Adobe Tips & Tricks: Building an Optimal Workspace in Illustrator & Photoshop

In this series, Adobe Certified Instructor Bill Carberry shares some of his most helpful secrets for optimizing your workflow and creating different effects using the most common software for professional design work.

The most important lesson I teach in my Illustrator and Advanced Photoshop classes is how to create an efficient workspace—that is, the arrangement of panels such as Layers, Appearance, Adjustment Layers, Properties, etc. An optimal workspace stimulates and accelerates creativity.

If working in Illustrator or Photoshop were like driving a car, your rearview mirror would be the Control Panel at the top; the tools panel on the left would be your driver’s side mirror; and the panels on the right would be your passenger side mirror. Some panels are more important than others, depending on where you want to go and what you want to do when you get there. Just like driving, you need to keep your eyes on everything, or you may wind up in a ditch!

[Related: Adobe Tips & Tricks: Photoshop CC vs. Photoshop Elements]

I like to keep Layers, Artboards and Appearance on the left side so they are always visible. The Appearance and Layers panels are the most essential panels; think of them like your Phone and Messages apps. You can control all attributes of any selected object with the Appearance panel.

Notice that objects can have multiple fills, strokes, effects, etc. If you don’t keep your eye on what is selected in the Appearance panel, you’ll be forever frustrated with Illustrator. I also like to position Layers on the left in Photoshop, by itself, since some of the files I work on have so much going on that there’s a scrollbar.


Looks can be deceiving: Notice how the Appearance panel indicates the selection is simply a rectangle with multiple fills, strokes and a 3D effect applied. Click each swatch thumbnail to change the colors and click the 3D Extrude & Bevel effect to modify it.

It’s a good idea to frequently X-ray your artwork in Outline Mode using Command-Y on the Mac, or Ctrl-Y on Windows—the same shortcut since the ’80s. This is especially important if you’ve ever selected an object like the 3D box shown in the screenshot above and wondered why you can’t select each individual piece. You can use the Object > Expand Appearance command for that, but you might wind up with a really complex group of objects.


Complicated software: Notice how the Photoshop Properties panel controls Stroke & Fill, not the current Foreground/Background color at the bottom of the Tools panel, which in Illustrator is Stroke & Fill. Artboards appear in the Layers panel in Photoshop, along with Layer Styles (somewhat similar to Illustrator’s Appearance panel) instead of separate Illustrator Artboards & Appearance panels.

The Layers panel in Photoshop combines Artboards and Layer Styles, which are somewhat similar to the Appearance panel in Illustrator. Don’t confuse the Stroke & Fill at the bottom of the Tools panel in Illustrator with Foreground/Background Color in Photoshop, which looks identical. You can control Stroke & Fill in the Photoshop Properties panel. Of course, we constantly adjust the workspace to accommodate additional tasks, which is why I like to leave empty spaces in each “file cabinet drawer,” as you can see in the screenshots above.

A side effect of having panels on both sides of the screen is that it can get a bit claustrophobic, even on a 27-inch iMac. You can tap the Tab key to temporarily hide the side panels, and then move your mouse over the sides of the screen to make them appear again and disappear when you move away. Tap Tab again, and you’re back to normal. Whether you use it frequently or not, this Tab key behavior is especially important to understand. If you mistakenly tap the Tab key three times, you’ll be wondering where your panels went.

If you don’t like to have too many vertically stacked panels in your way, double-click the name of the panel to collapse or expand it. Some panels—Stroke, for example—behave like a three-way light switch: You may need to double-click three times to get back to normal.

Learn more Adobe tips and tricks in Bill Carberry’s online workshop, Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop Tips & Tricks, via HOW Design University.