead of the rush-period (it stopped being an hour about twenty years back, I think) and quite often (space-permitting) could be found scribbling away in my sketch book on the train. For quite a time, this meant waiting until arriving at home or the studio to spread out the sketchbook on a scanner and digitise that work. As the camera capabilities of the iPhone (and later the iPad) improved I found myself  snapping the page(s) which almost completely eliminated the scanner from that workflow—after all if the distortion of the camera angle was a problem it was usually sorted by a quick visit from the perspective functions of the crop tool in Photoshop (now of course a tool in its own right).

When Adobe launched Ideas my world changed completely—the ability to be able to work on a tablet (and phone) with useable vectors directly into Illustrator—was incredible and the recent additions of Sketch, Line and Photoshop Mix have only made that more so.

Now for the most part I only carry a sketchbook on holiday, as the new tools I can use on my iPad have finally just about caught up with my own expectations, and for the first time it actually feels like I am free to work completely digitally if I choose to do so.

Two-thirds of creative professionals believe their role will be significantly different in three years.

It’s quite possible you’re working as a print designer or layout artist and working in exactly the same way that you were ten years ago, and think that you don’t need any of this new-fangled stuff. Really, though? You’ve never wondered how long all that is going to last?

I’m not saying print is dead, because that simply is not true, at all; but we are reducing our reliance on printed matter—certainly for sales and marketing materials—and I think the main reason behind that in the business world is that it is potentially out-of-date by the time it is produced, or very shortly thereafter.

Just as one example, let’s take an imaginary peek into the boot of a sales reps’ car, and look at the stacks of paper in there. The catalogues, brochures and data sheets. The various “whoop-sie” updates, addendum and errata, pushed into those publications. The modern world shouldn’t be like that, not least of all environmentally.

Some customers like to be left brochures, though. Yes, they do and there is still a need for that kind of thing in some places, but that need is diminishing. Why? Because we also need to engage our audiences in the way to which they are rapidly becoming accustomed-digitally and interactively.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then twenty-four-pictures-a-second is worth considering.

With what is dysphemistically referred to as “dead-tree technology” you have a limitation on how much content you can allocate your publication. How many catalogues have you seen where the pictures and text are so tiny? Digital publications free you up from such constraints and why have four different views of a product when you could have one view that your audience can swipe over to see it from all-around? One of the forms of digital publishing—Adobe DPS—has shown that users spend on average NINE times longer engaged with DPS app against responsive web. Whoa!

There are other ways to publish digitally apart from DPS and the web. PDF—although with limitations imposed by the device/app being used to render it—has been used for years and will continue to be an option for quite some time yet. EPUB fixed layout to my mind is the perfect middle-ground between PDF and DPS, allowing interactivity and deep-engaging media experiences.

So these options exist, and the people that I’ve had the privilege of meeting who aren’t currently exploring those options either don’t know of their existence and/or have one barrier in their way, that can be simplified into one word: mindset.

The Law of The Jungle.

At the beginning of this article, we also had “brutal competitiveness” in the definition of “jungle” and while “brutal” may be a bit of a stretch for us civilised modern types we are definitely in a very competitive industry. One of the lasting legacies of the aforementioned revolutions was the entry point into the industry, and personally I think that was a really good thing as it really did level the field, presenting those that invested time and effort into their work, to develop their offering and gain the opportunity, perhaps to become a giant-killer.

It’s possible for small teams or even one person to have a crack at big studios and established agencies. I have seen it, and have done exactly that, myself. The ability to do more, be more versatile, stretch and develop into areas—such as utilising these new forms of publishing, producing new, engaging content, creating animated content, just as an example—has in my opinion never been as accessible now as it is with the Creative Cloud tools and services.

You may well agree but say, “That’s all well and good, but how do I get started with that?”

You’re why this blog was created. If you haven’t got the first clue about animation, or smart objects, or multi-states, or tweens, or transitions, or time-saving-productivity-boosts-from-the-latest-version-of-[software] for that matter, then you need a guide through the wilderness of the design jungle, so you can hopefully carve out your own clearing, and develop it into something you can be proud of.

The expeditions start on Friday 19th September 2014.

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