If you’ve ever worked in Photoshop, you know it’s a complex application. Its depth of features and functionality make it extremely powerful. But they also make it tough to master.

That being said, I thought I was getting to know Photoshop pretty well. As it turns out, I knew less than I thought. Just in the past few weeks, I’ve learned a ton of new tricks that are helping me work faster and make my Photoshop work about 10 times easier.

Here are just two cool, super-simple tips.

1. Use a Smart Object to embed a PSD in a PSD. I never really got what Smart Objects were or how to use them. But now that I know, I’m loving them. Smart Objects are like little containers you can use to hold an image or a vector graphic safely within a Photoshop file. If I want to edit that image, I just double-click on the Smart Object and transform it right there in a new window. Previously, I had to go back to the source file, edit the image, and then re-embed it in the PSD. Clunky.

This method has the added bonus of minimizing the number of layers you have to have in your working file. That keeps things cleaner and less confusing.

2. Use Shape Layers and the Direct Selection Tool. If you’ve ever struggled with controlling the “shape of a shape,” this is the tip for you. Instead of using the Transform Tool to manipulate shapes, try using Direct Selection.

First, make sure that you draw the shape as a Shape Layer. Or if you’re using the Pen tool, make sure it’s set as Shape Layer instead of Paths.

Then, you can use the Direct Selection tool to select individual anchor points and handles to fine-tune the shape however you want. Using this method gives significantly better control than using the Transform tool. It’s been a huge help with things like keeping rounded corners from getting distorted and keeping shapes proportional.

The bottom line? Don’t assume you know everything about the programs you use … even those you use every day. Pay attention to how other people use them. Be an avid reader of blogs and forums that discuss your app … and contribute to them as well. And don’t be too proud to take a tutorial or attend a seminar.

If you find it takes you a long time to do any task, that’s probably a clue that there’s an easier way to do it. Challenge yourself to find out. You’ll be one step closer to being a true Photoshop master.

At this time of year, lots of folks stress over choosing holiday gifts for their staff. Chocolates? Too generic. A gift certificate? Way too generic.

We’ve got a different concept. We’re giving our folks the gift of a stronger career.

In the past few months, we’ve invited some of our key staff to attend professional development sessions focused on interactive design and development.

In November, two of us attended the Future of Web Design conference in New York. This was an amazing opportunity to meet thought leaders in our field and explore developing technologies and trends – everything from code management and CSS3 to mobile UX and HTML5.

And in November, two more of us attended the WebVisions Web Usability Conference in Atlanta. Again, we got to socialize and share with the developers who are creating the cutting edge in UX. A huge focus of the conference was on responsive design, a paradigm that we’ve already brought back to Atomic and are applying to our work.

Spending time and money on this kind of training is valuable in so many ways. Not only does it teach us how to implement specific new technologies, it helps us think about problems differently. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and keep solving the same challenge in the same way. Being exposed to so many new ideas has helped everyone on our team break out of our creative patterns and come up with new solutions for our clients.

It’s also reinforced our commitment to each other – to building a team, together, that’s as strong as it can possibly be. Lots of people think that developers are closed-off computer nerds, but we know differently. Developers share a unique passion: to be awesome at what they do. And it’s a great feeling to know that we’re helping everyone at Atomic do that.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone.