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

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  • Updated 3 years ago
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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



 
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Corban Monger

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Posted 3 years ago

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Bruce Jamieson

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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...
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Cristen Gillespie

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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.
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Corban Monger

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I'd like to know about these "smart" properties that shape layers have. What makes shape layers more like "smart" objects now and less like the "dumb" objects?

Yes, you can set the thumbnail to the layer bounds, while helpful it's not a solution. Yes, you can increase the size of the thumbnail to decrease the ratio of icon to the thumbnail, but this, to me, is a bandaid that merely causes another problem with screen space. Big thumbnails means less horizontal space for text labels for layers, and more vertical space needed for each layer which turns into much more scrolling. Depending on the way they work, some people are willing to make those kinds of tradeoffs. I'm not.

I agree, I've always had issues with renaming layers. Accidentally opening the Layer Styles properties window when I meant to rename the layer drove me nuts for years. Photoshop should act similar to Mac OS X for file renaming: Select the file, hit return to rename, type to rename, hit return to confirm. I set up a custom hotkey for this (F13) to rename the selected layer. It's not perfect but it's way better than using the mouse or a stylus. This is why context sensitive functions should really be relegated to the keyboard or contextual menu. Especially in this case where the difference between getting Layer Styles and renaming the layer is about 5 pixels. That's extraordinary precision... even for the mouse.

I really don't like the phrase "you'll get used to it." because I never do. Sure, I adapt by adding extra steps or finding ways to hack together a solution, but every time I perform that same action, it irks me. Like, if car manufacturers decided to put in a feature which forced you to add the extra step of pumping the gas pedal to prime the engine every time you started your car. Sure, everyone would adapt and "get used to it" but it would make me grumpy every day I started my car, knowing that there was a better way to design it.

Maybe this new way of displaying Shape Layers is better, but it's not obvious to me. I would at least like the option of changing it back.
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Cristen Gillespie

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> Maybe this new way of displaying Shape Layers is better, but it's not obvious to me. I would at least like the option of changing it back.>

How do you envision them offering a choice? "Use Legacy Vector Shapes" would certainly mean not being able to use "live" features like rounding the corners of rectangles or adding dashed strokes that can be easily edited.  Assuming it was even worth their resources to allow for the legacy style—which would probably only  happen if a critical function was lost to an established workflow for many users. Have you lost a critical function that a small change in setup can't replace? I'm not asking if you want to make the change—we know you don't. But can you, or can you think of something irreplaceable? That would go farther convincing them they need to bring back a feature.

If you haven't done so, create a rectangle with the Shape tool, then look in the Properties panel at up at the Options bar to see what you might be able to do to the rectangle that is live—editable the way a smart filter is editable. It's still baby steps, but it's a start. I'm actually hoping they're following Illustrator's path to Live Shapes, which is far more advanced and has made drawing much easier. Well, Astute Graphics did that first, but Illustrator has added on to their own Live features with several new ways to create shapes. Do you want to be able to do that sort of thing with a CS5 style vector shape layer? I think it's far less likely they'll be able to incorporate the new features into the old.

> Sure, I adapt by adding extra steps or finding ways to hack together a solution, but every time I perform that same action, it irks me>

There you're preaching to the choir. I have a pet peeve against a change in the Layers panel. It helped some people who didn't want to learn a shortcut. It hinders me constantly. I know people who still haven't gotten over a change to the keyboard shortcuts for working with brushes, and that was clear back in v7 of PS, or something like. Heck, way back in PageMaker days, we had window shades instead of text frames. Unfortunately, InDesign was intended to woo over Quark users, so they instituted frames, which were clunky and restrictive. Over time, they've added so many useful features to frames I've finally almost forgiven them, or at least, I wouldn't want to go back to the old PM window shades.   '-}  The frames are a bit cluttered with functioning icons now, though, and there are complaints about it. Something to please many of us usually seems to mean something to displease many of us.

I hate to say 'get used to it.' I really do sympathize. I hate getting used to it, too, whatever "it" is at the moment. But I don't have anything else to offer apart from a potential benefit that hopefully makes adjusting a bit more palatable.
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Corban Monger

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How do you envision them offering a choice?
What I'm asking for isn't to discard some of the new features. They could still maintain the "live" features. The differentiation between live shapes and regular paths is only clear when you look at the properties panel. Otherwise they behave exactly the same in shape layers or vector masks for raster layers and group folders (i.e. copy and paste live shapes into a normal vector mask and they can still be adjusted in the properties panel). The difference is only in how the shape layers are displayed and how you interact with them in the layers panel. 

I like the live shapes features. It's a good addition. In fact I would love to see this implemented for the polygon tool as well. However, these new properties don't fundamentally change how to interact with the layers themselves, at least, not that I can see.

If they are so adamant about shape layers being displayed as a raster layer with a special icon by default, that's fine. Having the option to make it act more like it did before is all I would really need.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. We just need a checkbox option that would look like this:


Name it whatever you like, but you get the idea.

That would change only one thing in the Layers Panel: it would make Shape Layers change from looking like this:



To this:



Or maybe this:



And the vector masks would look and act exactly the same, no matter which layer type. Copy, move, whatever.

I'm actually hoping they're following Illustrator's path to Live Shapes, which is far more advanced and has made drawing much easier.
I would love to see some of the features Illustrator has in Photoshop. "Offset Path" is one of my most used tools in Illustrator. Unfortunately, Illustrator has been awful for me to use from a UI standpoint. The layers panel is like pulling teeth to operate. I do most of my vector work in Photoshop, then transfer paths back and forth to use features in illustrator that photoshop should have.

It would be neat to have some way of expanding all the paths/shapes applied to a layer (either as a vector mask or in a shape layer) into sub-layers of some kind. They are technically separate objects so they could be listed with a preview just like in Illustrator. That gets a little messy though since, as you pointed out, managing all these layers and nested groups can quickly turn into a nightmare.

Maybe they could do something similar to how raster masks, if you Alt-Click the mask thumbnail, you can edit them as a greyscale map. Maybe Alt-Click could bring up a list of all the shapes, or something to that effect?

Do you want to be able to do that sort of thing with a CS5 style vector shape layer? 

Sure. There isn't much difference functionally underneath that's changed from what I can see that makes it impossible to display shape layers like they did before. 

If you create a shape layer, and in the properties panel shift click the icon that looks like a vector mask thumbnail...



...you'll see in the layers panel that the shape layer has changed to display what looks like a fill layer with a vector mask applied (now disabled).



It seems to me it's still the same thing, it's just being displayed differently because... reasons?

Something to please many of us usually seems to mean something to displease many of us.
C'est la vie.
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Cristen Gillespie

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If the whole thing is cosmetic, what you're asking for might work. I have to wonder if it is—it certainly seems like there's more to it that could as easily break a connection as solve problems if they tinker with it—but only someone like Chris Cox could say if there's a lot more involved than just the display.
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Corban Monger

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What I'm asking for isn't entirely cosmetic, though. It's just the way the user interacts with Shape Layers on the Layers panel. 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 want it unhidden so I can interact with the layers without hitting Ctrl/Command in order to interact with the vector mask, and so I can see the thumbnail better without the square icon, and so I can see the color of the layer clearly without having to double click it to find out.

Does that seem too much to ask?
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Cristen Gillespie

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> 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.
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Corban Monger

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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.
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Cristen Gillespie

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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.
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Corban Monger

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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. 
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Bruce Jamieson

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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.
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Jaroslav Bereza

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+Me too for point 2.
(I am not sure with point 1. Not such big problem for me)
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Jaroslav Bereza

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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.