is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Last week I published a post titled “The State of Design Tools: An Unscientific Survey” that summarized some of the trends I saw on a mini-tour of five design teams here in New York City (plus one public event). It generated a lot of interesting comments, both about the trends and tools I mentioned and the ones that I didn’t. Here are a selection of them, anonymized in the interests of those who wrote in.
On the topic of Sketch adoption, which I said was lower than expected, one reader wrote about his experiences in the startup world:
I’m always interested in how software adoption (and habits more broadly) drastically differ from region to region. In this case, Sketch’s significant traction in Boulder, Colorado stands in stark contrast to your findings. I would say most—if not nearly all—designers use it here. I moved to Boulder fifteen months ago (former New Yorker) and took my company through Techstars. In that program, every team that had in-house design used Sketch, and all of those designers encouraged me to jump ship from Adobe. So far the switch has been a good decision…Obviously, like with everything else, I scream at the screen from time to time!
Now we’re based out of a large, tech-focused co-working space and when you walk around all you see open is Sketch. After moving to Boulder, I can’t remember the last time I saw a designer working in Photoshop.
I don’t doubt that lots of early stage startups use Sketch as their primary tool these days. But I’m less convinced that when you look in aggregate at design teams of many different types that you would see similar results. All the same, one reader from a well-known tech giant wrote:
I work for [a very large tech company] and Sketch use amongst designers here is rampant. I would say most of the 800+ person design community here now uses Sketch as their default (and only) design tool.
On the topic of prototyping, that reader also said:
You’re right, however, that prototyping tools are still all over the map. I’m seeing the most enthusiasm here for Tumult Hype, which is not on your list.
What Neonto Studio does is superficially quite similar to the app prototyping tools you mention (Pixate, etc). But the major difference is that Neonto generates real, useful code for iOS and Android. You can export a whole App Store-ready app, or hand the code over to a developer for further work. There’s no cross-platform runtime, framework or HTML5 involved—the output is ‘real iOS’ and ‘real Android’ from visual blueprints.
That looks fantastic; I’ve added it to my list of tools to try. Back to interface design, one reader wrote effusively about Affinity Designer:
It’s early days but the app has already proved its sophistication and usability in the features already rolled out and it has enormous momentum behind it. The team is steadily delivering on all their promises, with multiple artboards and a large canvas coming soon—at which point it will really start to take its place as the natural heir to that mighty app treated so scornfully by Adobe: Freehand. Adobe really should be afraid; Affinity is an app developed by a team with a real passion to excite designers. It has solid roots in Freehand’s stellar usability but is coded from the ground up as a thoroughly modern app that can deliver fully for different media. On top of this, Affinity’s masterstroke is to establish a common file format across its illustration (Designer), image editing, and layout apps, while maintaining pathways to Adobe products from Illustrator through to Photoshop to yes…Freehand. No I don’t work for Affinity, I’m just a very, very grateful designer who has waited something like a decade (since the last Freehand release) for this. Like Rip Van Winkle, the vector space is just awaking to a very new world.
There are still Freehand diehards out there, apparently. Similarly, I received one or two comments from folks who are still using Fireworks and who lament Adobe’s decision not to continue to evolve that.
Also in the category of “Adobe-related Surprises” is InDesign. We did hear about InDesign use for UX work during our mini-tour, actually, which I probably should have mentioned in my original post. But readers seem to be pushing its limits further than I would have guessed possible:
I’m curious about the absence of InDesign in your list. Can I assume there weren’t many print designers involved in the survey? In my previous job we worked solely on native app development and InDesign was actually a well suited tool, primarily due to its excellent exporting options. Plus we could use the DPS tools for high-fidelity prototyping.
Another reader went into much greater detail about how integral InDesign is the work that he does:
I started using InDesign extensively a few years back when freelancing. I was doing print and web design and I could just use the same tool for everything. Seeing as I was no longer doing any Flash websites but more and more text-heavy websites and apps, working with InDesign felt much more natural. It just made sense.
When I see discussions around our tools, I often think to myself that we don’t face these problems, InDesign covers all our needs. Here are a few reasons on why I love InDesign:
Grids. No need to rely on layers or third party plugins, the grid tools are just there Vector based No need to explain. And it’s easy to export at any given resolution.
Masters. This is super efficient. We usually work on a master and then create the different states on pages. If we need to change a text or move an element, we just have to do it once and it automaticaly appears on all pages. Using masters and page, we don’t rely on the layers which to my mind it much simpler. We don’t have to hide/show layers to show specific states.
Linked files. This is like masters of masters. We use them for components we use everywhere, like the navigation bar. And since you can select layers when you place a doc in another document, it gives a lot of possibilities. For instance, our app uses different colors depending on the users. When we include the navigation we can just select the right color layer, this way we have one document that fits all our needs. And if we change an icon in the navigation file, the document it’s included in will get updated next time we open it.
Export. Super easy to export to a wide range of formats, no need for layer comps. And the Package feature permits to create a folder that includes all the linked images and fonts so we can pass our files along easily.
Responsive. Thanks to the alternate layouts, we can work on all sizes, in one document and it’s neatly organised.
Crash recovery. Even though it’s quite stable it does crash sometimes. But the files always reopen and we never lose work.
Styles. Styles really are my favorite feature. It’s incredibly powerful and when working within a small team it does really speed the process. We have created object styles for every component we use in our app and the logic feels quite the same as HTML. We create an object to which we apply classes. We can have padding, margins, apply a paragraph style to an object style,etc. And it cascades, since a style can be based on a parent style.
Styles synchronization. Through the years we found a few tricks to answer our needs. One of them was to have an always up-to-date style guide. We use an InDesign Book in which we have our style guide and templates documents. If we edit a style in a new document, we add it to the book, and sync the styles. This way, our style guide and templates always have the latest styles. When we start working on a new page, we open the Book and we are good to go, the document already includes all the styles and swatches.
Cross platform. We now have a team spread across Europe doing both print and web, on Mac and Windows, it’s just simpler to have everybody use the same software.
A couple years back we even used the Digital Publishing Suite to prototype (we use InVision now). It really permits us to industrialize our process, be more efficient and spend time on the right questions.
That particular message stunned me. I’m not sure I would recommend anyone adopt InDesign as their primary interface tool, but if it works for you, I won’t argue.
If you have similar comments, please send them to me via the form at the bottom of this post—I’m very interested in what people are using out there and why. To echo what I’ve been saying over and over: we have the great fortune of living in very interesting times for designers’ tools; I fully intend to savor this moment.+