Indulging a Suite Tooth

I don’t mean to pick on Adobe, I really don’t. I admit, I have a fundamental disagreement with the insurrectionist strategy they’ve been pursuing with their Creative Suite applications; the company has essentially spent the decade so far leveraging those programs to carve out more than its fair share of space on my hard drive, and using the appropriated gigabytes to not so subtly transform the software into an unwanted back-door operating system of its very own. It’s immoderate behavior and frankly a pain in my butt.

Exceeds Expectations

On the other hand, I do have to hand it to Adobe when it comes to Creative Suite 3, which, after much delay, I finally purchased and installed on my Mac last month. It’s still bloated and excessive, but for the sort of suite that it is, this is the most cogent execution I’ve seen so far. These applications haven’t felt stable on the Mac platform for a long, long time, but now they do. And with Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, anyway, there’s a newfound coherence to the user interfaces that, while still imperfect, feels like a major accomplishment (at least in the context of Adobe’s traditional inability to normalize similar interactions across these applications).

I even have to admit that my initial dismissal of Creative Suite 3’s new icon strategy, which discarded each applications’ abstract imagery in favor of two-letter abbreviations, works. I didn’t think that it could, and it’s still not perfect. But as it turns out, it’s much more intuitive to recognize an icon displaying “Id” as a pointer to InDesign than it is to make that same association with an impressionistic butterfly.

Pardon Their Dust

This newly acquired slickness aside, Creative Suite 3 is still very much a work in progress. There are parts of all of these applications that still feel like holdovers from legacy versions of the software, especially in Adobe Illustrator, where much of the typography still sports that hard-edged, bitmapped, Mac OS 9 look to it. The print dialogues, too, are disasters of preemption, substituting the native print and page setup interfaces with — you wouldn’t think it was possible — an even more inscrutable palette of counter-inuitive options. There’s just more than there needs to be throughout the suite, and not all of that excess is executed particularly well.

Okay, so Adobe will never embrace the smaller, lighter, faster approach to their software that I would like to see them adopt. Fine. But even the idea of Creative Suite 3 as a large-scale platform for many different kinds of creative functionality seems unfinished. It feels like something of a warm-up, to me.

There may be a new level of consistency between these applications, but it’s still stretching things a bit to say that the suite is consistent. They’re sold as a package and even engineered to work together, but they still act very much like independent products, with their own vaguely similar but idiosyncratic ways of tackling similar problems. This sometimes dramatic disparity strongly suggests a logical but unlikely conclusion: coalescing into a single, flexible application that eschews the arbitrary distinctions between pixels, vectors and pages and just allows users to focus on designing. It’ll never happen. Still, between here and there, it feels as if there remains some evolution to go, yet.

  1. You have to love the way grouped objects work though, double clicking to edit items in a group, makes things a lot easier. CS3 made some good strides towards bringing all the applications closer together, especially with Flash and Illustrator.

    I think part of the problem with the CS, at least from a friend that knows someone at Adobe, is each product has its own team (not sure how much these teams work together). Also a lot of times photoshop gets more focus since it is used by a larger audience and sells more copies.

  2. Well said, or rather well written. I totally agree. Although I haven’t had a real chance at diving into creative suite 3. I have touched the surface a bit and there are aspects i am enjoying, but at the same time I think they are trying to ahve the programs do more then they need to do.

    Also I see that many of their programs cross over to the point where I see the solution being ONE great program that does it all.

  3. Personally, I find that the icon scheme for CS3 works more because of the colors, than the letters. Once I got used to the blue Photoshop icon, I could recognize the documents from a mile away. Now I just see orange==illustrator, pink==indesign. But I totally agree that the scheme works. Thank goodness for that.

  4. The ONE ring philosophy is the very reason why painful bloat sets in. Fireworks did very nice job of using vector strengths for web work, but it couldn’t go to print. Perhaps someday there will be an application that will let you do vector graphics, pixel-based graphics, and page layout for a catalog all in the same app… but that’s not happening anytime soon.

    “Also I see that many of their programs cross over to the point where I see the solution being ONE great program that does it all.”

    I would love that too, don’t get me wrong. But that is simply not feasible in the next few years. Wrapping all those functions into a single app as powerful as Illustrator or Photoshop or InDesign on their own, while still maintaining a reasonable level of usability — that’s a ways off in the future. It’ll happen someday, but not anytime soon.

  5. I was discussing consistency between Illustrator and Photoshop, I was bitching about the way you have to click on the layers in illustrator vs photoshop and the way the dialogues look like there from 1998.

    her answer was, “There has to be some differences between the two otherwise we wouldn’t need Photoshop and Illustrator.”

    Which got me thinking, how long before we start to see Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign converge into

  6. I miss Freehand. Well, sort of. But it was *fast* and accurate. Like the other Macromedia product that is going the way of the dodo, Fireworks…

  7. The periodic table-esque icons work just fine for me, no qualms there. Adobe Updater, I hate you, though.

    My only problem, and I’ll admit it’s very much my own problem, was that I bought a student license of CS3 Design Premium (mega-discount, and comes sans Fireworks CS3), when really I absolutely needed Fireworks CS3. I ended-up shelling out for a separate install of FW CS3, which means I don’t have a tightly integrated pre-packaged installation and upgrade process.

