Photoshop – How to preview designs in grayscale

When designing anything from icons to user interfaces, it is advisable to check your design in grayscale. This helps your design in multiple ways:

  • If your design works without any color, you have a solid foundation and color can add to the functionality that is already there.
  • Color information is less reliable to work for any person viewing your design than value (how light or dark a color is). Colors appear very different on different devices and the human perception of color can vary dramatically, therefore you should never rely on only using color to distinguish design elements.

Check your design, by stripping away the color information non-destructively. This is the easiest way to do it:

Grayscale layer

Photoshop - layer to preview in grayscale.
Photoshop – layer to preview in grayscale.
  1. Create a new empty layer and fill it with black (use your keyboard shortcuts, such as CTRL + Shift + N to create a new layer and CTRL + Backspace to fill it with the background color).
  2. Set the layer’s blending mode to Saturation.
  3. This now works like an adjustment layer, which you can keep at the top and turn off and on.

There are, of course, other ways to achieve the same effect, just be aware of the additional steps.

Hue/Saturation adjustment layer

Photoshop - Hue/Saturation adjustment layer set to 0% saturation.
Photoshop – Hue/Saturation adjustment layer set to zero saturation.
  1. Create a new Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and set Saturation to 0% in the Properties panel.
  2. Set the layer’s blending more to Saturation. (Important!)
  3. Same effect as the grayscale layer mentioned above.

Personally, I think this method has drawbacks:

  • The adjustment layer icon is not as recognizable as the plain black one from the grayscale layer.
  • You have to open the Properties window and adjust the saturation manually.
  • If you forget to set the layer’s blending mode, you will get “incorrect” grayscale:
Photoshop - Hue/Saturation layer with incorrect mode for grayscale preview.
Photoshop – Hue/Saturation layer with incorrect mode for grayscale preview.

You can see that the Normal blending mode leads to a different grayscale result. In fact, this mode is not neutral at all, so do not use it to check your design.

Black & White adjustment layer

This is not really an option for previewing a “true” grayscale version of your design, as it does not provide a neutral setting. This adjustment layer is meant for changing a black and white image. If you set the layer’s blending mode to Saturation, you get the same effect as with our grayscale layer, but why have all those useless sliders from the filter then?

Grayscale color mode

Photoshop - grayscale color mode.
Photoshop – grayscale color mode.

Switching the color mode for the entire document discards color information and certain adjustment layers and Smart Objects. You might not be able to switch back to color and besides, it performs a file format conversion, which is not what we want.

Happy grayscaling to you all!

Published by

Chris Yarbrough

Game Design student at Mediadesign Hochschule, Munich.

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