Thank you for everything, Adobe

I really want to move on

Darin Dimitroff

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Disclaimer: This is not a rant, nor one of the many articles dissing Adobe’s subscription model. I’m perfectly okay with it.

Why Adobe is one of the most important companies in my life

I started using Adobe products in middle school. At the time, I never thought I’d do anything remotely connected with design, I just liked messing around with computers. Like most kids, I didn’t know about the technical differences between designers, developers and probably IT support people, I just liked computers and did all sorts of random things while others were focused on gaming.

If you’re a designer in their 20s or 30s, my story is probably pretty similar to yours. I had no idea what I did was considered design and, frankly, I didn’t care. The first tools I used were pirated versions of Photoshop and Dreamweaver. I remember feeling completely intimidated by the endless grid of panels. It was a strange state of mind I can feel to this day if I try hard enough. A mix of fear of the unknown and utter excitement about all the possibilities. Like most curious people, the latter manages to prevail most of the time and that moves us forward.

At the time, I had no idea about the scale of Adobe, I didn’t even care who made the software. It was just me, Photoshop and sleepless hours of working on the ugliest shit you can imagine. The web was full of learning resources, I even bought some of Adobe’s official books. We get used to it when we get older, but learning new tools is probably one of the most exciting aspects of our jobs. It affects our ways of thinking and solving problems. Up until the last few years, Adobe had practically zero competition for most designers. I’ve tried Corel’s products and other alternatives, but nothing felt close to what Adobe had achieved, especially after I moved to a primarily vector workflow. Combined with endless learning resources, plugins, content packs and many more, Adobe defined whole generations of designers who might have otherwise taken a different career path.

It’s not you, it’s the others

Gradually, I formed a broader sense of the design/development landscape and, sometime in high school, started realizing I’m kind of a designer. Through the years, I’ve always thought being a designer is an art discipline and I can’t draw or create complex artwork. Joining design communities and, most importantly, Twitter, exposed me to the world of designing as an engineer, not an artist. I’m not using UI, UX, IX, UI/UX, (insert random letters) as I believe this pointless discussion should end.

If you can design one thing, you can design everything.”
Massimo Vignelli

I focused on visual branding and worked at a few advertising agencies. I still have a thing for it, but I’m spending most of my time doing what I truly love — interaction design. When I started designing interfaces and websites for a living, I switched from Photoshop to Illustrator because I had a reasonable experience with the tool from my print days. Nevertheless, I kept juggling between Photoshop and Illustrator. Most interface designers have stuck with Photoshop’s vector tools and never touched Illustrator. Thinking of it, I should have done the same. Long story short, it never felt right.

Photoshop 1.0.7's About screen

Photoshop started as a professional photo editing tool and has always felt like one. No matter how many designer focused features Adobe adds, the core workflows and logic feel distant and don’t reflect the way I think. I tried Fireworks, but it felt so wrong I went back to Illustrator. In the meantime, I started doing whatever I could in code. It felt closer to the final medium and much faster and easier. At the end of the day, I felt like interaction designers are the cuckoos of design. We use all kinds of tools to get things done, but none of them is specifically tailored to our needs.

Enter Sketch 2

The first time I tried Sketch, it didn’t have a tenth of the status it has nowadays. I’m generally open to trying new tools, even when I’m almost certain they won’t fit my workflow. I remember downloading a free trial of Sketch 2 and using it for an hour or two. I have a thing for native feeling and looking apps, I fell in love with the interface and how smooth and snappy it felt.

Unfortunately, it was lacking a serious portion of the features I need to get things done. In combination with the radically different behavior and completely new keyboard shortcuts, I was quick to decide Sketch is just another small and generally useless design app. I don’t remember launching it again during the trial period. Nobody I knew was using it, it had a limited amount of plugins and the name didn’t help me realize it was meant to be an interface design tool.

My sense of time is a mess, but, six months later, some Sketch stories started surfacing across the web. I had almost forgotten I’ve used it, but most of them came from people I trust, so I decided to give Sketch 2 another try. On top of that, I was working on a rather important mobile UI project and Sketch promised to be just the tool for that. This time I changed my mindset: I wasn’t going to think of it as an Illustrator replacement, but as an entirely new app with its own set of logic one has to get used to. The first few days were stressful, to say the least. I had never used design tools not made by Adobe for a prolonged period of time. Nevertheless, thank you, younger self, for sticking with Sketch despite the initial gripes. You rock.

