Work Smarter and Faster in Photoshop with Linked Smart Objects

by Tom Kenny (@tkenny)

Improving your design tools workflow can help you spend more time on actually creating the best possible solution for your designs. Thankfully Photoshop’s new linked smart objects feature can potentially save a good amount of time in the design process.

I like to learn Photoshop as much as possible so that it almost becomes “invisible”. By that I mean I’m not even really thinking about it while using it. It has become second nature, allowing me to concentrate more of my thoughts on the actual design work itself which is the important part. Saying that, it’s easy to get stuck in our ways of using tools like Photoshop but recently I decided to look into linked smart objects (released in Photoshop CC 14.2) to see what they can do to help me. Turns out, they’re very useful and it’s probably one of the biggest improvements to Photoshop for designers in years.

You may not be aware of this but the Photoshop design team are actively making improvements for designers and I’m pretty excited. After many years of seemingly not listening to designers, Adobe are now focused on making the software do more for us.

Smart Objects vs Linked Smart Objects

What’s the difference? You should be familiar with them but smart objects are best described by Adobe below:

Smart objects are layers that contain image data from raster or vector images, such as Photoshop or Illustrator files. Smart objects preserve an image’s source content with all its original characteristics, enabling you to perform nondestructive editing to the layer.

Linked smart objects are the same, except you can now reference a single file across multiple Photoshop files. Any changes made in the referenced or “linked” file, will now be reflected in all files it is included in. Now I’m going to show you how this is a huge time saver.

Inspect Element Redesign

The best way to demonstrate how linked smart objects work, is to show you how I used them in the redesign of Inspect Element.

Like most blogs, Inspect Element is built on the foundation of header, content area, sidebar and footer elements. There’s no point reinventing the wheel. The header, footer and, to some extent, the sidebar are going to remain the same across the site, so they are perfect cases for linked smart objects.

For Inspect Element, I started out with the article page design. This is where most people will enter the site, so it’s the most important to get right. I started experimenting until I had a direction I liked. At this point, I separated any “include” elements I’m happy with into their own files.

Let’s take the header as an example:


During the design phase, I knew the header would remain consistent across the whole site other than the homepage, so I created a separate file including only the header sections. No if I needed to make changes to the header, I only need to make it in one place and it will be updated across all pages. For example, if I want to change the “Inspect Element” text colour from the Inspect Element pink to a dark grey colour because it conflicts with the call-to-actions, all I have to do is change it in that one file. Previously I would have had to change it across multiple files to see how it looked on different pages.

Linked smart objects start to become even more useful when working with larger sites. Imagine having to make that change across 10+ page designs? You can’t present your client/boss with different header designs across multiple pages. Now you can change one file and have it updated across all pages. Huge time-saver!

How to Insert a Linked Smart Object

There are a couple of ways to add a linked smart object into your design:

1. Drag from Finder (OS X)

This is the method I use because I find it to be the quickest and the easiest. You can literally drag a file from the Finder (I’m not sure if you can do this on Windows) and drop it in your Photoshop document. What this will do is actually include the file as a smart object, which isn’t quite what you want, so before letting go of the file, make sure you are holding the option (alt) key so it will be placed as a linked smart object. You will see the cursor change to a double cursor icon when you hold down the option key while dropping the file into your Photoshop document.

Bonus tip: right click the document file name in Photoshop and click “Reveal in Finder” to open the Finder folder with containing that PSD file.


I keep all include files in the same folder, so it is the quickest way to get to them anytime I need them. I name them “[include] filename.psd” for fast visual access to them as I can immediately spot them at the top in a list of files.

2. Use the Menu

If you select File > Place Linked… from the menu, you’ll be able to choose the file you want, much like if you were simply opening a file from the menu.

Personally, I don’t find this as quick because of the extra thinking it requires to locate the file. It can be enough to disturb the flow of designing. That might seem odd but I like to optimise every part of my workflow.

Why is this useful?

I still like to work in Photoshop, creating “good enough” full page designs of multiple pages of a site and then either build the design myself or hand it off to a developer, depending on the project. If I’m building the site, I can make any tweaks I want in the code itself as it’s unlikely there will be any major changes at this point.

For Inspect Element, I designed the homepage and article page as full designs before I took them into the browser.

While I was designing the site, I hadn’t settled on a final logo. With the header being a linked smart object, this wasn’t even a problem. If the header wasn’t linked by a single file, I would have had to manually update each page the header appeared on. That’s the kind of dull, repetitive work which can disrupt my design “flow”.

I also decided to add the join (now called Subscribe) button in the top right of the menu, after I had completed most of the designs for multiple pages. Adding this in was as simple as changing one file. Bliss.

More Details about Linked Smart Objects

There are a few more things to know about working with linked smart objects:

Visual Difference Between Smart Object Types

The difference between an embedded smart object (standard) and the new linked smart object is illustrated below:


The linked smart object has a chain link icon. Anytime you place a linked item, using either methods above, make sure it has the chain link icon to confirm it’s a linked smart object.

Updating Files with Linked Smart Objects

Linked smart objects have their quirks when it comes to updating files containing them. For example, if you edit a linked smart object file and a PSD file that includes it isn’t open, you have to open that file and update the layer of the linked smart object manually.

You can tell which files need updating, as they will have a yellow warning icon in placed of the linked icon on the layer in the layers panel. To update manually, all you need to do is right-click the layer and select “Update Modified Content”:


Photoshop will recognise the change immediately in open files, however. All you need to do is simply save the file. Magic!

Open the Linked Smart Object File Directly from the Layers Panel

You can use the bonus tip I gave you above to find the linked file but if you already have one linked, you can simply double click the layer icon in the layers panel to open the file immediately. Make your changes, hit save and watch it automatically update in the file where you opened it up from.

Changing the Size of a Linked Smart Object can be Awkward

I’ve found changing the canvas size of the linked smart object can be a bit of a pain as it will move the location of the layer slightly in any file it is referenced in.

In the example of the Inspect Element header, if I changed the height of it for example, I would have to update all other files, moving the elements below anyway, so it is unlikely to cause any real problems but it is worth mentioning.

What happens when a Linked Smart Object gets Deleted or goes Missing

If you open a Photoshop file containing a linked smart object and the linked file has been deleted, you will see the following error message with the option to locate the file manually:


A red question mark will also appear over the layer in the layer panel. Double clicking it will give you the option to locate the file yourself.


If you move the linked smart object file to another location on your computer or rename the file (tested on Mac OS X), Photoshop recognises this and adjusts accordingly but only if the document referencing the linked file is not open. If it is open in Photoshop, it suddenly doesn’t recognise the linked file has been moved or renamed and you’ll see the same red question mark icon meaning you’ll have to point it in the right direction.

Linked Smart Objects from Illustrator Files

Yep, linked smart objects can also be Illustrator .ai files, just like old regular smart objects. It’s useful to spend a little time now and again experimenting with new features like this to discover what you can do to improve your workflow.

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by Tom Kenny

I’m a freelance web designer and front-end developer with over 7 years of experience designing for the web. Follow me on Twitter here.