Smart Objects and Smart Filters – Web Design Best Practices

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

photoshop tipsAnyone who has ever had the good fortune to work in – the Jewel in the Adobe crown – Photoshop, will know about the seemingly unending chasm of tools and techniques you can use to get it to do what you want.

A huge amount of these techniques are workarounds to achieve results that, to the layman, look perfect. On closer inspection however, most professionals will agree that the workarounds used can create confusion, delay and in a lot of cases will need to be totally re-worked using best practice design techniques to avoid future editing problems. So here it is… a series of best practice design techniques for the Photoshop digital designer.

Smart Objects

Smart objects will help you save time, reduce the amount of layers you have and help you maintain all of the original vector data you need for the future – trust me – they are superb.

If you think you’ve heard of them but can’t think where from, you’ve probably used the option to import a smart object from Illustrator. If you copy a vector shape from Illustrator and try to paste it into Photoshop you will get four radio buttons asking you which format you’d like the file in.

A smart object will keep all of the vector data you are trying to import – meaning you can increase the size after you have placed the object. If you then re-open the Illustrator file via Photoshop (by clicking on the smart object icon on the relevant layer) you can edit and save the vector file and it will automatically update in your Photoshop file – smart eh?

Well, with graphics and images in Photoshop it works in exactly the same way – except you don’t need to use two applications.

Multiple Layer Styles

Let’s say you are trying to create one of those shiny web 2.0 buttons we all know and love – You want a nice light blue-dark blue gradient on the button but you also want a white gradient highlight over the top of the button.

Some designers may mask a new white layer over the top with a low opacity; some may do a similar thing with a rasterized white layer and the eraser tool, load the button selection and delete the surrounding white. The results may be similar but you’ve just done with two layers what you could be doing with one – and you may have just lost all of your buttons vector information.

Okay, using one layer instead of two might not sound like much, but when you work in Photoshop files with up-to-and-over 200 layers then cutting down on wastage is crucial.

All you need to do is create your button shape with your first gradient and any other style you wish, right click on the layer and select ‘convert to smart object’. You now have a new blank layer style palette to add your white reflective highlight gradient.

If you need to edit the original vector all you need to do is click on the smart object icon on the layer and your button will open in a new window. Edit and save this file and it will update automatically in your design. You can feasibly do this as many times as you like – though why you want more than two or three lots of layer styles on anything is a question you’ll have to ask yourself!

smart objects screenshot

Batch actions

Okay, let’s stick with the button example – Now you’ve got your button you might want 10 buttons for your navigation all in the same style. A day or two later you re-visit the design and you feel the colour isn’t working, if you didn’t use a smart object you’d need to amend each of those buttons individually – if you did, all you’d need to do is open the smart object amend the source file to your new favourite colour, save it and it will update all of the buttons in one, immediately.

button example using batch actions


A nice trick when using non-vector based graphics is to place your bitmap at the biggest size possible (let’s call it a logo that your client only seems to have in jpeg format – we all know what that feels like!).

If your place it at a size which is far bigger than you will ever use it and create a smart object out of it you can scale it down, play around with it and then, more importantly, scale it back up without losing any quality. As long as you don’t make it bigger than the original file you placed you can play with the size as much as you like.

Smart filters

The reclusive little brother of smart objects is smart filters, Harder to find but just as useful. The virtues of smart filters are simple and if you’ve any experience of using filters one-at-a-time I’m sure this will convert you.

Smart filters allow you to add as many filters to an image or graphic as you like without affecting the original file. Like layer styles, you can turn each one on and off individually from the layers palette with the added functionality of being able to edit each filter individually. If you weren’t using them before, I’m sure you will be now – it makes a lot of sense.

example of using smart filters

You can find the ‘convert to smart filters’ at the top of the filters drop down.

I hope this helps. If you have any questions or have a subject you’d like me to cover just leave a comment below and I will be in touch.