March 19, 2009

Adjustments & the future of the Photoshop UI

The new Adjustments panel in Photoshop CS4 is a polarizing feature. Some people love it; others, not so much. My job is to help improve things as we move forward, so I want to hear your feedback.

Just asking for comments in a vacuum, however, isn’t going to produce useful results. Therefore I’m planning to publish three related posts:

  1. The bigger picture of where we’re going with the Photoshop interface, and why
  2. An overview of the advantages Adjustments provides right now
  3. Some ideas on how to improve it in the future

As for feedback on this post, for now please focus on the big picture. The subsequent posts will provide a chance to gather specific, actionable feedback about the current & future versions of the panel. Preamble aside, please read on in this post’s extended entry.


Let’s start with some pretty uncontroversial statements:

Wherever possible, software should do the Right Thing automatically, as its default behavior.

  • Keeping one’s work flexible, so that it’s possible to revisit a decision later & to adjust settings that were previously applied, is generally preferable to having to make a hard-and-fast decision. That’s why things like layers in Photoshop & metadata-based editing in Camera Raw/Lightroom are popular. We often call this style of working “non-destructive,” in that data isn’t being transformed in a way that can’t be reversed, but “re-editable” or simply “flexible” might be a better adjective.
  • Browsing among controls on screen is generally preferable to “menu-diving” (accessing a range of independent dialogs one at a time). Again, browsability is one of the nice things about Camera Raw & especially Lightroom: you can see numerous parameters at once, freely tweaking them & seeing their interactions (screenshot).
  • Working non-modally (that is, without needing to enter/exit a special editing mode) generally beats working modally. For example, grabbing a brush and just painting an image beats having to go into a special brushing mode and/or window, do your work, and then come back. The pros and cons are a little more mixed on this point, but generally speaking, it’s nice to edit things immediately & directly.

So, in an ideal world, Photoshop would apply filters, adjustments, and transformations non-destructively by default, and it would let you browse and adjust the parameters through a non-modal interface.

Of course, this is not quite an ideal world. When Photoshop started life, little if anything in it was re-editable. There were no layers, no non-destructive adjustments, no re-editable type, no Smart Objects/Smart Filters, etc. Just about everything was driven through dialog boxes–something that’s remains largely true today.

Therefore it’s been necessary to retrofit PS to support more efficient, flexible ways of working. You’re seeing a work in progress, a migration from modal/destructive/menu-driven to non-modal/non-destructive/browsable. Perhaps needless to say, this is hardly an overnight process.

The richness that’s possible in a PSD file (deeply nested layers, Smart Objects within Smart Objects, placed raw data/vector art/3D files/video layers, re-editable filters & layer effects, advanced blending options, and so on) totally outstrips the Layers panel‘s ability to display & control it. Instead of simply displaying & adjusting the structure of your document, Layers tries to show just about everything. And for simple lack of screen real estate, it just can’t do the job.

Photoshop needs a properties inspector, a panel that lets you view & adjust the parameters of the selected object. (See examples from Illustrator, Fireworks.) Such a panel can supplant & control other dedicated panels, making it possible to display more info & yet fewer panels on screen. (There’s generally no need to show Character & Paragraph controls, for example, unless you have a text object selected.)

New panels in CS4–Adjustments, Masks, and 3D–represent movement in this direction. Adjustments in particular is a properties inspector: it displays & adjusts the parameters of the selected adjustment layer, changing its contents according to selection. It facilitates browsing both presets & adjustments already applied.

To set expectations correctly, I have to say that we’re not planning to deliver a grand unified properties inspector in the next version of Photoshop. Moving Photoshop from Carbon to Cocoa has to take priority, and it’s a lot of work. As long as the team is reworking large swaths of code, however, we’re rewriting the UI to be much more flexible. (That rework was always on the roadmap regardless of Cocoa.) That’ll support the vision I’m describing & much more in time.

I wish I could show you a mockup of how Adjustments & other controls (type, layer styles, filters, etc.) fit into a larger properties inspector in Photoshop, but we’re not yet at that point. Trust me, though: I expect the fusion to be elegant & powerful.

I need to mention all this now so that you can view Adjustments in the context of the bigger picture. The panel provides real benefits now–which Bryan O’Neil Hughes will detail in the next post–and it’s part of a long, important migration towards a more streamlined, efficient Photoshop.

Posted by John Nack at 6:52 AM on March 19, 2009
Copyright © 2014 Adobe Systems Incorporated. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use | Privacy Policy and Cookies (Updated)