Dear Adobe Photoshop,
You have given me so much over the past 13 years. We've designed magazine covers and websites together, we've retouched photos, cobbled together comps, made billboards and banner ads, mocked up renders and in the end, built a pretty great career. I've made my livelihood off of our partnership. What can I say? We've done great things together.
I was 18 years old the first time I opened Adobe software, years before Cloud or Suite. From the moment I first began learning the tools in my Digital Design class at Parsons, I was entranced. All of my other classes relied heavily on steady hands in manipulating analog tools: paint, pencils, palette brush, charcoal, wire, plastic, cardboard, pastels, matte knife, even wood working tools like saws and drills. While I certainly value the classical art education I gained, my biggest short comings have always been drawing straight lines and executing perfect craftsmanship with these kinds of tools. But with Adobe software, I had the sense of control that I could finally make something absolutely perfect. It was for this reason that I switched majors from Fashion Design to Communication Design. I guess figured I could master Bézier points faster than an overlock stitch.
In the years since undergrad, my mastery of creative software has gone from novice to savant. InDesign became my right hand, Photoshop my left. I dreamt in layers and masks.
Dear Adobe Photoshop,
It's not me, its you. While I appreciate that you're the only tool capable of handling complex image manipulation, I had to leave all of your complexity and feature explosion behind. While I see great potential in Adobe XD as a tool for building both UI and flows, it's simply become too unwieldy to use you for UI. While you might be the standard bearer for pixel perfect UI right now, but I sense that may not last long.
You see, over the past two months I've been working on a research project with Dr. Brad Myers at Carnegie Mellon working on a project for creative software. The goal is to fix many of the current issues with layers being used as a hack work around to continually edit documents and allow for creative exploration of alternatives. In our work this is possible by being able to edit the past. Now conceptually, I was initially attracted to the idea of being able to change the past; sometimes when I work too long I think I can hit command + Z for something I just said/did/dropped on my foot. But as a designer, the chance to do academic research for a paper and contribute to the design of academic prototype software seemed like a really fun challenge.
But let's go back to the issue of layers. In the past several years, each subsequent release of Adobe Photoshop, the use of layers has become increasingly complicated: masks and channels have drastically been redesigned, smart objects were introduced, followed by adjustment layers and smart blurs, and this feature rich software became a bloated software monster. Feature explosion happened and everyone lost their minds. When and where this point exactly was depends on which designer you ask. Some say it was between CS2 and CS3, others say the move to the Cloud, yet others contest it was a prior version. The reason I know every designer has a different perspective on this is because I've asked.
In the process this project I designed a usability research plan involving interviews with expert designers, conducted participatory design sessions, and generated and evaluated storyboards through speed dating. While I won't go into the details of our still in progress work in this post, I was blown away by the realization that a tool I relied so heavily on for so many years as a part of my livelihood had slowly been driving designers crazy, consciously or unconsciously. I hadn't really introspected all that much about my process or frustrations with creative software, and neither had many of the designers I spoke with. But through this process, I learned a lot about an area of ethnographic research very close to my heart.
- Layers are a mess. That is to say, the over reliance on layers as a means for continuous editing, especially for photos and art, has created layer explosion: sometimes designers are forced to maintain 100+ layers or more in a single document. This means designers must save, manage, label and organize layers in order to accomplish their work, which becomes an enormous secondary task in and of itself.
- Nothing is findable. A near universal issue with designers is finding previous work, especially if exact file name can’t be recalled. The issue here is that not much of the meta data within the document is surfaced searchable through finder like it would be for a word document. For instance, say I can’t remember which version of a file I’m looking for, but I remember the name of a layer or group within it, or the color palette associated with it, or a description of a photo embedded within it.
- The volume of tools presented is overwhelming. Upon first opening Photoshop, a user is brought to a default view that includes a toolbar, multiple windows, and a menu bar, all heavily laden with icons. While I understand the internationalization issues associated with labeling every tool, and there are a lot of helpful tool tips, the fact remains there are SO many features buried in multiple menus and tool bars that finding the intended tool is extremely difficult.
- Limited memory creates problems. Designers are acutely aware of the limited number of items to appear in the history palette, some have even adjusted to trying to take fewer actions in order to take up less slots in the history palette. Of course, the length of history can be adjusted, but the process of doing so is so convoluted that few actually use the feature. Having to bend to the system by changing process so drastically, for example trying to make one big brush stroke instead of several smaller ones, greatly inhibits the work of designers and artists.
- Novice designers would rather stick with Sketch. While Photoshop became the de-facto tool for pixel perfect UI simply because it operated on a pixels basis, unlike Illustrator or InDesign, designers in school are learning Sketch first and find it to be much more approachable. While Photoshop is still the tool of choice for heavy photo manipulation, that’s only because a challenger has yet to emerge.
- Google Docs has lessons to teach. The more senior you become as a designer, the less and less you will be involved in the day to day production work with creative software. Creative Directors, professors, and design leaders often spend more time thinking, planning, pitching, and working on strategy and tend to spend most of their time using tools like Google Docs over creative software. This means features like automatic save, viewing edit history, and recovery in case of crash is the expectation, not the exception.
Part of the reason I had neglected to fully reflect on the many usability issues within Photoshop, and indeed many Adobe products, is that I became so skilled with the software as it is that I fought through all the issues. Sure, there were problems I noticed with each new release, and some downright drove me nuts (seriously - why can't the shortcuts be the same across programs people!?) but most professionals don't automatically think through and question each step of their process once they become used to the way of getting work done. Still, I see so much potential to simplify, hide, and remove features and tools, as well as help designers to find and return to their work by being able to use recognition of previews over current reliance on route memory recall. I love the power of Photoshop, but with all that great power comes great responsibility — this rings as true with Spiderman movies as it does with software. Do good Adobe, and call me.