The State of Design Tools: An Unscientific Survey

Art Supplies Illustration

Last week, along with a few of the folks from Adobe with whom I’ve been working on Adobe Comp CC, I visited a handful of design teams at companies here in New York City. The original inspiration for the meetings was to share some of the thinking that’s driving Adobe’s new creativity software (like Comp CC—really, you ought to check it out). But we also wanted to engage designers in conversations about the tools they’re using.

I’ve repeatedly stated my belief that this is a golden age for innovative new software and services geared towards the needs of working designers. What the Adobe team and I wanted to learn firsthand was how this change is being experienced by some of the best shops around town. Our mini-tour took us to a media company, a large design firm, a big tech company, and two boutique design studios. All of these teams do some flavor of high-end digital product design, both on the Web and for native apps. We also held a breakfast event at General Assembly that was open to the public and had a great turnout of designers.

When we sat down with these people we asked about what software they’re using and why, what’s working for them and what’s not, and what they’re excited about and what’s frustrating to them. Here’s a very unscientific overview of a few of the trends I noticed.

  • Bohemian Coding’s Sketch is emergent, but relatively few have switched. Based on the enormous buzz that the app has generated over the past few years, it was no surprise that awareness was very high among the designers we met. However, I didn’t expect to find that less than a quarter of them were actively using it. Most had tried it and had yet to fully switch or didn’t take to it all, and others felt that they “should” try it. That latter sentiment was particularly striking; for many, there was an air of inevitability about Sketch, as if they expect that at some undetermined point in the future they’d eventually switch.
  • Adobe Photoshop is still in wide use, though not without complaint. It’s not particularly shocking news that many people who have been using Photoshop for years and years have continued to do so. You could chalk this up to ingrained habits, but it’s also true that the tool is doing the job for them; most of these people also regard it as the most stable and versatile app for their needs. Of course, as the platforms they design for have changed, using Photoshop has entailed more and more friction, particularly around responsive design, and there was a real hunger for the application to take on new, product design-specific features and approaches.
  • Adobe Illustrator is surprisingly popular. It used to be rare, at least in my experience, to find digital designers who used Illustrator, but in one of the bigger surprise findings from our visits, we encountered a sizable contingent of folks for whom Illustrator is their tool of choice. This seems to be a function of the popularity of responsive design, for which Illustrator’s support for multiple artboards is well suited, and Retina screens, for which Illustrator’s vector-based tools are a natural fit.
  • Adobe After Effects is also unexpectedly popular as a tool for visualizing animation and transitions in the design of native apps. However, some people feel that it presents an unrealistic (i.e., not accurately representative of Web or native behavior) idea of how an animation will truly behave.
  • Prototyping is the Wild West. Every team we met with uses a variety of prototyping tools, whether Pixate, Marvel, InVision, Flinto or others. There seems to be little if any standardization; as new tools emerge and teams find that they offer new advantages, designers readily adopt them and set others aside. There’s a feeling that this space has lots of growth and evolution ahead of it.
  • Dropbox as design server. Nearly every team that we talked to shares their files and assets via Dropbox, sometimes alongside similar services like Box or Google Drive, which can be popular with other parts of their organization. It’s inarguable that Dropbox has made this aspect of workflows much easier than it used to be, but it also illustrates how primitive it remains. Team members traffic files amongst themselves via manual hacks like modifying file names (e.g., “layout-final-emily.psd”), moving files into select folders, or notifying one another via email or other messaging services. No version control software like Pixelapse or the late, lamented LayerVault has taken hold.
  • Speaking of messaging, Slack is quite popular and has been adopted by lots of teams. I’m a Slack user myself for both Wildcard and Kidpost, and I like it a lot, but I’m always mystified by people who claim that it’s life changing. That sentiment seems to be not uncommon, though, and there was lots of enthusiasm for it.

None of these revelations is exactly earth-shattering, but hearing them from real people where they work really opened my eyes to ideas and trends that I might have been aware of beforehand but didn’t pay much attention to. Chalk it up as another win for the power of getting out there and meeting real users. Overall, the visits confirmed to me that the landscape is significantly changing for how we designers do our work and what tools we use, but it seems clear that there’s room for a lot more innovation going forward.

If you have thoughts or comments on the tools and workflows your team is using that you’d like to share, please drop me a line via the form at the bottom of this post.

Update: Also see the roundup of reader reactions to these trends and suggestions for other tools in my follow-up post “Reader Comments on the State of Design Tools.”


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