It’s hard to find a designer that is satisfied. As designers, we rely on our deep dissatisfaction with the world around us to keep moving forward. We create, hoping that every day, we’ve made the world a little better than how we found it. Unfortunately, the tools that we must use are blunt, made for different people in different eras. Think Photoshop or Keynote: those were not imagined as tools for screen designers. Surely, we can use these tools, and we do, but they don’t help us shape the future as efficiently as they could.
Whether it’s the behemoth Photoshop or fan favorite Sketch, when it comes to tools, designers focus heavily on the canvas and how efficiently it can be manipulated. We focus so little on how our canvases interact and move—mostly because we don’t have the means to. We’ve become content with drawing dead fish, even though it’s more important than ever to draw things that are alive.
The crafty designer can get around this by utilizing tools like Quartz Composer or After Effects. These tools are better at interaction and motion respectively, but are terribly inefficient and overwhelming for that kind of work. It could take weeks to learn enough to make something primitive. These tools are highly specialized for other uses, so the outcome rarely warrants the time invested.
Is the solution to design in code? Not quite. Knowing how to code has many benefits, but to design and code at the same time means you’re constantly switch between lateral thinking and critical thinking modes. That switch is notoriously difficult to pull off. Spending too much time thinking critically inhibits one’s ability to come up with creative solutions to problems. Designing in code is another inefficiency trap.
Engineers are empowered to create their own tools to best suit their workflow. Consequently, they have a wealth of mature tools to pick from and a healthy stream of new tools to help keep up with the ever-evolving landscape of their craft. As designers, small circles within our community are beginning to build their own tools, but not nearly enough.
American playwright Arthur Miller has said, “Man must shape his tools, lest his tools shape him.” We must shape more of our own tools if we wish to move forward. This is beginning to happen within small circles of the design community if you look close enough. Sketch users build plugins to add time-saving functionality and shortcuts. Python programming is becoming standard practice for type designers to aid their design process. This is progress, but we’re still not there yet.
- How can we think outside of the box to create tools that establish new baselines in design?
- How can we automate the manual parts of our process so that we can get exponentially more done in the same amount of time?
- How can we begin to actually create experiences on our own instead of drawing static pictures?
This is the kind of scrutiny that we must apply to our tools and processes if we want to have meaningful impact on the world around us. We have to push the envelope and build scalable solutions that we can share, discuss, and iterate on together if we want to push our craft forward. It’s not a matter of evolving the tools that we have—those were never ours to begin with. It’s a matter of revolutionizing the way that design is done, focusing on the process of doing good design, and visualizing the experiences we make holistically.
If our job is to shape the future, then we must shape our tools without compromise first.
Thanks to Samia Ahmed, Sha Hwang, and Ash Huang for their help editing many iterations of this article. The next article in this series will discuss modern design processes and how to think about building tools around that.