November 27, 2009

Photoshop, you’re a tough old bird

How do you change wings on a plane while it’s still flying?

We sometimes feel that way working on Photoshop. It’s essential to keep improving the app, yet with such a rich feature set and so many things baked into customers’ muscle memory, we have to be very wary of breaking workflows. It can be tougher than you’d think.

Last week we were talking about adding a command to Photoshop’s Fill dialog (savvy readers might be able to guess why), and we wanted to assign a unique keyboard shortcut to it. Having ghost-written a version of the Photoshop Power Shortcuts book, I like to think I’m pretty darn knowledgeable on the subject. Yet even I wasn’t aware of all the little nuances & thoughtfulness that went into this old command.

Upon investigating, and just for your reference, here are the Mac shortcuts in play (Windows users swap in Ctrl/Alt as appropriate):

  • Delete (alone) = Clear: Fill with transparency for normal layers, or with background color for background layer
  • Cmd + Delete = Fill with background color
  • Option + Delete = Fill with foreground color
  • Option + Cmd + Delete = Fill with history
  • Option + Cmd + Delete + Shift = Fill with history and preserve transparency
  • Option + Delete + Shift = Fill with foreground and preserve transparency
  • Shift + Delete = Open fill dialog with last-used settings

There’s a whole little language at work here:

  • Opt means foreground
  • Cmd means background
  • Adding Shift means preserve transparency
  • Opt + Cmd means history
  • Therefore all four together = Fill with history and preserve transparency


[Update: Gah--I reversed the roles of Opt & Cmd above; now fixed. Just seeing whether you're paying attention (yeah, that's it).]

Why on earth am I rambling about all this? Tryptophan poisoning? No, just a couple of reasons:

  1. If nothing else, I thought this list of shortcuts might be handy.
  2. It’s this kind of fastidious attention to detail that made me delight in Photoshop & After Effects. I remember sitting in an AE class & figuring out the meaning of a couple of modifier keys, then combining them and seeing that, yep, they did just want I expected. My people!, I thought.
  3. This sort of “intellectual density,” as my friend on AE once called it, is exactly why evolving Photoshop is often hard & necessarily slow:
    • First things first, “Do no harm”–or as Stephen Colbert might subtitle it, “Doooon’t [Screw] This Up, America.”
    • The rules and connections are often subtle.
    • If you come up with a new, elegant solution to something, will you have time to retrofit your innovation to the rest of Photoshop? What about to the rest of the Creative Suite? And all at once, without stomping other well-established conventions? Yeah, good luck with that. So now you must choose: Innovation or Consistency?

We’re not curing cancer here. We’re not sending anyone to the moon, or writing software to keep heart-lung machines pumping. But we do care, an awful lot, about making the most beautiful, complete, cohesive tools possible. And if it weren’t challenging, it probably wouldn’t be fun.

Posted by John Nack at 7:35 AM on November 27, 2009
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