Making the switch

Sketch 3

I was already pretty happy with whatever version of Sketch 2 I was using. Illustrator was still in my dock and I used it regularly for different things Sketch couldn’t do, mostly icons and complex bezier stuff. After version 3 was out, I started trying to deal with more and more of those tasks inside Sketch. I even did some simple illustrations (they are terrible and it’s not Sketch’s fault). What struck me was that, after some persuading, my partner Kalina (an illustrator, icon designer and Illustrator aficionado) tried Sketch and felt okay about it. She’s still using Illustrator for some tasks, especially print, but we’ve managed to move to almost entirely Sketch+Affinity Designer based workflows. When I have to work on .ai files, I prefer staying in Sketch for as long as possible, even when it makes things a bit harder.

Designers who use Sketch regularly should be familiar with the feeling of not willing to launch Photoshop/Illustrator. Every hour with Bohemian Coding’s creation made it harder for me to go back to Adobe products, but we couldn’t cut the cord so quickly. Sketch could be used as a multidisciplinary design tool, but it’s really tailored toward UI design. Laser focus is a part of what makes it great.

Affinity Designer

Just like Sketch, I tried Affinity Designer out of pure curiosity. Already using Pixelmator for most raster tasks, I was looking for an Illustrator replacement. Serif had been working on it for four years and their long history made me even more optimistic. The initial release had some problems and missing features, but it was a love at first sight. I had just used Illustrator on my Retina MacBook Pro and switching to Affinity Designer left me in awe. It just felt like a modern app, making use of the powerful hardware of my computer and making that HiDPI screen shine with crisp Retina assets. Pinch to zoom didn’t feel like a half-loaded GIF and, finally — native autosave.

I was willing to wait for the missing features and fixes because of the solid foundation. A few months later, Affinity Designer is an amazing piece of software we use in production, even with our legacy .ai and .psd files. In most cases, it’s much faster than Photoshop at opening PSDs, which still blows me away. It even won an Apple Design Award.

We’re testing Affinity Photo for raster work and we’re quite pleased. The app even shares a common file format with Designer, which makes working between apps a breeze. I’ve always wanted something like that in Creative Cloud. Affinity Photo might replace the strange mix of Photoshop and Pixelmator we use. Serif is also working on an InDesign competitor called Affinity Publisher. Not sure if we have a need for that, but it sounds interesting.

Realizing there’s no sacred cow

Using exclusively Adobe design software forms a reality distortion field. A notion that no other company can produce a viable competitor and, even if it does, it wouldn’t be production ready. It’s been like that for so many years. Let’s assume it is production ready, but nobody will use it because nobody is already using it. All the plugins won’t be there. The resources won’t be compatible. The business model won’t be sustainable. They’ll get acquired. There won’t be a Windows version. Sketch has proven getting into Adobe territory is not impossible.

According to the preliminary findings of Khoi Vinh’s survey, Sketch is the leading tool for both wireframing and interface design. It is totally production ready. A myriad of designers are using it, it’s adopted by companies such as Apple and Google and they are releasing official resources in Sketch format. Most of the designers I know and follow are using it as a daily driver. There’s a plethora of useful plugins solving actual problems we face every day.

Most importantly, there’s a vibrant community and the Bohemian Coding guys are an important part of it. I’m not sure whether Serif will manage to repeat Bohemian Coding’s success, but I sure hope they will. Not because I want Adobe to lose, but because I want them to stop pretending this whole thing isn’t happening.

It’s not about the bugs

Adobe software has always felt sort of sluggish and I’ve experienced different kinds of problems, but that’s not my major gripe with the company. Sketch is pretty buggy too, but I love using it because I know the team is sweating over fixing everything as quickly as possible. It’s about the culture.

Two years ago, I filed a Creative Cloud bug in Adobe’s forums. Dozens of user compaints and four versions of OS X later, it’s still there. I recommend you check out the thread, Adobe’s responses are, to say the least, weird.

