How do you organize your photoshop files?

I prototype my designs in HTML as much as possible, but drawing in Photoshop is usually a precursor to digging into markup. I love looking through other designers’ photoshop files. Sometimes I’m overawed by the elaborate structures that people build with layer groups and precisely named layers. Sometimes I’m appalled that people can even function in photoshop: I’ve worked with amazing designers who don’t apparently name or group their photoshop layers at all.

Out of control photoshop layers

I don’t know how people live like this.

I’m in the middle – I organize my photoshop files with a flat system of layer groups. I prefer broad, shallow organizational structures over narrow and deep ones: scrolling through a list is easier for me than digging through a big tree of nested layer groups. I make one layer set per “page” of the application or site I’m designing, and only add sub-groups to those layers if absolutely┬ánecessary. I try to name all my layers, but in the heat of the moment I’ll often wind up with a ton of “layer name copy 56″ that I need to rename at the end of a project.

the Marty method for organizing photoshop files

My Photoshop files are all structured pretty much like this

A colleauge just sent me a file that has blown my mind a little – he follows a similar structure to me, but has added in visual cues for photoshop file workflow. He uses layer colors for this, a feature I’ve glanced at but never once used. It is simple and seems very effective: red layers for guides, yellow layers for in-progress, and green layers for “done”. ┬áThis seems like a very nice way to work – you can scan through the file and quickly see what you should work on without resorting to external checklists.

Color labels in photoshop

It seems so obvious! Does everyone do this?

So I ask you, designers of the world: how do you organize your photoshop files? Is there some better method that I’m not aware of?


Oh dear Marty,

Organizing a Photoshop file is just another method of making meta-work for yourself… until someone else has to look at your files. Then, hold on to your %#@ing hat!

Photoshop or any other visual program can server many purposes:
- a tool for production-ready artwork
- a tool for creating specifications
- a sketchbook.
- and yadda yadda

I’m gonna have to advocate for the sketchbook users here:

I play in vector and raster programs with both hands and only ever really use the layer palette for quickly grouping some set of layers I’m going to forget about in five minutes. In that regard, the application is just a sketchbook that makes much more accurate renderings of web technologies than pen and paper can efficiently.

With such great shortcuts as auto-select, shift-click, and alt-shift-drag, the organization and naming of layers really becomes more of a chore than the act of sketching should ever require. We don’t discretely label marks on paper as we are drawing, and similarly that act can seem unnatural as we zoom around a screen ideating an interface. Drawings can be made to communicate to yourself, to peers, and to everyone else.

My sketchbook rarely has to sell anyone else on an idea. Interfaces do that. So let’s cut through the meta-work and make something real :)

Nope, I don’t organize I just kinda click around until I find what I am looking for but color coding is a great idea. I think I may try that.

Josh, I love that you’ve turned the whole post on it’s head: it’s not ‘how’ you organize, but WHY do you organize your files? I dislike meta-work that isn’t actually productive or helpful in any ways. Project management systems are choked with this kind of meta work, and I always drag my feet and groan whenever I have to “add a story” or “update my status” into the project system.
I think that some forms of meta-work are useful, though, even if they aren’t part of the final product. I use photoshop in a very different way than I use paper and pencil sketching. One of the main ways I use it is to copy sketches, modify and evolve them in order to compare alternates. My method of organizing files is optimized around this — it’s super fast for me to abandon one approach and try out another by duplicating a layer group and then compare it against the original. This type of sketching / exploration is much harder to do w/ paper and pencil where each sketch is totally different from the last; any parts you want to include from previous sketches you need to manually redraw.
I grant you that there is a huge danger of focusing on the tools rather than the outcomes – too much time spent grouping / organizing work is really work avoidance. I think the best amount of meta work is that which improves the quality of your work and no more — this probably varies wildly from person to person. Some designers I’ve worked with are obsessively clean in their working areas, keeping clean desks and immaculately organized shelves. Some look like they are Gollum’s personal assistant. I think it boils down to finding the right methods for you, and to keep your eyes on the prize: the final outcome, not the tools you use to get there.

I use a similar system to yours – one flat level of layer sets usually organized pretty late in the process once the particular design has started to gel. I am also an avid user of ALT+RightClick to select the top most visible layer.

How early do you prototype in HTML? Do you think that limits your solutions especially for mobile apps? I find jumping into html too early limits opportunities to stumble upon contrast and relationship between elements in the design.

Hy Marty, I’m like you. I name every layer and color them. This is not just “meta-work” if you have to share your files with other designers (and who doesn’t). Its just consideration for others :) or yourself in the future, when you need to find something.

It peeves me too when I receive a file with hundreds of layers, all unnamed, in no order, some off, some on etc. Its like directing someone to the garbage can and asking them to find that tiny important thing you need.

But all designers have their own methods (and madness) and I understand when its just not their thing. If they are a skilled designer, its just something you accept. If they are a noob, its not good form.