Photoshop: Vector Mask Thumbnails and Shape Layers (UI/UX Problems and how to fix them)

  • 2
  • Problem
  • Updated 2 years ago
  • (Edited)


I recently installed Photoshop CC 2015. Coming from CS5, there's one UI change in particular that I find perplexing because it's such a step backwards for workflow and for usability.

In CS5, working with shape layers was basically the same as working with any other kind of layer with a vector mask. In CC, however, shape layers are now visually their own special 'thing' like smart objects. They have no indication of a vector mask and look like a raster layer with one small difference: a square icon in the corner of the thumbnail. 

This UI change brings up two issues:

1. Inconsistent User Experience

It's assumed by the user that a shape layer is nothing more than a fill layer with a vector mask. This was visually communicated in CS5 with the vector mask thumbnail next to a colored icon indicating the vector mask being applied to the fill layer (and the colored icon indicating the color of the shape). In order to move or copy the vector mask from one layer to another, it was consistent across all layer types to click and drag the mask thumbnail to move or use Opt/Alt with the click and drag to copy.

Now that this has changed, an extra key (Command/Ctrl) is required in order to move or copy the hidden vector mask. This makes the interaction confusing because there is no discernible reason why the user must interact with these layers differently when they are functionally the same. This makes the interaction inconsistent. 

Additionally, because shape layers function the same as other layers (i.e. with a vector mask) there's no discernible reason why there should also be a visual difference. Shape layers now look like raster layers but with one visual indicator that they are not: a small square icon in the corner of the thumbnail. This is visually inconsistent with how the layer functions.

The icon brings me to my next point.


2. Icons Cover Up Thumbnail Content

This is a problem that was also in CS5 with Smart Objects and was never addressed in subsequent versions of Photoshop. Icons that indicate special layer types cover up the thumbnail of the layer. In many cases it can cover a quarter or even a third of the thumbnail and for smaller, square layers, it covers the thumbnail completely.

These icons need to be placed outside the thumbnail or not at all. For Shape Layers in particular, separating the fill color for the shape and the shapes themselves gives more information when looking at a layer and allows the user to more consistently interact with layers.


Other Thoughts

One of the things about Vector Mask thumbnails that's useful is that they show all paths that are in the layer and how they construct the final output (add, subtract, etc). This new single thumbnail combines the output from the mask and the color information into a thumbnail that looks like a raster layer. This means small shapes don't show up so you can't tell what color it is or what paths contribute to the final shape.



This Shape Layer is blue. Can you tell? I can't.




TL;DR

The Problem: The way Shape Layers work in the layers panel currently is not as good as it used to be. The change after CS5 was not an improvement to the UI/UX.
The Solution: They should both visually look and work the same as they did in CS5. 

Please refer to these other topics that have similar threads of thought that are relevant to this topic:

https://feedback.photoshop.com/photoshop_family/topics/shape_layers_and_vector_masks_adobe_what_were...
https://feedback.photoshop.com/photoshop_family/topics/cant_see_what_these_layers_are_fill_with_soli...
https://feedback.photoshop.com/photoshop_family/topics/i-can-not-see-thumbnails-for-vector-layers-an...
https://feedback.photoshop.com/photoshop_family/topics/why_merge_shape_and_fill_thumbnails



 
Photo of Corban Monger

Corban Monger

  • 10 Posts
  • 6 Reply Likes

Posted 2 years ago

  • 2
Photo of Bruce Jamieson

Bruce Jamieson

  • 58 Posts
  • 11 Reply Likes
I'm with you, Corban! I've written a suggestion post myself about similar matters. https://feedback.photoshop.com/photoshop_family/topics/mask-and-path-behavior-changes-i-d-love-to-se...
Photo of Cristen Gillespie

Cristen Gillespie

  • 86 Posts
  • 16 Reply Likes
I guess I'm the odd one out on this. Shape layers now also have "smart" properties. The corner icon is an indication for me that Shape layers have special properties, and aren't simply image (pixel) layers with a vector mask. You have live rounded corners for some, and live strokes, including dashed.

The Layers panel has options for how the thumbs are displayed. Even if you prefer to work with the smallest thumbnail size, you can set an option to use the layer bounds to display the thumbnail instead of previewing the entire document. Tiny elements, used all the time by those of us who create composite images, are readily identifiable with that option enabled.

One of the biggest problems we were running into was layer clutter. It was becoming ridiculously difficult to access the context-sensitive menu, click in just the right blank area to avoid renaming inline, and to add more badges on the layer to indicate layer status, when most of our layers had thumb + mask(s). It can still get to be a bit much. I turn off all auto addition of layer masks in order to free up layer space whenever possible.

