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Optimizing Your Flash MX 2004 Workspace and Revealing Hidden Features

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  1. The Workspace that Ate My Car
  2. The Well of Lost Features
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Does Flash MX 2004 have you drowning in panels? Is it eating all the real estate on your screen? Let Robert Hoekman, Jr. show you the keys to organization, and discover a few cool features along the way."
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Since the first release of Flash several years ago, we have all seen a few major things happen. Sure, there are obvious things, such as the evolution of ActionScript, the coining of the term "Rich Internet Application," and the development of all sorts of third-party products to enhance your Flash content and make your Web sites, CD-ROMs, and devices look and act in a way you never imagined. But the most significant change is rarely discussed, despite its unnerving demand for attention. So, what's the big change? It's the fact that Flash now eats up more screen real estate than your dog eats rocks.

The Workspace that Ate My Car

Although this may not be something that has occurred to you, try to think back to the Flash 4 days, when panels were few and options were fewer. Most of the enhancements since then have improved your workflow and made you some money, but let's face it: Flash has taken over your desktop. There are now dozens of panels, windows, and dialog boxes all vying for your attention; and making sense of that mess can keep you awake at night (then again, maybe it's just me). Check out Figure 1 to see the chaos.

Figure 01Figure 1 Remember when you thought cleaning your room was hard?

In this article, I'll point out some ways you can clean house. I did this myself recently and, as a result, discovered all sorts of cool things you can do with Flash MX 2004 that are either undocumented or generally unnoticed. For this article, I'll be focusing on Flash MX Professional 2004, but most of these tips stand true for non-Pro users as well. So get out your bottle of Squeaky-Clean and get to work.

Get Organized

After a few hours in Flash, your desktop can end up looking like Tokyo after a bout with Godzilla, and that's understandable. After a few weeks of fighting with panels, you start looking for solutions; and after a few months, you start looking for a new career. Before you decide, it's not too late for accounting school—try a new approach. You will have to do some adjusting to your workflow, but it will be worth it in the end. My best suggestion is to pick a method of organization and run with it, but like most things, that's easier said than done.

My personal favorite is the alphabetical panel set, in which you open up (I can feel you cringing) every single panel (calm down) Flash has to offer (put down the chair). First, you arrange the panels according to size. If they are smaller panels, stick them over on the right side in a vertical row. If they require more space horizontally, dock them with the Properties inspector. Then organize them in alphabetical order.

Fortunately, the panels that need horizontal space (Actions, Debugger, Output, and Properties inspector, in that order) all seem to go together quite nicely. The one that doesn't fit, thematically, is the Strings panel (Flash Professional), but many users won't need it much anyway, so you can close it or just toss it in alphabetical order as well—so it's always right where you can find it. The other narrower panels can all go on the right side, docked together in alphabetical order. They would go as follows (all these are accessed from the Window menu): Accessibility, Align, Behaviors, Color Mixer, Color Swatches, Components, Component Inspector, History, Info, Library, Movie Explorer, Project, Scene, Transform, and Web Services. Then just toss the controller down underneath the Properties inspector for good measure, or close it.

If you're a Mac user, like me, you may want to choose Window > Tile as well. This will make the document window fill up your entire desktop, and the entire panel set will just hang out in this big empty gray space. It looks alot like Figure 2.

Figure 2Figure 2 The alphabetical panel set.

I prefer this layout because on some days I'm a designer and other days I'm a code junkie, and I rarely know when I'm going to switch from one role to the other, so I just leave everything open and accessible. And because they're arranged alphabetically, I don't have to think about where to find a panel. I learned my ABCs a long time ago and something about that song sticks with me (and now that I've mentioned the song, try as hard as you can to get it out of your head). The hard part here is remembering to minimize each panel as soon as you're done with it. Ideally, you'll leave only one maximized at a time.

When you're done with this overhaul, choose Window > Save Panel Layout, name the set Alphabetical, and click OK. Theoretically, if you leave a panel layout as is when you quit for the day, Flash maintains the layout next time you launch Flash.

If leaving every panel open seems a little too much like the thing you were trying to avoid, try a workflow-based approach.

If you're a designer spending most of the time dabbling with the ol' motion graphics, try getting rid of the panels that you don't use. For example, keep the Color Mixer and Color Swatches panels, but lose the Debugger. Keep the Align and History panels, but ditch the Output panel. Stretch that Timeline way out to the edge of your desktop, and give yourself plenty of room to animate. This should give you plenty of space, even if all the panels are open. Of course, you may still want to use a higher monitor resolution just to be safe. Save this panel layout as Designer.

If you're a code geek and spend most days creating revolutionary applications with Flash, do the opposite of what I just said. Get rid of those pesky Color Mixer and Color Swatches panels; kill the Scenes and Transform panels; dock the Actions, Output, and Debugger panels; and call it a day. But wait, you still have the Timeline to deal with, taking up all that valuable space. So move it. The Timeline does exactly one useful thing for a person like you: it docks vertically. Shift it around a bit until it snaps into place vertically and set it only wide enough to reveal about five frames. After all, the last time you created Flash content that required more than five frames was for the bouncing ball animation in the Flash 3 Help files. After you do this, you should notice that suddenly you have a huge amount of space for the Actions panel. Nice, huh? Yeah. It's a beautiful sight (see Figure 3).

Figure 3Figure 3 The developer's dream panel layout.

Yet another option is to do the obvious: memorize the keyboard shortcuts for every panel and get better at typing. This list is available in the Window menu, and if you don't like the shortcuts you can always create a custom set. Memorizing them won't be fun, but it certainly allows you to clean up the Flash workspace. If you're good enough, you could get away without leaving any panels open—ever.

The point to all this is that you have an opportunity to think this out and save yourself frustration on a daily basis. I'm giving you an excuse by presenting this article. Now you can tell your boss that it's important enough for an article on, and you can justify spending a couple of hours on this task. So take some time to experiment. Figure out which panels you use all the time and how to lay them out to improve your workflow. Just remember to save the panel layout.

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