Sharpen your design skills, part one

We'd all like more time to be creative. More time to complete tricky briefs. More time for those award-winning ideas to gestate. More time to finesse and hone a job before it needs to be dispatched. The problem is that deadlines are tight and clients often demand changes that require action in a heartbeat. Sometimes it can feel that time itself is against you.

But who needs problems when solutions are readily available? There are many ways to buy yourself an extra five minutes here or a spare ten minutes there, and that's why we've put this article together: to help you take control of your workflow so you can spend less time doing the grunt work and more time being creative.

Mastering the tools you use on a daily basis is vital for working more efficiently and boosting productivity. And because you constantly tell us that your workflow is based around Adobe Creative Suite and its constituent applications, we've focused this article on the five apps you use the most: Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, Dreamweaver and InDesign.

Better still, we've hand picked five of our most trusted Technique writers to talk you through a series of ingenious solutions for streamlining your approach in each program. In this part, long-standing Computer Arts contributor Derek Lea provides some smart solutions for saving time in Photoshop, while Ben O'Brien shares his strategies for squeezing more out of Illustrator. In the next part, Paul Wyatt explains the secrets of working effectively in Flash, InDesign guru Susannah Hall presents some indispensable print-design primers, and Karl Hodge delivers Dreamweaver advice you can really count on when the clock's against you.

Photoshop with Derek Lea
Derek is an award-winning illustrator, college instructor and author. He has pioneered a number of creative methods for working within Photoshop. See

01 Improve your backgrounds
When combining image files to give your main image a new background, add blur and noise to the background with the Blur and Noise filters. This will improve the blend between the image elements, reduce any pixellation and help create a consistent focal distance.

02 Automate with Actions
The Actions palette is invaluable for automatically carrying out a series of tasks on an open document, and Photoshop ships with a number of default actions. However, you can easily set up your own actions, and even create keyboard shortcuts to run them based on the Function keys. The time you don't spend on repetitive image manipulations and conversions can be spent doing something much more creative and productive instead.

03 Create artwork in CMYK
As an illustrator who works primarily in print, I can't see the logic in creating something on the screen that cannot be reproduced exactly on press. Because of this, whenever I create a print illustration in Photoshop I work in CMYK mode. Granted, you could work in wider-gamut RGB and soft preview as you go, but most clients want a CMYK file at the end anyway. Working in CMYK not only gives you an accurate picture of reproduction, but it also saves you the time spent performing colour conversions.

04 Make the most of the History palette
Photoshop's History palette is a boon when you are carrying out extensive image manipulation. It enables you to jump to any state since the time you opened the image and began working on it. However, by default Photoshop only 'remembers' the last 20 states. You can change this figure in the Performance Preferences, and preserve a state from automatic deletion by clicking the New Snapshot button in the History palette.

05 Take care with ink limits
I've learned that you can save a lot of time by communicating, and you must always consider technicalities right from the start. Everyone knows about colour spaces, but paying attention to ink limits is crucial. Find out the black density your client requires. In the Info palette options, set up one readout to measure CMYK, and the other to measure Total Ink. Then, frequently measure your work with the Eyedropper to ensure you stay within the specified limits, avoiding changes later on.

Derek's Photoshop power tip
06 Preserve image quality with Smart Objects

When creating a composition in Photoshop from photographic resources, I like to use Smart Objects to initially preserve the images at their full size. When an image is pasted onto the canvas, even if it is so large that it extends beyond it, it is immediately converted to a Smart Object and then visibility is disabled. Copies of the Smart Object are resized and rotated rather than directly affecting the original, which can be edited at any point in its original state.

07 Apply Adjustment Layers to selections
Photoshop's Adjustment Layers are capable of more specific tasks than global, image-wide adjustments. To adjust a specific component, Ctrl/Cmd-click the component's layer thumbnail to load it as a selection. With the selection active, create an Adjustment Layer. A mask will be created, hiding the adjustment in areas outside of the selection.

08 Paste Ilustrator art in as Smart Objects
When you paste Illustrator art into Photoshop, choose the Smart Object method rather than converting to pixels or shape layers. Double-clicking a pasted Smart Object in the Layers palette opens it in Illustrator. This means you can go back and edit your pasted artwork in Illustrator at any point.

09 Use sketches as templates
The placement of image components can be crucial when your finished illustration ends up in the client's layout. Always use your approved sketch as a temporary guide as you work: make it a temporary layer. Stick closely to the original plan.