Any new interface takes some getting used to. Some interface features take more time than others.<G> But this is one I came to believe was the right choice for shape layers, especially since they're not all just image layers with a mask.  Of course, you can always work around it, but it wouldn't be terribly convenient. If you draw a shape as pixels, cmd-click to load the transparency, copy, make a work path, them cmd-click on the mask icon, you've got your CS5 shape layer, but without any of the special properties CC has incorporated into its Shape feature, with more, hopefully, to come.
Photo of Cristen Gillespie

Cristen Gillespie

  • 1054 Posts
  • 277 Reply Likes
> This includes cosmetic changes that are also functional changes, but these changes should be easy to include because the separation of the fill layer and vector mask is still there, it's just hidden.>

I just don't think that's quite the case. The live features are merely instructions that tell how the vector mask and pixels (strokes) should be constructed—or removed, and tell Photoshop what to display.  What we see is a temporary rendering of the object, not the real deal. Like Smart Objects get rendered for us as they will appear once the instructions are carried out (when printed or converted to another format), but the original hasn't been altered.

The original version of pixels and path contained no instructions. The path was manually editable, being a path, but it wasn't "live" the way AI's features are live. If you turn off the visibility of the mask, you see the mask path as it would be were you to render it, but you won't see the stroke anywhere, and if you did turn the shape into a vector mask, you'd have a simple path again unless they can somehow make the mask itself "live."

So again, unless someone like Chris Cox can tell me this is really an easy fix, I can only see potential for complications if you want to keep the "live" features intact. If you want to convert it to a simple fill layer with vector mask, you can do that with an action, or they could do that for you with a Preference that linked to code that effectively "vectorized" the layer, though I don't think they'll put that at the top of their list.
Photo of Corban Monger

Corban Monger

  • 10 Posts
  • 6 Reply Likes
I think I'm being misunderstood.

The properties and instructions for strokes along a path have nothing to do with how the layer is being displayed and interacted with in the layers panel. So I'm confused as to what you are referring to.

I don't mean for the "live" shapes to go away or act like regular paths. I mean only the interaction of the user in the layer panel. Just the layer panel. Not in the viewport.

Maybe I should have defined my terms.

Cosmetic change: How it looks in the layer panel.
Functional change: How the user interacts with the icons and thumbnails in the layer panel.

Am I being more clear?

So again, unless someone like Chris Cox can tell me this is really an easy fix, I can only see potential for complications if you want to keep the "live" features intact.
I don't see any complications. Especially since if you disable the "vector mask" for a shape layer, it looks exactly as it did in CS5. Is displaying it this way breaking any of the live features? I don't think so. It's already working half the time, so why can't it be switched to happen when the vector mask is enabled too? Seems reasonable to me. Unless every time you disable the vector mask like that it's literally changing the object type to a fill layer with a disabled vector mask. But my theory is it's already a fill layer. It's just not being displayed as such 100% of the time.
Photo of Cristen Gillespie

Cristen Gillespie

  • 1054 Posts
  • 277 Reply Likes
The way you're seeing it may be right. It's beyond my knowledge of what's under the hood. Certainly seems fair to me to ask for a change in behavior or a clarification as to why it isn't likely or possible.
Photo of Corban Monger

Corban Monger

  • 10 Posts
  • 6 Reply Likes
I could be wrong. I'm hoping this is really a simple thing. 

Unless they plan on fundamentally altering how everything works under the hood at a later point, and this is just a way of getting everyone used to the new paradigm. Then there's no hope for me. 
Photo of Bruce Jamieson

Bruce Jamieson

  • 58 Posts
  • 11 Reply Likes
There is one function that is missing from how paths are linked to layers, one that I have dearly missed since cs5. Once a path is linked to a Color Fill layer, for example,  I can no longer hold down [option] and click/drag that path to another layer. I also cannot delete the path without deleting the entire layer. So simple, and yet I can still do this with paths linked to other kinds of layers and folders. Having the path represented consistently in the Layers palette would be very helpful.
Photo of Jaroslav Bereza

Jaroslav Bereza

  • 763 Posts
  • 150 Reply Likes
+Me too for point 2.
(I am not sure with point 1. Not such big problem for me)
Photo of Jaroslav Bereza

Jaroslav Bereza

  • 763 Posts
  • 150 Reply Likes
Another inconsistencies: chessboard has limited dimensions. It's only under icon, not in whole thumbnail. Btw I would like more bright chessboard.
 

Next inconsistencies in timeline panel


Both thumbnails are bad. In top thumbnail I can't see how it looks like and in bottom i can't see layer type.