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Photoshop Layer Sets

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Photoshop Web design files are notorious for their out-of-control layer stacks. Have you ever had to scroll endlessly through the layers palette looking for a particular layer? Photoshop 6 Artistry co-author Sean Duggan shows how to make the most of Photoshop 6's Layer Sets to create order out of the chaos of crowded, cluttered layer palettes.
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I'm a big fan of layers. They make almost any project in Photoshop easier and more flexible, and they also significantly expand the creative possibilities available to you. When I'm working in Photoshop, it's common end up with a lot of layers—image layers, adjustment layers, type layers, vector shape layers, and so on. I used to think that some of my files were pretty heavy on the layers, especially when I had to scroll up and down in the layers palette to find a particular item. It wasn't until I began working in the Web design world, however, that I realized just how out of control a layers palette could be.

I remember working on a Web design file in Photoshop 5.5 once, and I couldn't add any new layers because I had reached the maximum limit of 100 layers allowed by the program. Talk about a confusing stack of layers! Fortunately, Photoshop 6.0 has a great feature called layer sets that lets you organize layers into logical groupings. This makes finding a specific layer very easy, and it goes a long way toward taming the wild and crazy layer stacks that are often a part of complex Web designs. It's also an essential feature to take advantage of in a production work group, with several people working on the same file.

In addition to layer sets, the kind engineers at Adobe have increased the maximum number of layers to a staggering 8,000! I don't know about you, but I find the idea of a Web comp with 8,000 layers pretty scary.


With things such as layer styles, layer masks, and layer clipping paths coming into play, a more realistic layer ceiling is probably around 1,000—if your system doesn't start protesting first.

To help illustrate how you can make the most of layer sets, I've created a Web design comp for a fictitious conglomerate called The Very BIG Company (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 A sample Web design file for the Really Big Company.

Normally, I recommend naming your layers as you go, but to make a point for this example, I departed from that rule. After pushing pixels for a while, I had the basic design in place and a stack of 30 layers, most with ambiguous names such as shape 4 copy 2. Take a look at the screen grab of the layers palette for the file in Figure 2, and see what a mess it is. I couldn't even fit all of the layers into a single screen grab!

Figure 2 An out-of-control stack of layers. As we'll see, using layer sets and proper layer naming will help tame this layers palette.

As you can see, it's a pretty confusing stack of layers. If you were a production artist and I handed this file to you to build out into a Web page, you'd be muttering about my sloppy work habits behind my back!

Appropriate Naming and Logical Grouping

Before you start to organize with layer sets, there's a few things you can do to prepare the layers palette. First, it's important to make sure that every layer has a clear and appropriate name (see Figure 3). Not only will this help you find your way around your own file, but it's also essential if you will be handing your files off to someone else for the building process. I also like to organize layers in the palette next to each other in logical groupings so that items that are grouped together in the design can be found next to each other in the layers palette (see Figure 4). If possible, I also organize the layer stack so that it reflects the visual hierarchy on the page. Graphic elements that appear at the top of the page, for example, would be found near the top of the layers palette; a nav bar that is just under the top elements would be under those layers in the layers palette. The specific layer interactions for each file will determine how much of this latter technique can be used.

Figure 3 Using clear, descriptive names is the first step in creating order out of a chaotic layers palette.

Figure 4 Arrange your layers together in logical groupings within the layers palette.

After you've organized and named all the layers, you should go through and delete any layers that you're sure you're not going to use. In the creative crucible of the design process, it's fairly common for many layers to be created that may not be used in the finished design. Once you're certain that extra layers will not be used, get rid of them! They're just taking up space and RAM and making your layers palette more cluttered than it needs to be. If you feel that you need to hang on to some, put them into a layer set labeled Unused Stuff—Save.

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