10 Maximise your channel options
When you're using scanned black-and-white drawings to create Alpha Channel-based selections in Photoshop, change the Colour Indication to Selected Areas. This can be done in the channel options via the palette menu and will result in selections based upon your black drawings, not the white backgrounds.

11 Create multiple masks
In Photoshop, each layer gets a single layer mask. However, if you place a masked layer inside a group, you can add an additional mask to the group. You then get two masks that you can edit independently.

12 Duplicate layers quickly
Alt/Opt-dragging is a quick way to duplicate layers or selected contents on the canvas area. However, this method works in the Layers palette as well. Simply Alt/Opt-click on a layer thumbnail and then drag it up or down in the Layers palette for a quick duplicate.

Illustrator with Ben O'Brien
Ben O'Brien, formerly a Flash animator, took his vector knowledge and taught himself Illustrator. Clients include The Big Issue, DDB, AgencySacks and BBH. See

13 Resize the smart way
If you're resizing an element repeatedly, convert any lines in it to fills. Select the element and click Object>Path>OutlineStroke. If you resize an element with line work, the lines will stay the same thickness. But if you convert them to fills, they will grow or shrink in proportion as you change the scale.

14 Use layers the logical way
Whether you're drawing freehand or tracing a scanned image, start with the lowest layer and work your way forward to the top one, or vice versa. Don't create one element in the middle, then one nearer the top and one further down. Fighting your way through your layer structure will slow you down considerably, especially on a complex piece, and you could easily lose an element somewhere.

15 Build your arsenal
Illustrator enables you to save swatches full of your favourite colours and multi-colour gradients, or colours relevant to a particular project; save individual objects in a Symbol library; and save patterns and line styles as custom brushes. Saving libraries full of relevant elements, for each client, project or campaign, will always keep you prepared for the next piece of work.

16 Ease Illustrator's burden
Illustrator often has to deal with huge amounts of information, so take steps to ensure it runs as efficiently and smoothly as possible. For example, make sure you have plenty of RAM to keep it performing at its best, and if you're embedding images into your file - especially an EPS, TIFF or BMP - tick the Link box in the Place dialog.

17 Different strokes
Essentially, you have three drawing tools, the Pen, Pencil and Paintbrush. Use all three to their best capability. It will take you a long time to use the Pencil tool to get a long, perfectly smooth line, so use the Pen or Paintbrush. But if you're drawing something quite small, consider using the Pencil tool to draw it quickly - the viewer may not even see the rougher line edge.

18 Know your Bziers
Bzier curves can be fiddly, so invest time in mastering the Pen tool. You get more control if you create curves based on a few short sections, rather than trying to create the whole curve in one go.

19 Lines first, colours later
If tracing a scanned image or illustrating freehand, don't colour as you go. It is much more efficient to do all your colouring and refining at once. You can also send the client a clean black and white illustration to get feedback before starting on the colours.

20 Don't waste energy
If it's not in view, don't artwork it. If you're illustrating a landscape, and one building goes behind another, there's no need to add the object that can't be seen. The same goes for a shape that extends off your bleed/print area - don't complete the shape for the sake of it.

21 Organise your fonts
Many designers have thousands of fonts stowed away. Keep them in folders relevant to their style, project or use. When you need a quick bit of type for your illustration, you won't have to trawl through every one on your hard disk.

22 Colour objects quickly
With the Eyedropper selected, holding down the Cmd/Ctrl key will turn it into a selection arrow: hold Cmd/Ctrl, select your object, then let go of the key to use the Eyedropper to click on a colour, either from the image or your swatches.

23 Discover the smart way to copy and paste
If the traditional copy and paste just isn't fast enough for you, repeat objects by selecting the original with the Selection Tool (V) while holding down the Alt/Opt key to pull away a copy, put it in place and repeat.

Ben's Illustrator power tip
24 Learn how to make clever selections

When choosing colours, lines, opacities and so on, make great use of the Select Same function (Select>Same>FillColor, for instance) especially if elements are grouped or layered separately. Imagine you have a detailed landscape illustration, with a lot of layers and groups of objects, and a number of trees and bushes. You can use Select Same to easily select all the trees and give them one colour, and do the same with the bushes. You can try a variety of colours until you find the perfect palette without selection nightmares.

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