Sam Johnstone

Modern Tools

A few weeks ago my friend L., who recently enrolled in a design program in Japan, asked on Facebook what tools for visual design she should be investing her time in learning. I was eager to send her a response, because it’s a subject I care about and hope that I have a level of expertise in. Ultimately I was too disappointed in my own answer to respond. After 6 years in the design environment my answer was “whatever your printers and developers need you to use”. And I know that this is the wrong answer, but it’s not the wrong idea, so I wanted to work out what I meant by that.

As a student, I was obsessed with tools. Not just what software to use, or what craft to develop, but productivity hacks, shortcuts, plugins. Anything that made me feel more proficient, I would buy and use without hesitation. Or more accurately, anything that other people told me would make me feel more proficient. I’ve always been keenly interested in efficiency. Once a proudly self identifying minimalist, I was invested in the idea of finding The One Best Thing. When it came to tools, I was always hunting for The One Best text editor, The One Best photo editor, The One Best pencil. But after a few years of working with people in environments with some level of technological handicap (corporate IT management systems, debilitating low budgets or slow cross-company software rollouts), I’ve relaxed my idea of using The One Best Thing. But the thing that has changed my opinion on The One Best Thing most is just watching other designers work. There are an infinite number of techniques within an infinite number of programs to accomplish any given task, and few of them are any better than any of the others. You might be able to shave a second or a minute or an hour off of a task, but the person who has to take your file once you are done might lose a second or a minute or an hour off of their role in the process because of it.

Still though, I hear scoffs at people who use Photoshop for type based design (and sometimes those scoffs are still coming from me), or for people who are using Illustrator for multi-page presentations.  I think the healthier mental approach would be to think of design tools as being the same as the tools for illustration. If you asked an illustrator how they achieved a specific effect, and their answer was “well I sketched it out on sandpaper, scanned it into a Commodore 64 and then printed it out onto a Kraft Single”, the response typically wouldn’t be to suggest that there are faster or more industry standard ways of accomplishing the effect, the response would most likely be “wow that’s fucking weird”. Design, particularly in a team or corporate environment isn’t usually graced with the same level of invention. Though I can’t wholeheartedly say that I believe all design should be done at the whim of the person working, I do believe in standards & best-practices, but I don’t think that should be pre-defined. There is no One Best way to write code, One Best way to design a book. The standards that I believe in should instead be defined specifically by the people you are working with. If you are on a team that really loves Sketch, you should be working in Sketch. If you are working on a team that doesn’t use Sketch, don’t go near it. I know this doesn’t help my friend L. find the tools she should be working with. But I don’t actually believe there is a singular answer. New tools pop up all the time, and they are all better and worse than what came before them. The approach I’ve adopted is to first ask the people I’m working with what they need from me, and then to pick and choose what I feel like making it with. As long as whatever you deliver isn’t a headache for the people you work with, it doesn’t actually matter what you use.