Experimenting with Linked Smart Objects

Adobe have released Photoshop CC 14.2, which adds the ability for Smart Objects to be stored externally, and linked to a document.

This may seem reasonably insignificant, but it allows the creation of basic external style sheets if you need to maintain vector scaling, or complex object reuse if you don’t need to maintain scaling (a bit more on that later). It also opens up some huge opportunities for those working in teams.

It’s great news, although it may take a little time for the design community to work out all the benefits. Let the experiments begin!

Syncing colours and icons

For these examples, I’ve created a few Photoshop documents and an Illustrator document.

The three PSB files in the Common Parts folder are 1×1px documents with a single colour fill. These will be used to fill many shapes with colour, allowing the colour to be updated at any time. To save a PSB, choose Photoshop Large Format from the Save As dialogue (PSB is the native Photoshop Smart Object format).

Face.ai is a 40×40px Illustrator file. A face glyph, drawn so filled areas are black and everything else is transparent.

The two layout PSDs are where most of the magic happens. I’ve placed the colour Smart Objects using Place Linked from the File menu. From there, they’ve been scaled up to cover a larger area — the documents were set up as 1×1px, because bitmap scaling a flat colour looks identical to creating it at the size you need, and the files may as well be as small as possible.

Layout 1.psd has had vector masks applied to each linked Smart Object, to cut the shape out of the large colour block. This gives us three rows of icons, with the colour being drawn from the linked Smart Objects.

Layout 2.psd is a little different. The Illustrator face glyph has been placed as a linked file, and the same linked Smart Objects have been clipped to the face layer, so we end up with the glyph being coloured by the Smart Object.

Editing Colour 3.psb updates any document that has been linked to it. Let’s change that red to a nice purple and hit save.

If your Photoshop document containing the Smart Object is open, it will update immediately. If you open the document at a later date, you’ll have to right-click the Smart Object’s layer and choose Update Modified Content to see the changes.

Editing Face.ai has a similar effect on Layout 2.psd. Let’s turn that frown upside down.

Oh, look! It’s not only smiling, but also purple. Rock on, little guy.

Smart Objects and scaling

Photoshop Smart Objects are rendered at the size of their Smart Object PSB, then bitmap scaled according to what you’ve done when placing or editing them. For photos, this may be ideal. For screen design and pixel art, it’s often a bad idea.

This is the reason the example above uses a small, flat colour document and a vector mask, maintaining great vector scaleability due to the mask.

If you’d like to know more, I’ve written a bit about Smart Objects previously.

Illustrator Smart Objects

I’d also be cautious when using Smart Objects from Illustrator, because they don’t contain dithered gradients, and often have antialiasing issues, as can be seen below on the top right of the eyes and top of the mouth.

Linked Smart Objects!

Linked Smart Objects are great, and I’d say there’s a big chance they’ll become an important part of my workflow. It’s likely there’s many, many ways they’ll come in handy.

The biggest advantage is likely be for those working on teams — you’ll now be able to split projects into files that can be edited in parallel, and be able to share assets amongst those files. Photoshop collaboration has just been kicked up a notch.

Published 17 January 2014.