    I’m still running Tiger and dreading the move to Leopard. Has anyone moved their CS3 from Tiger to Leopard?

  8. “These applications haven’t felt stable on the Mac platform for a long, long time”


    I use CS on OS X on a daily basis, and haven’t experienced any problems with stability.

  9. I’ve moved CS3 over to Leopard and it seems a bit faster – well, Photoshop does.

    However, sometimes it doesn’t get along with Spaces (it isn’t happy if you try to move it to a different Space) and occasionally the Options palette/window/bar stops working.

    Overall, it’s snappier than on Tiger, so I’d recommend moving over.

  10. They’re sold as a package and even engineered to work together, but they still act very much like independent products

    This is very evident in the spotty and inconsistent OpenType support (a font format Adobe co-developed!). And Photoshop still lacks a glyph palette, despite it being avilable in Ill and InD for years.

  11. Neil, couldn’t agree more—Adobe Updater is downright annoying and intrusive.

    I have to disagree with Mr. Vinh regarding print dialog boxes. I find them very intuitive and handy, especially compared to the print dialog boxes on competing products (QuarkXpress, I’m looking at you).

    Aside from that, I find this article to be spot-on: CS3 is leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor in terms of interface cohesiveness, stability, and feature improvement.

  12. I’m very eager to see what comes out from a.viary. The individual applications’ granularity, combined with the overall cohesiveness of the entire package, looks like it could be really good.

    And while I’m skeptical about the power/speed that a RIA could offer, it’s coming from the Worth1000 folks, and they’ve got pretty high standards. I’m also frustrated about the bloat of Adobe’s products, and am interested to see what Aviary’s services are like.

    Despite the glowiness of this comment, I have no affiliation with Aviary. I’m just excited to see what they come out with, and how it compares with Adobe.

  13. I work in CS at work (I know, I’ve been lobbying for new equipment for a while) and CS3 at home. While CS3 is a major improvement over the stability and usability of CS, it still lacks the cohesion that it could potentially have. Adobe still seems to have the “Program X is for X and X only” attitude towards their apps.

    Perhaps my biggest gripe is this: Why do I need a separate app for Acrobat functionality? Either Illustrator or InDesign could handle every single function that Acrobat performs (and already perform most of them), all from the existing UI. Yet, I still need Acrobat if I want to properly optimize a PDF or create a presentation PDF. And these are the only two reasons I can see in my own workflow for ever opening the program.

    InDesign is a great platform that already incorporates basic tools from Illustrator. Why not include more Illustrator functionality, and add some double-click photo retouching functionality a la iPhoto, Aperture, or Lightroom? I clearly see their reasons for separating the apps: they all started years ago with different companies and programmers; there are separate teams now for each app; customers want the ability to buy a la carte; etc. But a revolutionary change means ignoring the hurdles and showing the world something better without fear. And I think Adobe has a lot of fear.

  14. You make some very good points there Khoi. I like the cohesiveness of Apple’s Final Cut Studio applications better, but which is by no means perfect either. You say “it’ll never happen” but I think at some point it will have to. Especially with all of these multi-touch hardwares coming out, I hope we see a change in the way these apps are built and work together.

    Someone spoke of A.viary but wasn’t there another similar app specifically for Leopard that was trying a similar route more specifically for photos. The name escapes me now.

  15. I find it odd that Adobe is growing cold toward Apple, well maybe not. (anybody remember Premier?) As Steve Jobs has said many times….Apple is a software company. Rather than celebrating the defeat of Quark, maybe Adobe should focus on one of the main reasons they won that battle in the first place, customer service. Otherwise, it is not a wild assumption that there could be more professional level applications coming out of Cupertino in the near future.

  16. I don’t know, this is a very kind post regarding CS. As an interface designer, it could be said that their glossing over the interfaces to appear consistent has made it even harder to use the suite given their extreme lack of UI consistency in real function.

    The inconsistency list is long:

    OpenType (all type pallets really), symbols, linked file management, styles (character, object, and paragraph), key commands (cmd H to hide the app or edges?), stroke pallet, color/swatch management, effects/filters/etc are drastically different in each app but for the same result, handling of filling objects and strokes (gradients in strokes in ID but not Ai)Ё I have to stop, but these should be identical in function and interface across the Adobe CS.

    I know, working a lot with developers, that these things are wildly complex. But they continue adding features and changing legacy elements as they go, and not towards consistency and a single UI, but with more divergence and confusion.

    They haven’t even treated capitalization in the icons consistently.

    I would also assert that their rampant inconsistency has lead to more bloat. A modularly built suite would allow shared UI. That could lead to a single core app with context-sensitive management of interface. (think double click a rasterized object, get PS tools, within your multi-page document, with vector tools from ai).

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