August 08, 2009

Linked Smart Objects (kinda)

Geoff Badner, the art director to whom I owe the start of my career, recently asked a good question:

I know I can do multiple iterations of the same Smart Object within the SAME document and have it change all instances, but what about Smart Objects placed across DIFFERENT documents? That would be pimp.

I ask because I’m designing an iPhone app and it uses the same modules over and over across different screens. There are dozens of screens and each time I needs to change a button or text field in a module, I need to fix it one at a time in each file. Sucks!

I know. My quick advice: You can convert any layer to being a Smart Object (or place a file as one), then choose “Layer->Smart Objects->Replace Contents…” That way you can suck in another file as an update/replacement. If it’s a command you perform frequently, you can assign a keyboard shortcut to it.

Upshot: Edit your external file, then hit Shift-Cmd-R (or whatever) once per Smart Object instance to replace each. Kinda clunky, I know, but depending on the edits you do per SO, this approach may be more efficient.

Someday Photoshop needs to support proper linked files, period. (Dirty-ish little secret: it already does, in the form of video layers; your MOV, etc. source files are never embedded in a PSD.) For that to happen, it needs the right infrastructure–a Links panel, the ability to resolve broken links, etc. None of that is rocket science, but it’s worth taking the time to get right.

Posted by John Nack at 7:52 AM on August 08, 2009


  • Philipp Antoni — 12:20 PM on August 08, 2009

    Photoshop does have a feature similar to that already though: Variables. They’re much more obscure and harder to set up, but once they’re working you can basically update all the linked files with a single click.
    [Oh man, Philipp: if I had prizes to give out on this blog, you’d get one for knowing about a deeply obscure feature! I think PS variables are great, but I sure don’t meet many people who talk about using them. (Of course, the foolproof way to meet every such person would just be for us to cut the feature! That always pulls ’em out of the woodwork. ;-)) –J.]

  • Chris Cox — 7:18 PM on August 08, 2009

    Lots of details, lots of things that users expect to “just happen”. Sigh.
    [And that, Chris, is why they you & me the mid-sized bucks. :-) –J.]

  • Eduardo Moura — 12:26 AM on August 09, 2009

    If there were a “Photoshop CSn Wish List”, that would be my #1 request (but wait, THERE IS a list!)
    Can we talk about CS5? Or 6? Please?? ;)
    [Well, *you* can talk about whatever you’d like… ;-) –J.]

  • Mario — 8:24 AM on August 10, 2009

    Or you could just make your life easier by designing an iPhone app as a web app prototype, using CSS, XHTML, etc.
    You change one single CSS property and magic! everything changes. Save a lot of money by not buying photoshop, etc…
    And you get the opportunity of having the base to develop a mobile web app that is compatible with a lot more devices out there.

  • mike hale — 10:22 AM on August 10, 2009

    Geoff would need to combine all is different screen into one document but I would bet if he did he could use variables or layer comps(with smart objects) to make quick and easy changes to all his screens.
    It’s not official and it mostly deals with scripting but there is a list at
    You are welcome to post a wish there even if it’s not script related.

  • Daemon — 6:38 AM on August 11, 2009

    “None of that is rocket science, but it’s worth taking the time to get right.”
    HA!! You just admitted that it is easy to code Photoshop! =)

  • Bart — 9:23 AM on November 07, 2009

    Having to get a layers Id without having to load the layer descriptor would be nice, as would getting the layer from its Id without selecting it at the same time.

  • Bill — 6:03 PM on November 21, 2009

    Looks like your trying to break the Mold Testing would be another option, in my opinion.

  • Chris Lacey — 2:48 PM on November 22, 2009

    I would love it if smart objects just linked to an external file – it would save so much hassle. And since my files run too slowly when I try to cram multiple ‘pages’ via layer comps or folders into them, this Variables tip is a goldmine.
    Although Philipp, I’m not sure how to update across multiple files “in one click” still – do you have a script set up? I still need to update each individual PSD with the ‘Apply Data Set’ command. Then again, I’m still new to variables so there’s probably something I’m missing in the setup there as well. Anyway, THANKS!

  • Zev — 6:44 AM on December 07, 2009

    I second the motion that linked PSD files should be supported. This is THE #1 feature on my wish list. Linking files adds so much to InDesign. (Imagine if images across multiple InDesign documents had to be edited individually.) I would love to see linking come to Photoshop as well.

  • Klaus Nordby — 5:13 PM on December 07, 2009

    I second and third and fourth Zev regarding the linking of placed files in PS. I hate, loathe and detest the embedding currently happening, as it leads to hopeless PSD file size bloat and other inefficiencies. The InDesign way is THE way to go for placed/imported content, whether it be PSD, AI, EPS, PDF or whatnot. PS already does linking for all imported video files, for chrissake! I have pleaded with Adobe for years regarding this feature, in various forums, and I still live with hope in my heart that I will live to see it in my lifetime.
    [Me too. –J.]

  • Jeroen — 2:40 AM on January 08, 2010

    I want to bumb this post again to ask: Is there any news yet about the linked Smart Objects? Or any linking/placing external files into Photoshop? Is this a feature we can expect in the future, very soon in CS5?

  • fab1An — 6:43 AM on April 30, 2010

    You can work around this issue (PS not having linked objects) by using InDesign for the final »assembled layout«. You can even switch between different states of a placed PSD by switching layer compositions (from within InDesign!). Worked quite well for me up to now. But I will try to finde these obscure variables now.

  • Aaron Powers — 6:34 AM on February 01, 2012

    Because so many people were asking for linked items in Photoshop, I have been working on a plugin to Photoshop that directly allows links.

    It’s a free plugin available at

    If you like it or have problems, please send us comments!

  • Kai — 5:36 PM on August 05, 2012

    Aaron, this is exactly what I was looking for. Can’t wait to try it out. Thanks! And yes, this should be baked into Photoshop :-)

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