The hidden powers of Preview and Automator


Doing a complete guide to Automator for designers is a bit out of the scope of this post, but at the very least we want to encourage you to open it from your Applications folder and poke around, to begin to discover what it can do for you.

It's a terrific way of automating repetitive tasks, and what's more not only are there lots of extra third-party Actions you can plug into it, but if you hit the limits of what Automator itself can do, you can further extend it with Apple's English-like scripting language AppleScript – and then the sky’s the limit. (Indeed, it can trigger JavaScript, shell scripts or other workflows too – go nuts!)

The basics of an Automator workflow

You build an Automator workflow by dragging steps in an order, one after another, from the list on the left to the working area on the right. Often – though not always – your starting point will be some files in the Finder, and the two main ways of getting started is the Get Selected Finder Items (which will act on whatever files are currently selected in the Finder) and Get Specified Finder Items, which explicitly asks you to define which files you want to work on at the start of the process.

Once you've built the workflow you want, you can save it either as an Automator document – which you'll have to open to run each time you want it – or package it up to work as a stand-alone application onto which you can drop files to have the workflow they contain act on them.

Don't forget you can give these applications custom icons, and you can add them to the top bar of any Finder window – so they're always accessible – by holding the ⌘ key as you drag it to the Toolbar. Perhaps even more powerfully, you can create Folder Actions in Automator – standard workflows but which are invisibly attached to a folder in the Finder. That way, anything you add to that folder gets processed by the Automator workflow – a very powerful feature.

For example, if you have a folder where you store invoices, you could attach a Folder Action to it that will, every time you add a new file, create a new, pre-filled standard email with that file attached – even if you’re directly saving a PDF to it from InDesign, say.

Automator Actions every creative should know about...

New PDF Contact Sheet

Even today, we often need to create contact sheets to help us sort through images from a shoot, for example. This action takes images passed to it and creates a PDF contact sheet.

Change type of Images

Far too often we get handed a soup of different file formats to use online, say. With this Action, you could create a little application you could drop them all onto to convert to JPEG, say – which is especially useful when you consider how many file formats the Mac can open natively – and of course if for example you're going to upload them to a website, you could also have the workflow resize and even pad the images to spec. In fact, you could even add a third-party plugin that would upload them to your FTP server ready to be used.

The Mac can create a PDF from anything it can print – just look for the PDF menu in the print dialogue box – but what most people don't realise is that the list of workflows which appears in that PDF drop-down can be added to. So you see, for example, Add PDF to Web Receipts Folder, which will 'print' the document to PDF then save it to the Web Receipts folder in your Home directory – but Automator lets you create your own.

If you're in the habit of emailing PDFs for feedback and approval to clients, say, you could build a workflow that prints a document to PDF, attaches it to an email and then sends it. You can even pre-populate To addresses (amongst other things), so you could create separate workflows for each client you work with to make sending drafts one-click easy.

Image Capture Plugin

Image Capture is another under-appreciated app on your Mac; it's great for importing photos and videos from cameras and iOS devices, and what's more, you can create Image Capture plug-ins in Automator so that as soon as you import images they get a workflow acting on them.

So, for example, you could create a workflow that imports images, creates a PDF contact sheet then saves it to a particular folder on Dropbox that’s shared with people you collaborate with, so that it's easily viewable by everyone.

Get Image URLs from Webpage

Under the Internet section of Automator's list of Actions, you'll see a bunch of handy options, such as this one for identifying the target URLs for images on a webpage; combine it with Download URLs, and you can quickly scrape a webpage for images – and then go on to do further things with them, such as adding thumbnail icons for easy browsing. Clearly, there are copyright implications here, but it's a very useful option if you're auditioning illustrators, for example.

So, there you have it: Preview and Automator – two of a design professional's best allies, and they were there waiting for you all along. Explore them, exploit them – and share your Preview tips and Automator workflow suggestions in the comments below!

Words: Chris Phin

Chris Phin trained as a graphic designer before falling into tech journalism; he’s been trying to climb out ever since.

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