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How Photoshop layers changed the world of graphic design forever

Arguably the single most important event in the development of Photoshop over the years has been the introduction of layers.  If anybody reading this article has used Photoshop, Flash or just about any other high-level image or animation package, they will acknowledge the key role it plays in separating out visual objects as if they were a picture painted onto separate layers of an onion or a thin, plastic transparency.

It’s hard to imagine a graphic design process that could exist without layers but once upon a time it did.   Most of us take this feature totally for granted and are largely unaware of it’s origins in the Photoshop development timeline or the fact that it was not actually invented by the makers of Photoshop in the first place.

Its insertion into Photoshop can be traced back to version 3.0 in 1995 when together with clone stamping and warping,  graphic designers  now had new super powers to construct engaging visual assets for advertising agencies and publishing houses.

Source: Gawker Assets

It would influence all rival software and animation packages that would come thereafter.   Photoshop itself had been the result of a magic alliance between two brothers, Thomas and John Knoll, one an Engineer doing his PhD on image processing at the University of Michigan, and the other working at Industrial Light & Magic founded by George Lucas.

The collaboration turned into something permanent, a commercial application called ImagePro that was eventually licensed to Adobe as Photoshop.

While there are many twists and turns to the Photoshop story, the make and break moment came in 1995 when they introduced a new feature called layers to their product.   This was akin to the “God Particle” in physics and made Photoshop the world champion of all image manipulation programs.   But, the idea was not theirs.

On this point, history seems to give credit to two different companies, depending on what you read.

According to Computer Arts,  an enterprise called HSC (later MetaCreations) had just brought out an image-editing app called Live Picture that featured the use of layers for the first time.  While rated excellent, the product was too expensive leaving Photoshop the opportunity to pounce and corner the market with layers inside a more affordable package.

Conversely, Wikipedia via Reign of Toads states the origins for layers lies with a company Fauve Matisse, which was originally purchased by Adobe.

In any event, while Photoshop would become bloated with features most us don’t really use (or have time to learn), layers remains the core piece of functionality that drives graphic design and in tandem influences the direction of front-end web design.

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