Another thing you should check out is Episode 17 of the Design Details podcast (highly recommended). Adobe’s attitude towards its competitors and the state of their products as a whole is puzzling. A few times throughout the podcast, I was about to impulsively kill my CC subscription.

But it’s also about the bugs

I’m used to keeping old versions of Adobe software. Most designers I know do it too. We’re all afraid something will break. We’re used to it, but it doesn’t make it less weird. Imagine having to do that with every piece of software you use.

The last Illustrator update broke SVG exports and introduced GPU rendering which is totally useless. I recommend you follow @iconwerk’s updates on both problems.

The old codebase is not an excuse

Even people who love Adobe’s products admit most of the apps are far from perfect. Separate overlaid windows blocking the entire interface, pixelated assets, leftover Aqua components, unexpected behavior, lack of coherent logic. Let me stop there, here’s a whole Tumblr blog about it.

Both Adobe employees and users keep being apologetic about it, referring to the old codebase and everything they have to support. While I can see what they mean, users should not suffer because of a product’s legacy. It’s a problem Adobe has to deal with better. The old codebase is not beneficial to users, but they are still paying the price.

Focus on the tools, cut the fat

I’m aware Adobe is trying to bring as much value as possible to the Creative Cloud subscription. Things like TypeKit are great inclusions, but Adobe’s mobile strategy is a different story. Try searching for “Adobe” in the App Store, especially on an iPad. You’ll find a weird mix of apps, most of which I’d consider partially or completely deprecated. Even worse, I’ve tried most of them and the ones that didn’t feel mediocre didn’t solve any real problems. Not backed by any stats, but I don’t know a single designer who uses Adobe’s mobile apps. Color is kind of cool, but I prefer using it in the browser.

Some of Adobe’s iPad apps.

Adobe should bring back some focus to its main products and kill most of its little apps.

We need a dedicated UI design tool

Killing Fireworks seemed weird to me. I’ve never used it extensively, but, with the rise of Sketch, the least logical thing Adobe could do is kill its competitor.

Design Spaces in Adobe Photoshop CC 2015

Pulling everything into Photoshop is one of the main reasons more and more designers are switching to Sketch. Photoshop started as a photo editing tool and, to this day, we can feel that. Design Spaces is a nice addition, but it’s severely lacking and, honestly, UI design is significant enough for its own app, not a mode. Through the eyes of a beginner, Photoshop feels intimidating and, if someone wants to focus on UI, they don’t really need most of the tools. Sketch’s laser focused functionality actually helped me become a better designer, allowing me to focus on what really matters.

I’d love to see a real Sketch competitor made by Adobe. Imagine what a company this size could do. You should definitely read Josh Puckett’s take on the idea of designing with real data. And what about prototyping? Practically all innovation in the space is coming from small companies like Framer and Pixate (Facebook’s Origami as an exception, but it’s more of a side project).

I’m not canceling my subscription

But I’d love to

I’m sure he’s just being butthurt on the Internet. He’ll probably continue paying for years to come

It’s a reasonable point. I’ve read numerous similar comments under articles on the topic. Being stuck with paying is a situation active Sketch users are familiar with, especially if their work is not solely limited to interfaces. Our small design studio does equal parts product design, branding and illustration, including print. Honestly, we could go on with 90% of our work without using Adobe’s products, but those 10% matter. A huge part of them is working with other people’s PSDs — in some complex scenarios (especially containing Smart Objects), Affinity Designer’s import isn’t ideal, although they are making constant improvements.

At the end of the day, I might sound much more fed up with Adobe than I really am. As I noted in the beginning, this is not a rant. Adobe’s products are still essential to my business and I’m okay with paying. Nevertheless, an important insight came to me while I was doing my taxes a few months ago. We’re paying the most for the software we use the least. To me, this makes absolutely no sense.

The moral of the story, at least for me, is simple. Next time you decide to try out a new product, don’t be cynical about it. Dive in with your best intentions, learn to use it optimally and be patient about the problems. A few years ago, this product was Sketch. 25 years ago, it was Photoshop. And it changed everything.

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