At this point, “design is a competitive advantage” is an understatement. As new interfaces transform the way we work and live, designers, and creatives of all kind, have become central to companies and movements, big and small, across all industries. We take for granted that, just a few decades ago, very little of today’s creativity was possible. Thanks to advances in computing and software like Photoshop among other Adobe products, our daily lives are impacted by creative expression at every turn. As an active investor and advisor to early-stage companies, the most common question I get from founders and boards is to help them source great design talent and build a product organization that is design-driven. But all this is just a side-effect of a more systemic truth in business and society as work is increasingly automated and commoditized: Creativity is the world’s most human craft and, despite countless new devices and mediums, creative people remain at the center. The more the world changes, the more important creativity becomes.
So, if creativity is such a competitive advantage now and so vital to our future, it’s worth evaluating the state of creative tools and process. My five biggest observations/concerns:
(1) Creativity has too much friction.
Let’s face it, even the greatest creative tools have a steep learning curve. The sheer number of tools, panels, and options can be overwhelming to new users and time intensive for professionals. These applications are also still largely bound to the desktop. Files are too big and cumbersome in a world where more work is done on mobile, tablets, and laptops with less and less storage. In fact, the whole notion of “files,” whether they live in your computer or in the cloud, is antiquated in the era of Google Docs, search, and our multi-device way of life. And no mainstream creative tool has fully figured out how to use large amounts of data and machine learning to speed up the creative process (imagine if your tools could guess what you’re trying to do and proactively suggested short-cuts, preventing repetitive and mundane tasks; you’d be 10x more productive!). I’ve never met a creative professional that would opt to spend three hours doing something that could be done in three minutes. Especially in a world where labor is increasingly commoditized, creativity needs to be more productive and accessible to everyone. With less friction, more great ideas can be realized in smaller amounts of time.
(2) Creativity needs to become more inclusive.
As design has become a competitive advantage in most industries, the role of designers in modern organizations has changed. Rather than be tucked away in a department or all-together outsourced, designers are now central to strategy and are, often times, the founders or leaders of the best companies. The same goes for art directors, videographers, photographers, and other creative disciplines. For a great outcome, the creative process must involve all stakeholders with varying levels of soliciting feedback, sharing assets, and collaborating with others. This goes far beyond sharing a click-through prototype. I like to call it “connected creativity,” and imagine the potential of an entire company engaging with previews, sketches, rough cuts, and prototypes that update in real-time, sharing feedback, and coming to appreciate the design process.
(3) The more tools, the more need for connectivity between them.
I love seeing new apps for prototyping like InVision and AdobeXD, apps for version tracking like Abstract, and new tablet, mobile and web-based applications like Figma and Procreate for illustration among so many others. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the past few decades, the greatest breakthroughs come from the intersection of different tools, teams, and industries. So, with the rise of more tools and devices, there is an increasing need for connectivity between them. Creatives are not served well when tools isolate them. File format compatibility, assets always at your fingertips no matter what product or device you are using…these “platform values” are what matter most to creative professionals. And we’ve got a ways to go. You shouldn’t have to worry about where your assets live or their version or origin. Your files and assets from the past, alongside those of your peers, are precious resources for your future work. I have long believed that creativity is the world’s greatest recycling program, and the next generation of tools must work together to enable compatibility and flexibility.
(4) AR & Voice Interfaces will only be as great as the designers that create them.
I am extremely excited about the prospects of augmented reality (AR) and voice interfaces in how we navigate our everyday lives. The natural world is on the cusp of having an interactive interface, and the implications of AR will exceed our wildest expectations. But AR still lacks industrial-grade platform-agnostic creative tools. Rather than train a new generation of designers on new tools, today’s widespread creative tools, like Photoshop or After Effects, must meet Creatives where they already are and empower them to create in AR. Screen design tools like Adobe XD (Adobe’s just launched application for industrial grade screen design) must do the same in AR and voice. But we also need an entirely new generation of mobile creative tools that help us craft original assets and make all of our other assets available, trackable, and “placeable” in the natural world, for anyone to discover and engage with across all platforms. Exciting days ahead pushing these new creative mediums forward!
(5) Creative talent is increasingly in demand, yet hard to find.
No matter how great the tools or opportunities are for creative people, the quality of ones’ work is correlated with the career opportunities they have. I’ve always believed that, when the best creative talent is matched with the best opportunity, the world benefits. But the creative community continues to be disorganized, and the greatest brands and agencies in the world still struggle to find and engage top creative talent, especially for new mediums such as AR. My team’s original vision for Behance, to organize the creative world and connect the best talent with the best opportunities, has yet to be achieved. In an economy where more and more labor is being commoditized and automated, the creative industry remains one of the few places where originality, hard work, and sheer genius command a premium. As more people embark on creative careers, they will need better infrastructure to be discovered, engaged, and compensated.
What am I going to do about it?
These challenges facing the creative world fascinate me, and no company is better positioned than Adobe to pursue them. Many of the world’s patents and engineers dedicated to digital creation technology are at Adobe. So today i’m jumping back into an operating role as Adobe’s Chief Product Officer and EVP of Creative Cloud because of the unique challenges and opportunities (and responsibilities) facing the company at this exact moment. Adobe’s shift to Creative Cloud right before Behance’s acquisition in 2012 was a resounding success for the company, but Adobe’s products have yet to tap the full potential of Creative Cloud. What strikes me as Adobe’s greatest opportunity is improving the user experience of its products — making world-changing products like Photoshop and Premiere Pro more accessible, efficient, and collaborative — and bringing new mediums of design like UX/UI, AR/VR, and voice to their full potential much like Photoshop did for digital imaging. We will help Creative Cloud embrace the surge of new creative apps and services, which I respect but view as too fractured and isolated. I see a lot that can be improved, and the opportunity to dig in with some of the most talented designers and engineers I know to chart a better course for the future of design and the creative industry is invigorating. I have a long list of questions, frustrations, and areas of exploration that I can’t wait to tackle alongside our CEO Shantanu Narayen, CTO Abhay Parasnis, and Bryan Lamkin, who leads the Digital Media business, among other extraordinary leaders across the company.
I’ve spent the last twelve years of my life building networks, applications, conferences, and services for creative people, while writing books about creative careers and advising and investing in design-driven companies. I hope my new role at Adobe helps me advance the impact creative people make in their companies and communities. I want to make the tools of the trade more powerful, accessible, and enjoyable to use. I want to help connect creative talent with opportunities. I hope to better understand how new mediums of design will shape the future of commerce, virtual and augmented experiences, gaming, and marketing. And more than anything else, I hope to help creative people around the world make a greater impact with their ideas.
Alongside my new role, I will continue supporting the early-stage venture world as a seed investor, collaborating with Benchmark as a Venture Partner, and serving on the boards of Prefer and post-cable media start-up Cheddar. Given the importance of design in all businesses these days, I hope to help bridge the gap between designers, design tools and services, and the companies that rely on them. I’m also just finishing a five-year long book project chronicling insights for enduring and optimizing the messy middle of bold projects (book launches in 2018!). Perfect timing as I take on new bold projects with my teams at Adobe.
What excites me most about returning to Adobe is the people. Some of the most talented designers and technologists are at Adobe. They’re not there to be associated with sexy headlines or some mythical IPO. They are at Adobe because they love creating for creators, and they value the role of creativity in a world that optimizes towards the status-quo. It’s not often in life that you get the opportunity to shift the direction of a world you care so much about. Alright, back to work.
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