Develop a Nondestructive Workflow in Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator

At New Horizons, we utilize graphic images everyday to help show our customers the best training they can receive. There are a number of different images associated with each individual course. One thing that never changes at New Horizons is… our client’s need to save time when working on projects. Enter Adobe’s workflow method of Nondestructive Editing. What is nondestructive editing you ask? It is the ability to work in Photoshop on a picture today and change your mind about how it looks next week WITHOUT starting over from the beginning.

Oh it’s happened to many people… they get just the right look they want with a photograph. The applied filter comes out beautifully, the text is in the perfect position on the bottom right corner, the product color has been saturated to give it a subliminal focus, and then finally the picture gets uploaded to the company website. However, a week later, the boss or client changes their mind—they do not like the filter and the text needs to be moved to the top left. No problem, right? Well… not exactly… if all they kept was the JPEG file posted to the web, those simple changes would mean starting all over again.

Adopting a nondestructive workflow will alleviate hours of “start over time”. In fact, if you want to increase your efficiency in Photoshop or Illustrator, developing this workflow will make you faster and more productive.

Where Do You Begin?

In Photoshop the first thing I suggest doing is saving your file in a PSD format. The native Photoshop Document format allows the file to keep ALL of the fancy nondestructive editing features the program offers plus more. This applies even if you know you are going to take your finished picture to the web (on that note: ALWAYS keep your PSD file for future editing changes). Another workflow habit to have—if you are going to add anything new to the file, like a border or a color adjustment, always do it on a NEW layer! Now this actually isn’t anything revolutionary, but just doing those two things is a huge step towards being able to make quick edits anytime you want.

However, there is more… Adobe has actually worked hard building nondestructive editing features into their programs. Take how you apply Puppet Warp, a cool feature introduced in CS5. It allows you to manipulate a photograph, almost as if you were editing a vector object drawn in Illustrator (it feels like you are able to bend pixels). A nondestructive workflow to use when working with it would be: to first copy the part of the picture you want to change to it’s own layer (thankfully Photoshop is smart and gives you a new layer every time you paste). Next, turn the new layer into a Smart Object Layer. That’s the magic! You are now ready to apply puppet warp to the smart object layer. Tweak your mesh and voila!


This editing change would have been permanent as soon as you saved and closed the file. But now it can be altered or removed next week, next month. That goes for applying filters as well. If you turn the layer into a smart object, you can then apply not just one filter nondestructively, you can stack multiple Smart Filters and blend them anyway you want. Changing the stacking order of the Smart Filters actually changes the effect created. Naturally, because it is nondestructive—you can remove any of these edits anytime you want!


Illustrator also has nondestructive editing built into it’s Effects Menu. Anytime you apply an effect from that menu to an object, you have the ability through the Appearance Panel to change your mind later. This is where it gets interesting… when you apply one of Illustrator’s Photoshop Effects to a vector drawn object (in graphics terms this is called Rasterizing), the following week you can decide to change it back. By removing the effect, you are returning the pixeled object back to a solid shape drawn with Bezier paths. Now in the graphics world that’s crazy… the ability to switch between vector and raster by simply dragging the effect on the Appearance Panel to the trash or by turning off the appearance panel’s visibility eye.

Figuring out a workflow for how you are going to use Adobe products can be even more important than knowing what all the different tools can do. Start working non-destructively. it will save you time and frustration.


Debra Novara's love affair with design and the outdoors was truly realized when just two weeks after graduation she landed in Denver with nothing more than a backpack, her portfolio and a pair of skis. After 20+ years of designing for the Denver market (and skiing every resort) she returned to Michigan where she continues to work in the design industry as a member of the NHLS Marketing team. In addition to receiving awards for her design work, Debra has taught design at universities, served on multiple design panels and is recognized as one of the founding members of the AIGA-Denver Chapter.

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Debra Novara, Branding ManagerDebra Novara

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