Photoshop And Modular Design

Over the past month we’ve been having internal discussions about design workflows and how we might be more efficient when it comes to working on large scale projects. Many of the projects we work on span across 100s of screen states and involve several team members. We notice any inefficiencies in our design process when projects reach this level of complexity, so we’re always looking for ways to improve.

We’ve brainstormed ways we wished our design tools worked to accommodate these large scale projects and operate in a more modular fashion. For example, libraries of assets, “componentized” design elements and a method of constant sharing among teams. A recent discovery has us excited about some new features in Photoshop that move the tool in that direction.

Modular Design 1

If you use Photoshop, you’re probably familiar with Smart Objects – nothing new there. However, Linked Smart Objects allows us to externalize Smart Objects into a folder we can share amongst our team. This feature has been around since the introduction of Photoshop CC 14.2, but we never fully incorporated using them until recently. Marc Edwards has a great write-up on this feature.

We did a little more searching and found a few more articles that seemed to answer these questions in a very positive way. As we experimented, we found we could split apart our designs into individual elements with their own variations and compose them together in our designs. It seemed like a very valuable addition to our workflow.

Modular Design 2

To really understand how powerful this feature is, let’s walk through a simple example of a common interface element. How about an iOS switch interface element? To get started, we’ll create a new Photoshop document that has two layers. One is of the iOS switch On and the other is in the Off state. Now, we select both Layers, right-click and select “Convert to Smart Object”. The name of the Smart Object defaults to the top-most Group name, but we can change that later.

Double-clicking on the Smart Object opens the Smart Object as a separate PSB file. Within this file is where the magic happens. We’ll name our Layers as states of the switch, On and Off. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but helps keep things organized. Now, we open up the Layer Comps palette and make sure the On Layer is visible. Clicking the Create New Layer Comp button brings up a dialog where we can name the Layer Comp and set some other options. We name the Layer Comp the state of the switch, in this case On, and check Visibility, Position and Appearance.

Modular Design 3

We do the same thing for the other state, which we’re calling Off, making sure the Off Layer is on and the On Layer is off. In our Layer Comps palette we now have two Layer Comps named On and Off. Ok, we have our “stateful” Smart Object, but to really take advantage of this work, we jump back to our parent Photoshop file that we started with. When we open the Properties palette for that Smart Object, we now have the ability to toggle the Layer Comps of that Smart Object. Amazing!

Modular Design 4

Taking this a step further, what if we make the Smart Object a Linked Smart Object, so the rest of the design team can take advantage of this newly created PSB. We just right-click the Smart Object and select Convert to Linked. Saving the Smart Object to a folder of choice, say on Dropbox, LayerVault, Creative Cloud, etc. and now we have a modular design element the rest of the team can use! This is a trick that the popular Greek life app OurHouse uses in it’s fraternity app software.

This discovery has already made us more efficient in our design process. However, be mindful of some of the caveats of using Smart Objects, as Marc Edwards calls out. You can also do the same things that you have been able to do with Smart Objects, like Replace Contents to swap one Smart Object for another. If you’d like to get an idea of how some of these elements might work, we’ve created a sample document that contains a variety of “stateful” Smart Objects and a folder of PSBs that are in that document that you can reference in your own PSDs. You can place a PSB via File | Place Linked. See this article for more information.

If you ever used Fireworks, there was a feature called Rich Symbols that did similar things, but it’s no longer being maintained. We’ve also seen interesting ways that InDesign can be used in a similar fashion. It’s great to see some of these concepts carried forward into the tools we use today.

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