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Managing Your Photoshop Workspace

The concept of workspaces has been around in Photoshop for a number of releases now but has evolved from being a seeming afterthought to become a central point of aiding productive and managing clutter. It's about time I wrote some thoughts on the subject.

Workspaces in Photoshop CS3As best I recall, workspaces were first introduced in Photoshop 7 as a command on the Window menu. After arranging things as you wished, you could save that configuration as a workspace so you could quickly arrange things that way again later. Photoshop CS was much the same but shipped with three named workspace configurations that differed only minimally: "Laptop," "One Monitor," and "Two Monitors." Photoshop CS2 dispensed with these and gave us instead a selection of task oriented workspaces such as "Color and Tonal Correction," "Printing and Proofing," and "Web Design" along with the now familiar "What's New" workspace configuration that color coded features new to that release of Photoshop. Photoshop CS3 kept these largely unchanged but gave us the ability to easily switch workspaces from the Option Bar. Adobe made only minor cosmetic changes in Photoshop CS4, but with the release of Photoshop CS5 workspaces finally took center stage with the new workspace switcher in the Application Bar.

Workspaces in Photoshop CS5It's actually not so much that easily switching workspaces is, in and of itself, so wonderful though, it's what you can do with workspaces. Photoshop has a lot of tools and palettes that can be configured and positioned in countless ways. They can be docked or floating. They can be collapsed to icons with or without labels. They can be expanded. Some can be expanded even further. The workspace switcher makes it easy to switch between any number of configurations easily so you won't need to hesitate to save any number of configurations.

To understand the power of workspaces let's start with the workspace switcher. You'll find it up on the top menu bar in Photoshop to the right of the actual menu choices. This area is known as the Application Bar. By default you'll see the boldface words "Essentials," "Design," and "Painting" followed by rightward pointing styled arrow icon. Photoshop CS5 comes with seven workspaces named "Essentials," "Design," "Painting," "Photography," "3D" (assuming you have Photoshop Extended), "Motion," and "New in CS5" although you can only see the first three on the Application Bar. To get to the rest you need to click on that arrow icon at the end of the list. A dropdown menu will appear showing you the remainder plus several other options for managing them.

To get an idea of what is possible with workspaces, try clicking on each of the provided ones in turn. When you do, the configuration of panels and tools will change, sometimes in radical ways. Doing this is somewhat like watching the movie "Transformers" with the palettes and tools transforming in so many ways. After trying them all out, just click on the one you like best. "Essentials" is the default workspace Photoshop starts out with if you can't decide.

If you're a photographer like me you may find the new "Photography" workspace fits your needs well. If you're a graphic designer, "Design" may be everything you ever wanted in a workspace. But sooner or later you will probably feel the urge to change at least something.

Pay attention to the color cuesThe easiest way to create your own workspace is to modify one of the existing ones. I say this because it is in fact the only way to create your own workspace. There is an option called "New Workspace..." on the dropdown menu for the workspace switcher, but it really should be called "Save Workspace..." like it used to be in previous Photoshop versions. You position everything the way you want it, select this menu option and give your masterpiece a name to save it.

Everything you see in the workspaces that come with Photoshop can be done in your home grown workspaces too, but at first it might not seem so. Try as you might, some of the formatting styles simply defy reason to create. Fear not. It can be done. But as I say, the easiest way is to modify one of the existing workspaces. Even if that workspace has nothing to do with the tools you want to put in yours, so long as it has the formatting you are after, start there. If the tools you want are showing somewhere in that workspace, drag them to where you want them to be. If they aren't showing, use the Window menu to make them visible and drag away. If you don't want to keep some of the tools in that workspace drag them out of their docked configuration then close them. When you get to what you want, use "New Workspace..." to save it with your own name.

Whats New in Photoshop CS5 workspaceWhatever workspace you just got done making changes to (the one you started with) will now of course look the same as the one you just saved. You can prove it to yourself by toggling between them. To put the original one back to the way it's supposed to look, make it active and then use the "Reset" option from the workspace switcher dropdown menu. "Reset" can save you if you really mess things up while trying to create a new workspace too. It reloads that configuration back to the way it was when last saved.

You can also delete workspaces via the dropdown menu. Photoshop won't let you delete the active workspace, but any of the others are fair game, even the ones that come with Photoshop.

You can always get to any of your saved workspaces via the workspace switcher dropdown menu. To control which workspaces show on the Application Bar where you can get at them more easily, simply drag them around. First, grab the vertical divider to the left of the workspace switcher and drag it left to make more room. As you do, more and more entries from the dropdown list will show up directly on the Application Bar. When the one you want is showing, stop dragging the divider. Now grab the workspace name on the Application Bar and drag it to the position you want. You can reposition any of the entries in the list this way to put your own custom workspaces first if you want and leave the built in ones at the end of the list.

As mentioned, creating your own workspace can seem frustrating at time since there seems at first to be no clear way to create the type of layouts present in the built-in workspaces. But there is a method to the madness. When dragging tools around to change a workspace configuration, pay attention to the color cues. When you get on top of a place where you can drop the tool you are dragging, the background color will change to a pale blue. When you see a horizontal divider in the built-in workspaces, you can drop a tool above it, below it, or on top of it. If you drop a tool on top of a divider, it will split in two to create a new group with just that tool. If you drag the last tool out of a group, the dividers that make up that group will collapse and the group will be no more. Just watch the color cues to explore what can be dragged and dropped where. Remember, you can use "Reset" at any point to undo your experiments.

If you have a vertical column of icons that you want to change to be icons with labels, simply grab the left edge of that column and drag it left to widen it. The labels will appear when there is room for them. The reverse is also true. To get rid of the labels, make the column narrower and the labels will disappear when they won't fit anymore.

Everything on the dropdown menu for the workspace switcher can also be accessed via Window >> Workspace on the main menus. There are also a few relevant checkboxes on the Interface panel of Photoshop's Options dialog you might want to investigate. And if you really mess things up, there's a button labeled "Restore Default Workspaces" under Options >> Interface. If you ever delete a built-in workspace or save changes to it you regret, this can save the day.

My default workspace is saved simply as "Earthbound Light" and is basically the "Photography" workspace with a few tweaks. I also created one with a very simple, narrow palette dock with just icons for use on 1024 x 768 displays when doing a presentation to a group with a projector. Given how easy it is to switch workspaces now there's no reason not to create them to fit your own needs. Feel free to experiment.

Date posted: July 31, 2011


Copyright © 2011 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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