10 Ways Photoshop Actions Can Improve Your Workflow

Photoshop actions are an extremely easy way to automate all of the mundane daily tasks that have made their way into your design workflow. Whether you’re in web or print design, odds are there are a few repetitive tasks that you could let Photoshop handle for you.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to automating your workflow is simply coming up with ideas for where Photoshop actions could help you out. Today we’ll help you solve that problem by going over 10 ways Photoshop actions can improve your workflow.

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Wielding Actions as a Designer

Just about everyone that uses Photoshop knows about actions. They’re a simple and incredibly time effective way to get an amazing amount of work done in very little time.

The thing is, they’re largely underutilized in the design world. Photographers leverage actions heavily in their workflows but I’ve found that many designers barely ever even glance at the Actions palette.

I think one of the biggest hurdles is simply coming up with ideas for how to use actions effectively. As designers, our workflows are so organic that it’s hard to spot tasks that can be automated.

To help you out, I’ve compiled ten ways that I use custom actions in my workflow. Browse through the list and see if you can come up with a few timesavers as well.

How Do Actions Work?


For those new to actions, I’ll give you a quick primer. Basically, an action is a way to let Photoshop handle repetitive tasks for you. Think about all the repetition you go through on a daily basis setting up and saving files and you can probably see the benefit of speeding up these processes.

Creating actions is so simple that even complete Photoshop novices should be able to handle the task with ease. Basically, all you do is go to Window>Actions to open the palette. Then hit the New Action button at the bottom.

From here, the action will automatically start recording, which means Photoshop is officially watching everything you do. If you want this to stop, simply hit the stop button in the palette, then hit the record button to start again. Once you’re recording, simply perform the task that you want Photoshop to remember. Once you’re done, always remember to hit the stop button. I frequently forget this step and end up recording way more than I intend to! After you’re finished, simply hit the play button to perform the action at lightning speed.

Remember that Photoshop actions record every little thing you do. For instance, if you’re recording an action to save a file, it will record where you saved it, which may not be ideal if you want to create a generic saving action. We’ll see how to deal with these issues a little later, for now just remember to keep things as generic and widely applicable as possible for actions that you want to work across projects. Also keep in mind that temporary actions for a single project can be extremely helpful as well so feel free to create something very specific that you then trash as soon as you’re finished with it.

1. New Documents at the Right Size


This one seems insignificant, but you’d be surprised how much time you spend in that “New Document” dialog over the course of a month.

If you’re like me, you frequently work with images that are the same size. This is often true of bloggers who have a set content width for their site, for which they’re repeatedly creating imagery.

I recommend setting up a folder of actions called “NewDocs” and recording an action for each of the file sizes that you typically work with. For instance, Design Shack images are 510px wide, so I created an action that quickly churns out a new blank document with that’s 510px wide by 300px tall.

I have about six of these that are named according to their uses. More than quickly creating documents without dialogs, these actions help me remember all the preset sizes that I work with for different projects. This perhaps saves me the most time as I don’t have to go dig around to try and find out what the proper size is for a given task.

2. Automatic Grid Setup


Web designers who frequently work with grids are forced to set up a complicated array of guides on every project. This saves time in the long run by creating designs that are easy to lay out in CSS, but in the short run it can be a real pain in Photoshop, which is exactly why almost no one does it manually!

Most grid-based frameworks, such as 960.gs actually include an extras folder of some kind containing actions for helping you set up your documents. Be sure to grab and install these to save yourself some time.


If you really want control over how your grid is generated, check out GuideGuide. This isn’t technically an action, but it does automate the task and is in fact even better than an action. GuideGuide is a custom palette (now called panels) that lets you instantly spec out custom grids in any document. It’s free and super awesome so be sure to grab it.

3. Print Guides in a Jiffy


Web designers aren’t the only ones who need guides set up. In addition to designing on a grid, print designers use guides to help them set up trim, bleed and/or live areas on their documents.

My workflow for this is a little wonky, but it works. I wanted an action that would set up the right guides no matter what size my document was, so here’s what I did.

Step 1:
Create new action, start recording

Step 2:
2. Go to View>Guides>New Guide and create a new horizontal guide and a new vertical guide that match your bleed area size. So for an 1/8″ bleed, create guides at the .125″ mark. This takes care of the top left corner (repeat for trim and live area)

Step 3:
Rotate the document 180 degrees.

Step 4:
Repeat step 2 (this takes care of the other side)

Step 5:
Rotate the document 180 degrees and stop recording.

The problem here is a tricky one. If you set up guides on the left side of a document that’s 12″ wide and then use that action on a document that’s 15″ wide, your guides will be in the wrong place. I solved this with the steps above by rotating the document as I created guides in the top left corner. This gives you an action that creates guides all the way around the document no matter what the document size happens to be. It also rotates the document back to where it started so you can even perform this after you start working.

4. Lightning Fast Photo Editing


Photo editing is typically what people think of when they think about Photoshop actions, and for good reason. Many photographers perform the same steps over and over on hundreds of images and setting up actions saves them countless hours.

As a designer, you’re not off the hook for photo editing. It’s often the case that the resources that you have to work with aren’t quite up to par and could use a little fixing. Every designer should at least have a basic set of actions for editing photos.

To start, I recommend having actions for sharpening, resizing, boosting colors, fixing red eye and even a few for creating vintage effects, which can definitely be cool in a retro design. Last year I put together a huge roundup of 100 Photographer action sets for PhotoTuts, be sure to check it out and download a few sets to keep handy.

