Essential Photoshop Tips for Designers
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The Importance of Photoshop Organization

When I go to explain the importance of Photoshop organization, I reach for a trusty metaphor:

Everyone has that friend. You walk into their apartment and it looks like a tornado went through there. Even if it is perfectly sanitary, items are strewn all over the floor in a riot of color and texture that is impossible to decipher. When you ask them how they can possibly function, that friend shrugs and say something like “I know where everything is; I have a system.”

Maybe you are that friend.

You can keep your home however you want, but when handing your Photoshop files off to your teammates, don’t be that friend. Your goal should be to have it as clean and well-ordered as you can. It saves everyone time and headache—and takes a load off your plate, too.

As a UX-centered company, we spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about users and how best to create a seamless experience for them: Delightful, effortless, and easy. We should do no less for those we work with.

Are you now super excited to talk about organization? I know you are. Let’s get started. In this entry, we’re going to focus exclusively on organizing your Photoshop layers.

Your layers panel is the key to navigating a complex Photoshop document (PSD). Think of it as a table of contents. It’s an ordered list of everything that’s in the file, grouped by similarity. Someone coming to your file is going to look here first to find everything. Make sure it’s in order. The best way to do this is by nesting layer groups that correspond to elements and naming those groups and layers correctly.

Strive for Optimal Layer Order, Grouping and Naming

Here’s what a typical PSD of mine looks like:

Screenshot of photoshop file organization


This is just the first order of organization, but it’s excellent for demonstrating some important principles.

  1. Every layer has a place—it’s all grouped together by section and element.
  2. Every group has a name, and that name corresponds to what’s on the canvas.
  3. It’s all in order; the groups appear in the same order that they are in on the canvas.

These are the three most crucial principles to follow when organizing a photoshop file. But if you have trouble,  just remember this:

The more your layers panel corresponds to what’s on the canvas, the easier it will be for someone else to understand it.

Grouping layers together is particularly important when you get into smaller and more specific sections. If elements are visually grouped together in the design, they should also be grouped together in the layers panel.

screenshot of grouped layers in Photoshop

Photoshop Pro Tip: Save yourself a lot of headaches by telling Photoshop to stop adding “copy” to everything you duplicate. You can find this setting if you go to “Panel Options…” in the layers panel. It’s at the bottom. You’re welcome.

We’ve covered a lot of this already, but there are some more things to note on grouping that hasn’t yet been said.

  • Repeated elements (eg. blog tiles) should be grouped individually and then again as their own group.
  • Keep modals and active states grouped with their sections. They should be on the top of that group. Mark them with a color (more on that below).
  • Hovers should be grouped with their respective sections.
    • Each hover should be paired with its base element. For example, a button’s hover should belong in the original button’s group.

Special Needs & Use Cases

Because Photoshop works in overlapping layers, there will need to be some exceptions to naming and how you order things. Obviously, pop-ups will need to go on top of everything else, and modals will have to be placed on top of whatever section they belong in. When things are out of order than what they’d look like at first blush, you can use colors to designate them so they’re easier to process when someone is looking at the file.

screenshot of color coded photoshop files

PS Pro Tip: Set a keyboard shortcut to collapse all your layers. You can do this in your Photoshop preferences.  This little trick saves the Creative team here a lot of time and effort.

Button layers should be grouped together as well, and this will often mean that you’re only putting two layers in a group together. This is pretty common in my PSD files, and we find it’s helpful when our developers need to find hover states.

Using Color for Clarity

As designers, we know that adding color to something goes a long way to communicate its purpose. This applies to PSD organization as well.

Photoshop has 7 color options to set for layers and groups. Set up a system for what each of these colors indicate. When you set up a consistent labelling schema, it will make it that much easier for your teammates to “skim” your document and find what they need quickly.

You can arrange this however you want, but we assign warmer colors to components that are (a) important and (b) possibly easy to miss (button hovers, for example). Cooler colors are reserved for items that aren’t as important or would be easy to spot (like modals).  Here at Creative, we use:

  • Red – Hover states
  • Orange – active states
  • Green – modals
  • Purple – notes layer
  • Blue – Guides (if applicable)

If you have a lot of layers with the same color next to each other (ie. 4 different modal options for the same action), they can be grouped together under one folder.

IMPORTANT: Use colors SPARINGLY. The more you use, the less useful they will be.

It’s tempting to turn your layers panel into a technicolor dreamcoat. But keep your colors minimal and purposeful for the clearest communication possible.

Don’t Freak Out: Organize As You Go To Keep From Getting Overwhelmed

I know. This looks like a lot. For my friends out there who struggle to keep things organized, it’s easy to look at something like this and get bogged down in just how much there is to do. But try not to be intimidated. I’ve given you a lot to work with; what’s important is that you find the system that works best for you and your team and you stay consistent. I’m just giving you a jumping off point.

No matter what system you choose and how simple or complex it is, it will always be easier to organize as you build out the file, rather than doing it all at once at the end.  (Coincidentally, this will also work for your disastrous home.) Working as you go helps you establish habits, also, so this all becomes second nature to you and it won’t feel like a burden for very long.

Following these essential Photoshop tips will save time, keep everyone on the same page, and help communicate the intent of designs and wireframes more clearly.  In the end, it will make everyone—including you—a lot happier.

If you want to see, up close and personal, the benefits of a team in sync with each other, get in touch with Creative MMS and let’s discuss your next project!

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