2014: Bringing design to life

Why Photoshop vs Sketch doesn’t matter, making things move and live does, and why it’s a great time to be a product designer

James De Angelis
Design Life


I’m incredibly excited for 2014 and wanted to share a few macro and micro trends I’ve noticed bubbling up and being cemented. I’ll also offer a few predictions about what the year ahead might hold for designers.

The year of the prototype

This is the big one: The age of static, lifeless PSD is over. If your designs don’t move, animate, become interactive in some way and tell a story with liveliness, they’re about as impactful as a wet tissue in a boxing match. The past 12 months have introduced amazing tools like Flinto, Framer.js, Marvel app and Xcode’s storyboards and they are letting us do this easier than we ever thought possible. Additionally they afford a crucial step into our process: Allowing us to use the design we’ve created to test for flow issues, learnability, intuitiveness and overall feel. Best of all it lets us to work exponentially better with developers, PMs and clients because they can touch and feel what we’ve designed. If the the best documentation is working software, a good prototype is next.

The question that rises from this is which one of these tools to use, and my summary is this: Use all of them. Flinto is brilliant in the nascent stages of your apps when you want to export comps from Photoshop and instantly create an animated flow. You’ll be up and running with something in minutes. Xcode’s Storyboards go one better and allow you to add inputs, labels and interactive views, but comes at the cost of speed (views need to be cut, built and coded to a lesser extent). The bonus is that your prototype will not be thrown away, and can be readied for a developer to begin their work. Framer and Quartz Composer will allow you to create interactions of the highest fidelity but come at the cost of a big learning curve. I use these selectively for focussed, custom interactions that can’t be shown any other way.

If you’re ready to get your hands dirty, Meng To’s series of posts about creating these in Xcode are an excellent introduction to the process.

Interaction design is being pushed to the forefront

Ironically the biggest effect of iOS7 on visual design was to de-emphasise it by flattening it out, making it harder to differentiate on aesthetic. This, coupled with the web’s obsession to flatten everything in sight (lest you look as modern as a rotary telephone) has resulted in a spotlight on interactions and UX. Naturally the prototype rises as the champion for designers to create this and is the best tool we have to tell the story of our products.

Static design tools are declining in value

This is a macro trend mentioned previously. Photoshop, Sketch, Macaw et al. are simply static tools. In the age of the prototyped (or better yet, shipped) product, the time you spend in these static tools will become less and less important. They are still excellent for concepting and exploring design options (I could never start in the browser), but getting into the browser or the device as early as possible will net the biggest gains.

The current trend of new design tools for the web/device age are all trying to solve the problem of efficiency. But truth be told, Photoshop and Sketch are good enough, and any gains will be small. They’re optimising a very small part of a modern designer’s problems compared to the current epidemic of creating a PSD and calling it a day. In reality this is only about 20% of the total work to be done and learning to build and show interactions will be essential. We’ve learned to be effective we must get real feedback as early as possible (then iterate) which lets us create the most useful sites, web apps and mobile products. We can test our mountain of assumptions and know with some certainty, if the design works or not. Why are we worrying about exporting vectors 5% faster?

Ultimately as designer your work will be of the highest standard when you know your materials and their limits, which means knowing how the sausage is made. And the only way to do that is to code, build, and prototype yourself.

Recent add-ons for Photoshop

The expandability of Photoshop

Photoshop isn’t dead just yet, 2013 saw an explosion of add-ons to extend and patch its capability and continues to serve digital & product people well. The teams at UI parade, Macrabbit and Piffle have plugged the most common problems around slicing images, asset libraries and getting CSS values for selected objects. For Sketch and other competitors, winning this space will require something 10x better than what we currently have with Photoshop, and even then, will it be worth it considering the learning cost and their declining value?

Designers will learn to love Git

It’s a little scary at first — and certainly not the most intuitive process — but version control is here to stay and we can benefit greatly from it. If you make things for the web or devices, even contributing exported assets or other design bits will help greatly in assuring quality and keeping your work up to date.

Secondly, using Git allows designers to work with the final product and test (then iterate) states, flows, notifications and other instances of an app that you just can’t do inside of Photoshop. These days installing Rails is simple and learning Git has been thoroughly covered and well taught by online schools like Treehouse and Codeschool. Why not make 2014 the year you try Git?

Designer founders book cover art

There’s never been a better time to be a Product Designer

If 2013 showed anything, it was that design has risen to take its seat at the adult’s table and finally be taken seriously outside of agencies. This is a really huge shift, and probably the biggest thing to happen to digital design in the past decade. There are finally options to do great design outside of client work, and that is incredibly freeing for those who don’t fit into that model.

Those who have gone before us have done the heavy lifting of raising design’s profile and are now creating wonderful organisations like Designer Fund and programs like Bridge to help transition designers into this world. The story of good design has also been told through companies like Airbnb, Pinterest, Rdio (and of course, Apple) so that we aren’t wasting nearly as much energy plugging the cause. This cannot be understated how great that is for the wider community of designers.

Naturally this has resulted in a rise of design entrepreneurism and has meant that we’re taking the reins and creating businesses from our successful design work rather than being the silent partner behind agencies and monoliths. Another huge gain.

Finally, I’ve felt this trend in Sydney a lot recently, there would be literally only a handful of designers focussing on Product and as such freelance jobs and permanent roles are there for the taking due to very low competition. 2014 will be a great time to be a product guy or gal.