Designers and their tools

Earlier this year there was outrage and grief expressed over Adobe’s decision to no longer continue development for Fireworks. It is, in effect, being killed off. As a dedicated Fireworks user since 2006, I’m just as disappointed. For me, at least, it was a valuable design tool that let me express very quickly with high quality novel UI concepts at a high degree of fidelity, with basic prototyping support. Sure it’s buggy, fraught all kinds of issues (like inconsistent icons and kludgy interactions), but the speed and quality of output is compelling. Fireworks almost instantly became the predominant tool in my arsenal for crafting great interfaces.

Now with the end of Fireworks announced, many are wondering which tool will take its place. Many tools abound, including Sketch (which seems to be the primary front-runner as of this writing) and Photoshop, of course.

But I’m not interested in debating which tool will ascend to the Iron Throne of UI design ;-) Instead, this whole situation got me wondering about what it means to use a digital tool, that tool’s relationship to its user…as well as how such a powerful tool shapes one’s identity. Let me explain…

A digital tool like Fireworks is a mechanism for executing an idea, translating a person’s vision emerging from their mind into something tangible that others can use and evaluate. Different tools have different purposes (like a hammer or drill) but digital software tools in particular are like Swiss Army knives, loaded with diversely segmented yet thematically related functionality. The master of such a tool is really someone who has practiced extensively using that tool in a variety of ways (and variety of situations) such that it becomes an extension of their mind, eye, and hand. A true virtuoso of that tool (or toolset) can already anticipate the choreography of when and how to use which tools or features for specific tactical problems. That tool becomes a means of foresight and judgment before the fact, almost predictive in its potential for the kinds of outputs that can and should be generated. (Think of a master of Fireworks or Photoshop or even Powerpoint, fluidly navigating and expertly executing, in an also pre-cognitive manner)

In so doing, the tool and its user forge a personal bond, much like a baseball player and his mitt or a carpenter and his special hammer. There’s intense familiarity, trust, acceptance of flaws, workarounds formed, and yes dedication to maintenance, preparing the tool for the next day’s work. (Not that there’s much love in using that damn Adobe updater to keep things running smoothly!) Just like a carpenter knows his tools, where they live, and their thresholds of capability, a designer knows how their software tools function best, personalizing the workspace of palettes and menus for what’s most comfortable and effective to finish the job.

This intimate relationship between tool and user is quite potent. But does it define the user, their sense of self? Does the tool make/break the user’s identity? If that tool breaks or no longer becomes useful, some sentimental value is lost, with personal grief over disposal of an old friend. But the tool’s user continues onward with other tools or stronger & better replacements, rebuilding a new relationship. He is still shaping visions and deftly applying his skills in executing and delivering per values and principles: quality, integrity, trust, etc. I’d suggest that tools do not make the practitioner. You are not your tool, no matter how dedicated and intuitively bound the relationship.

This is particularly relevant to designers as modern software tools change constantly, with emerging technologies, brands, companies, and user communities all in flux. Every few years (or months!) something new comes along that’s deemed trendy and useful (Flash > MS Blend > HTML 5 > Native mobile SDK > etc.) The tools do not make or break the designer who must constantly stay flexible, learning and applying and swiftly adapting as situations change. To say you are a Fireworks designer or Photoshop designer would be extremely limiting in a volatile industry where some hot new tool or technology surfaces every few months or couple years. Tools can be ephemeral yet require a deep intense bond for flawless high performance utility. It’s this balance that’s important to maintain and incredibly hard to do so, as no doubt more tools will fade away as new ones appear on the horizon. Tools are essential and powerful ways to deliver results, but just don’t get too wrapped up in them. Even if it’s something like Fireworks.

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