The Filter Phenomenon

Photoshop filters and layer styles are something I have been putting a lot of thought into recently after browsing my graphic design forums for a while. We have a section where designers can post their work to be critiqued and we have a lot of young designers who are eager to learn so they post their work.

A common issue that comes up during critiques is the overuse of these Photoshop filters and layer styles. I think this is an extremely common phenomenon and I would go as far as saying that a majority of designers go through a period of using filters and layer styles a bit too much. I believe going through this phase has become a part of the natural process of becoming a more mature designer.

Now let me see if I can explain that…

Your style as a designer is the result of everything you have learned and absorbed from reading books, going to school, browsing the internet, seeing other designers work and so on.I believe designers stop using Photoshop filters and layer styles in an arbitrary manner once they begin to truly start absorbing what other more experienced designers are doing.


They stop using these effects just because they can and they start applying the effects in order to achieve a specific a goal or style. This phenomenon is very interesting to me and I have seen it happen with myself and many other designers.

As I look back at my work from the past few years I can almost pinpoint different stages I was in. This includes the above mentioned “filter” stage when I first started out as a designer and then as I became more involved and passionate about design at which point I began to break out of that stage and into other stages. Let me note that maturing as a designer is a never ending process and you will always be passing through different stages.

To be, or not to be removed, that is the question!

At first I thought Photoshop filters should be removed from the software, but now I realize they make for a pretty good test of maturity. Will the designer be able to mature and move past using these effects in an arbitrary manner or will they be forever stuck in the world of automatic swirls, drop shadows and bevels?What do you guys think of Photoshop filters and have you noticed yourself going through stages as you mature as a designer?

18 comments on “The Filter Phenomenon”

  1. rachel Reply

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with filters in their essence. Some of them are horrible yes, but if you use them in moderation and in layering and succession along with other manual techniques and really think through your design, they can help improve it. Why spend hundreds of dollars on a software if you don’t want it to help you get to certain levels more quickly then normal?

    That being said I remember in college learning how to use filters but then being told they were cheesy and bad and never to use them. For a long time I didn’t and then I sort of rediscovered them and learned how to use them “only when needed”…. it can improve your design, but it can also hurt it.

    I think you just have to be careful with them. But a cause to remove them from photoshop? That seems a bit extreme to me!

  2. JamieO Reply

    Just because you can, does not mean you should.

    When I see a design that has an excessive amount of layer styles or filters, particularily default setting drop shadow or bevel/emboss, I say the design is too “Photoshoppy”. Yet, as PSDTuts recent Gold Text Tutorial shows, layer styles done right can be a great easily replicatable way to design.

  3. Creadiv Reply

    I absolutely went through the photoshop filter stage of my design career. I am still very much a new designer having been doing it for only about a year, but it was part of the learning process for me. When I first started out everything I designed was with the filters.
    Now I have graduated up to using them in moderation when necessary, which is almost never.

    I think after the filter stage you will see alot of designers finally move toward using vector graphics and at least in my case learning how to combine them into photoshop to make some really great designs.

    This post was great. I completely understand what you are saying and agree. I know I went through the phase along with tons of other designers.

  4. Ryan Reply

    Simply put, PS filters have a time, place, and a use. If someone can tell you used one–then you used it wrong.

    It’s learning the how and when, and that there’s sometimes never a when, that pushes you towards being a better designer.

  5. austers Reply

    “a period of using filters and layer styles a bitch too much”. Should it not say bit instead of bitch?

    I had a filter phase when I began using Photoshop. It was an easy way to make effects whilst learning the program. However, I rarely use them now, only a couple are of some use.

  6. Gino Reply

    Austers – Haha thanks! Not sure how that got by me, bad typo! =)

    Creadiv – I think the vector graphics is notable too and also using fonts from free font sites.

    Every time a designer discovers something new it takes time and effort to learn how to effectively use the new found resource.

  7. Jacob Carter Reply

    I have to confess, I used to be addicted to filters.

    I have introduced several people to Photoshop and shown them around the layout, and I always neglect to mention filters. This is because they will either find them on their own or will want to play with them when I tell them what they are.

