Graphic Design Tips: Prevent Headaches With Actions

Photo from death to stock photo.

Most graphic designers I know are very particular about their workspace setups and the way they use their software. A fairly recent addition to my workflow preferences is the use of actions in Adobe applications. In this post, I want to introduce new users to actions, the advantages they serve in your design workflow, and some of my favorite actions that I've created. 

What is an action?

Actions are available in most Adobe applications and allow you to record a series of choices that you can then assign to a keyboard shortcut for playback. If used wisely, they can save you a lot of time and headaches.

How to make an action

As a quick primer, this is how you create an action.

Open the Actions panel in your application of choice.

Click on the Create New Action button (looks just like the New Layer button from the Layers panel). Decide on what to name your action and assign a function key (e.i. F1-12) if you'd like to use it with a keyboard shortcut. When you're done, hit Record.

Recording will commence and everything you do in the application will be saved under your Action. Don't worry if you mess up, you can always delete or modify inputs later. When you're done, click the Stop button.

Now your Action should be saved and ready to use.

You should always be asking yourself if you could save energy by turning your current task into an action, regardless of complexity. Some of my most useful actions are very simple, as you’ll see below, but have saved me a lot of mental effort and time in the long run.

I will share four actions that I have used on a daily basis that have changed my software workflow.

This is the action I use more than any others. I don’t use layers in Illustrator (who would?) and make heavy use of the lock command. This simple two-step action can be used to simply lock everything other than your current selection so you don’t have to worry about it getting in the way. This is especially useful if you often make use of a Select > Same command where you have multiple instances of the same style/color etc.

Steps
1. Select > Inverse
2. Object > Lock

This action is also just as useful with Hide instead of lock.

When I'm working on presenting a lot of data, organizing a lot of small type and shapes isn't easy in Illustrator. This is another simple action that I use a lot to help keep things tidy by centering the text in the middle of it's surrounding shape.

Steps
1. Align Panel > Horizontal Align Center
2. Align Panel > Vertical Align Center

If your selection doesn't provide an axis for centering, make sure to select the background shape as the key object for alignment.

I got this brilliant command from animator Alex Grigg's tutorial on animating in Photoshop and it has become an essential part of my Photoshop workflow.

Anyone who has ever illustrated digitally knows how time-consuming it can be to flatten your colors. With this technique, you can use the Magic Wand Tool to select the area you want to fill and use the action to expand the selection by an amount of pixels and fill the foreground color on a new layer.

Steps
1. Select > Modify > Expand (the amount you expand is relative to the size of your document and line art thickness)
2. Create new layer below current layer (CMD/CTRL + Click on New Layer button)
3. Edit > Fill > Foreground Color

The expansion of your selection should let you fill the artwork inside of the stroke of the line art to prevent white edges from showing around your fill. Therefore, the amount that your action expands would change depending on your document size and relative stroke size on your drawing. Using this action, you can quickly fill in your shapes that can later be used to color your artwork.

Creating the illusion of depth can add an extra punch to your design, infographic or illustration. With the help of an isometric grid and a few actions you could make isometric art like the example on the right.

A technique that speeds up the process of making isometric art is to create flat designs and then scale, shear and rotate it in specific ways to make it fit on an isometric grid. Those exact parameters are listed in this table below:

Since making the flat art into pieces that would fit into an isometric grid involves multiple, identical steps and you would have to repeat it many times to create isometric art, you might as well make actions to do the job for you. For my workflow, I record three separate actions for the left, top, and right perspectives.


You can download the actions I wrote about in this blogpost here to use on your own projects.

If you have a unique action use-case you'd like to share, get in touch. I'm on Twitter.