5. Saving Multiple Versions

Back when I was in print design, I was showing clients new projects and revisions multiple times every day. For the sake of being thorough, I would always provide multiple versions of every file: one high-res PDF for proofing and one low-res JPG for quick previews. Sometimes a given project would contain as many as fifteen different pieces, which meant that I could spend half my day resizing and saving out all these PDFs and JPGs!

As a solution, I set up actions that sped the process along. The action would flatten the file, save out a PDF, resize the image to something smaller (these were huge print files), save the JPG, then close my original layered document without saving the resizing and flattening changes.

Now, you can easily set up an action to flatten and resize your artwork for easy web viewing, but the saving part gets a little tricky.


Inserting Menu Items

Earlier I pointed out the problem of setting up saving actions: the actions record the saving location. This means if I record a save action for project one, then switch to project two, that action will save all my project two files back in project one.

To solve the problem, you first record all of the non-save actions, then stop the recording. From here, you click the little context menu in the upper right of the Actions palette and choose “Insert Menu Item.” Then choose the save options that you want (Save As, Save for Web, etc.) right from the menu.

This will cause the action to run the save command, but allows you to choose a custom save location each time the action is activated. Now, you might think this is only saving you a quick keyboard shortcut, but if you have a multiple step saving process like I did, having Photoshop speed you through the steps automatically saves loads of time.

6. Running Multiple Actions

An Action within an Action? It’s like Action Inception! It sounds crazy but this is yet another quick step that you can take to drastically speed up your process.

For instance, let’s say you took my advice above about building up a nice set of photo editing actions. You have ten or twenty actions but you’ve found three that you really like that you run on every single photo in addition to some of your own tweaks afterward. You can actually set up a single action to do it all, while keeping the original actions separate.

All you have to do is create a new action just like normal, then run the actions that you want and finish up with your custom tweaks. Photoshop is smart enough to insert references to other actions within an action, so now when you press a single button, multiple actions are performed. The time saving becomes exponential!

7. Dummy Content


Here’s a super handy one for working on wireframes and initial mockups. Try building a set of actions to insert common placeholder content, this will save you a time-consuming trip to the web.

To set up a dummy text generator, grab some lorem ipsum and copy it to your clipboard. Then record a new action and set up a new text box, pasting the lore ipsum inside. Now whenever you need some placeholder text, just run the action and Photoshop will create a new text box while remembering the text you inserted when you created the action.

The same process is useful for images. Try setting up a few actions to record some simple black vector boxes at preset sizes that you use often for images. Then when you need a placeholder for a 900px by 400px header image, just hit the action and Photoshop will draw one up for you.

8. Make It 3D

Here’s a quick and fun one that you’ll enjoy. Making 3D elements in Photoshop can be very time consuming, especially if you have an older version that doesn’t have all the fancy new 3D built-in features.

So let’s say you just want to take a shape layer or some text and apply a quick 3D effect that doesn’t suck, or perhaps you have some flat artwork that you want to quickly throw onto a box shape; actions to the rescue! Here are two that I like:

Magic 3D Photoshop Action


This handy action can handle shape layers, text and regular layers. In just a few clicks, it creates a really snazzy looking shiny 3D element from flat artwork.

There is plenty of opportunity for customization along the way as well so you can create objects with different perspectives, colors, depth, etc. It’s actually really impressive for a free action.

3D Box Generator


Like I mentioned above, this is an action that will convert flat artwork into a perfectly believable three dimensional software box.

Even if you’re not designing for a software company, this is quite useful. The software box is a common visual metaphor for all types of bundled products and services. It instantly communicates the idea of a product, which isn’t always easy when you’re dealing with virtual services.

9. Batch Processing


Here’s where Photoshop actions stop saving you seconds and start saving you hours. Any time you have a huge set of images that need to be resized, brightened, converted to black and white or any other repetitive task, Photoshop’s batch processing commands ensure that you don’t have to either do the work yourself or go off searching for some custom third party batch utility.

All you have to do is record an action containing all the various steps you need on a sample image. Then you go to File>Automate>Batch in the Photoshop menu. From here, the action you just made should automatically be selected, simply browse to the folder containing the images you want to work on and sit back and watch as Photoshop performs in seconds what normally takes you hours (some still bill their clients for hours).

There are plenty of additional options in this dialog for overriding saving commands and the like so be sure to have a look around.

10. Droplets


In addition to using the Photoshop batch processing technique in the previous tip, you can streamline things even further by creating a Photoshop droplet.

The process for setting this up is almost identical, only this time you go to File>Automate>Create Droplet. Even the dialog box looks almost exactly the same.

So what gives? What’s so special about a droplet? The answer is that this method is so incredibly efficient that you can batch process images right from your file browser. This saves you the hassle of setting up a batch processing workflow every single time you want to do something.

Simply select a bunch of images, drag them to the droplet icon that Photoshop created for you and BAM, you’re done. Just sit back and watch the magic. Droplets are so great that Photoshop legend Deke Mcclelland wrote a song about them.


Hopefully, this list has your brain on overdrive thinking up new ways to automate and speed up your workflow using Photoshop actions. It’s really a shame to ignore such a helpful feature that really does have the capability to make your work day a lot more bearable.

Leave a comment and share your ideas for Photoshop actions. What actions have you set up for work? How much time do they save you?