Smart Objects and Layer Comps in Photoshop CC 2014

Photoshop CC 2014 was released today. It is a significant update, and part of a wider effort by Adobe to focus on improving Photoshop as a tool for designers.

It may not have been initially conceived with web and software design in mind, but Photoshop’s near-limitless abilities and extensibility have made it popular amongst the design community. So popular, that many of Photoshop’s features are now being used in ways their creators never envisioned. That use and misuse has exposed a few seams, especially in recent years where web and software design requirements have become more complex.

Thankfully, Photoshop CC 2014 patches many of those holes.

But before we talk about Photoshop CC 2014 — also known as Photoshop 15.0 — I’d like to briefly revisit an important feature added last version, and how it relates to today’s update.

Linked Smart Objects

Smart Objects are layers that contain embedded documents. They leave the embedded document untouched — resizing the layer or changing other layer attributes are non-destructive. Double clicking a Smart Object’s layer thumbnail opens the embedded document in either Photoshop or Illustrator, depending where it was created.

Photoshop CC 14.2 introduced Linked Smart Objects — rather than being embedded within a document, Linked Smart Objects are stored as a separate file, so they can be shared amongst many Photoshop documents. Those familiar with CSS or print design should see the advantage in storing Linked Smart Objects in their own files — it is now possible to reuse a single logo across a wide range of Photoshop documents and ensure they’re always in sync. Make a change to the Linked Smart Object document, and the changes will be rolled out to all documents that contain it.

New Smart Object features

Photoshop CC 2014 adds facilities to easily convert Smart Objects to Linked Smart Objects and vice-versa.

Right-clicking a Smart Object in the Layers Panel and choosing Convert to Linked lets you save an external file that’s linked to the document.

Smart Object convert to Linked

Right-clicking a Linked Smart Object provides the corrisponding Embed Linked command.

Smart Object embed Linked

Layer Comp improvements

Layer Comps save layer visibility, position and appearance as a recallable state. Many designers use Layer Comps for pages or different app states, allowing reuse of layers and groups, which can help keep changes to common elements in sync. It works, but is a far cry from Adobe’s stated goal for Layer Comps — to create multiple compositions or comps of a page layout to show clients.

Layer Comp example

Layer Comp example

If I’m being honest, I’ve never liked Layer Comps. Prior to this update, they felt fragile and difficult to manage.

In documents with many layers, and in situations where you are attempting to store many layer visibility changes within many Layer Comps, their use can be untenable. Documents where many layers are being created or deleted can also cause issues — you’ll often need to check and update every single Layer Comp.

These problems aren’t fundamental conceptual issues — they relate to managing multiple layers across multiple Layer Comps. They’re solvable.

With Photoshop CC 2014, Adobe has drastically improved Layer Comps when working with many layers and Layer Comps. It is now possible to apply the document’s current layer position, visibility and appearance across all selected Layer Comps.

Layer Comp example

Layer Comps in Photoshop CC 2014 are now far more appealing, and easier to manage.

Smart Objects and Layer Comps

In a fairly unexpected move, Layer Comps and Smart Objects can now be used together — Layer Comps contained within Smart Objects are exposed to the host of the Smart Object, allowing many states to be saved within the Smart Object.

In other words, you could build a Photoshop document that contained many different icons, with one Layer Comp set up to display each icon. You could then use that Photoshop document as a Linked Smart Object in other documents and be able to choose a specific icon by selecting the corresponding Layer Comp. Think of it as a single Smart Object that acts as a library of elements.

Smart Object embed Linked

This may seem slightly convoluted and confusing, but bigger projects and bigger teams often benefit from being able to separate reusable components into modular files or libraries.

While I can only think of a few contrived examples now, I expect that the new Smart Object and Layer Comp related features in Photoshop CC 2014 will become indispensable, once the design community figures out how to harness their potential.

Published 18 June 2014.