Keeping Photoshop Documents Organized

I can’t stand opening a Photoshop document and finding a mess of un-named, un-grouped layers. It makes finding objects unnecessarily difficult and time-consuming. Follow a few simple tips and you’ll never have to spend time searching for layers.


This may seem like an obvious suggestion, but most of the PSD files I open don’t have any groups at all, or they’ll have groups, but no names for the groups.

Grouping layers together is easy! I recommend using keyboard shortcuts. Command + G (Control + G on Windows) will create a new group by default, and even prompt you for a group name so you don’t have to move your hands away from the keyboard. This is a nice function, but I prefer using the “New Group from Layers.” This allows you to select several layers in the layers palette and move them all into a new group. By default, there is no keyboard shortcut for this command, so I created my own (go to Edit > Keyboard Shortcuts to modify these settings). I chose to use Command + Shift + G.

When you have a highly organized file with nested, labeled groups, you can see in an instance where specific objects are located.

One annoying issue with groups in Photoshop is you can create only 5 levels of nested groups. It’s not a huge deal, and maybe it’s to keep us from over-using groups, but sometimes I find a reason to nest groups more than 5 levels deep.

Here’s a screen shot of the layer palette for a content-heavy website I designed recently. The groups are expanded so you can see the structure, but with everything collapsed, you would see 6 descriptive groups in the layer palette: header & navigation, featured item display, main content, fixed footer bar, footer, and background color & pattern.


Smart Objects

Smart Objects are somewhat similar to groups, in that you can select multiple layers and condense them into a single smart object. However, smart objects can be re-sized again and again without losing any quality. This is because when you create a smart object (Layers > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object), the original pixel (or vector) data is stored, and each time you re-size the smart object, Photoshop re-calculates how to scale the pixels based on the original pixel data. In my opinion, this is one of the best reasons for using smart objects. When you place a photograph in your Photoshop document, you can convert it to a smart object instantly and re-size it to your heart’s content.

To edit a smart object, you just double-click on its icon in the layers palette. This will open a new document with all of the layers you put into your smart object, and you can edit it as if it were its own, independent document. Essentially, it is. Photoshop will warn you about using the “save as” option when you edit the smart object, because if you save it somewhere else on your hard-drive, the smart object won’t update in your original document. Just use the “save” command and everything will work perfectly.


Lastly, I want to show you the auto-select feature. If I’m working with somebody’s unorganized, unnamed layers, and don’t have the time to go through and label/group things properly, I rely heavily on the auto-select feature. When you have the “move” tool selected (keyboard shortcut: V), you can check the “Auto Select” option on the left side of the toolbar. There’s a drop-down menu to the right that has two options: layer and group. With this option selected, you can simply click on an object that you see in the document, and Photoshop will automatically select the layer or group that corresponds to that object. For example, if I have a web site with hundreds of layers, and I want to edit the logo, I can enable this option and simply click on the logo and Photoshop will show me exactly where it exists in the layer order.

I dislike having this option enabled all the time; I find it interrupts my work-flow too often, or I’m just not accustomed to having it enabled at all times. Luckily, there is a built-in keyboard shortcut for this option. When you have the “move” tool selected, you can hold the command key and click on an object, and the layer will be automatically selected in the palette.

I hope this helps keep your files organized!

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3 thoughts on “Keeping Photoshop Documents Organized

  1. Phoenix Website Design

    I hadn’t ever thought about how difficult it makes reading my .psd files for someone else when they aren’t grouped. I’m pretty good about naming them, but not grouping!

  2. Asad

    Finally someone who shares a very handy technique that keeps my layers named Layer1, layer 2, layer 3 into one group.
    Yep, working with Photoshop can be annoying unless you’re using the right techniques to fit everything in group.
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