    Either way, almost every person that I have shown photoshop to has started out with making simple pictures and then adding 5-20 filters. I think you are right by saying that it is a process of maturing as a designer and I believe that it also goes along with coming more comfortable with the program.

    I do think that this stage of filter-madness is great for people starting out in photoshop because they learn quickly what filters can give them their desired effect.

  8. MC3 Reply

    I agree with RACHEL…for example look at Burt Monroy’s stuff…AWESOME work..GURU at “shop” and he still uses drop shadow …blur….bevel…noise…
    you just have to know when and where to use them…its also important to know how to use the tools corectly…for example “displace” awesome effects along with using channels correctly

    im sure you all have seen his tutorials. PIXELPERFECT on revision 3

  9. Sean McAuliffe Reply

    It’s an interesting point. I’ve always noticed it in After Effects work as well. And there are a lot more filters to get lost in at first!

    But to say they should be removed is probably taking it too far. Especially layer styles in PS, they’re indispensable really – especially the “copy and paste layer style” aspect. I think the trick is to realize they’re a tool – a starting point – or a kick start. But in the end, the concept and execution has to be your own.

  10. alyCe Reply

    I agree, but… it takes more to make a great design with filters than to make a great design without, but the easiest is of course making a crappy one with.

    About removing them, I think it’s important to think about that it’s not JUST graphic designers who use photoshop, but digital artists and photographers.

    About layer styles, I actually still enjoy the drop shadow (although misused by many, especially in logo- and web-design). It makes the process easier when you have to divide layers in a photoshop-piece rather than having to burn everything manually. But again, it all depends on the work, graphic design is not just one area.

  11. Carpenter Reply

    Yes, I use Photoshop filters. I think “mature designers” use filters such as Gaussian Blur and Sharpen Masks. These effects are commonly used in photography to clean up or enhance the look of a photo. Most filters in Photoshop can be defined as “destructive filters”. They are filters that destroy the photo rather than enhance it. There should be a check box that you must click that states “PROCEED WITH CAUTION!”

    Word of advice, think before you use filters. Always remember the term “overworked”.

  12. David Zobel Reply

    I have to say I think a lot about filters. I think of how to tell my students NOT to use them in a polite way.! Filters do have there place, but only when you are trying a desired effect, like making something really look like it is embossed, but not to BE COOL!

    I tell my students that when you use a lot of filters you are not original and you are using the program to figure out what to do and not coming up with a good original concept.

    Too many people go right to the computer without thinking of a good concept. Let photoshop be your tool not your brain.

    One last thing, I remember seeing a tutorial that shows you how to make duck tape with filter! really?? why not take a picture of duck tape, that name of the program is PHOTO shop, not Filtershop.

    Anything someone can do with a filter, I can match with a mask and a brush.


  13. David Reply

    Totally agree with Carpenter. There are filters that compliment your skills such as the Gaussian Blur, but then there are the filters like the… Uh… Lens Flare? The good old Lens Flare.. Many amateurs LOVE using it but forget that since there is only one sun, you only get one ‘dash’ of lens flare as opposed to 3,4 or 5 that I’ve seen in some designs. The lens flare itself is ugly even if used once.

    Filters>Render>Lens Flare> PROCEED WITH CAUTION?> i. Yes ii. No

  14. Evan Reply

    Hey that’s my picture! Next time, it would be excellent if you at least notified me or other flickr members when you use pictures from a photostream. But I’m honored, and thank you for at least linking it back to my account!

  15. Estherc Reply

    I don’t see what’s wrong with Filters per se. I understand that the Artistic filters are overkill and I rarely use them unless I NEED that specific effect but I think that there are quite a few filters that are part of my regular routine because they’re useful. Gaussian Blur, Add Noise, Sharpen Marks, High Pass, & sometimes Rendered Clouds, and Pixelates.
    I use them like any other tool, as one of many steps to making my final design. I layer up filters with brushes, duplicated layers, typography. I think that what you’re truly saying is that the stage where the designer stops thinking that clicking on the Filter menu will create a work of art for them and actually begins to understand that the filters are tools for art rather than machines to create art.
    But all in all, most filters are unnecessary and are just there for show to distract newbies from really being creative.

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