In the past few years, the number of digital design tools available has grown dramatically. An industry once dominated by a few large, slow-moving companies now includes a number of nimble startups bringing wonderful innovation to the space. The benefits are clear: We now have tools that are built for digital software design–tools that are easier to use, more powerful, and even less expensive than previous models, making design work more accessible to designers and companies everywhere.
While it feels good to bask in the riches of design tool glory, this new tool expansion has also come at a cost. A few of the drawbacks that this era has brought include:
1. Choosing the right tool: With so many tools, choosing the best tool for the job has become more difficult. If you’re doing the visual design of an application do you do it in Sketch, Framer, Figma, Adobe XD? Why use one over the other?
2. Interoperability: Even small design teams now might have designers using different tools for similar tasks. This can lead to work that has to be redone, inefficient communication, and ultimately a slower, more frustrating design process. For example, imagine a team of five where a few members use Figma while others continue to use Illustrator. How does this team save their files? How do they collaborate and go back and forth between the two tools?
3. Tool switching: Some of the new tools solve very specific parts of a workflow. This means constantly switching into different environments as you go from sketching, to visual design, to prototyping, to handoff, to building, and to testing. That context/environment switch takes time and leads to frustration if the transition isn’t smooth.
4. Learning curves: With new tools becoming more common and existing tools updating at ever increasing rates (just look at the frequency of Framer’s Updates compared to the once a year update Photoshop used to get), designers are constantly playing catch-up to master their toolkit. This learning may take away from time that could be spent on idea generation, production work, and more.
Design Tool Guiding Principles
To combat these new set of challenges, I believe toolmakers should embrace a set of principles that will not only improve their tools, but also improve the design tool ecosystem at large to make it cohesive, accessible, and more powerful. It’s likely that companies that embrace the principles below will also improve their bottom line as their adoption will no doubt increase. The principles I’d recommend toolmakers embrace include:
Be radically collaborative
While making a “proprietary file format” was one way of creating defensibility in the past, digital design tools of the future will create moats through other means like product execution, workflow improvements, community, marketplaces, platform. This means toolmakers should allow designers to move in and out of their tools into other workflows as seamlessly as possible. We’re already seeing some simple examples of this like the ability to import sketch files into Framer and Figma which allows designers to move from visual design to prototypes seamlessly. But we need more toolmakers to let designers move into and out of their tools with as much ease and fluidity as possible.
Simplify the learning curve
If we want to democratize the ability for people everywhere to create software and communicate ideas we need to radically reduce the learning curve for the software we build. This doesn’t mean making our tools less powerful but creating onboarding experiences that are clear, creating “help” communities that are easy to access, building templates and learning guides that are current and effective, and embracing the non-designer population. Some great examples of this include Framer’s community of nearly 25,000 people and Abstract’s How it Works guide. If we simplify the learning curve for design tools we can have ideas that come from a much broader set of people and ideas, which usually leads to better solutions. Which leads me to my next principle:
Expand the design tent
Once you make it easier for designers to use your software, toolmakers should expand the tent to marketers, engineers, sales-people, and CEOs. The more we can help those folks give feedback, adapt a prototype, or communicate an idea, the more involved they can be in the creative process and the end result. This could mean making prototypes easier to manipulate for non-designers, considering marketing use cases for templates, making it easier for CEOs and product leads to see product development progress across an organization, or helping engineers build products.
Expanding the tent does require designers to be clear with their teams on how the creative process works, when and how they want feedback, and what everyone’s role is. But, if we expand the tent and bring more people into the creative process we can produce better products and help more people use design to improve the world around them.
“We believe that design tools and the design process needs to be more open, collaborative and accessible”
– Dylan Field, CEO of Figma
Design for the Future
The products and experiences of the next 10 years look radically different from today’s products and services. With AR/VR, offline/online experiences, connected devices, and user-generated data, our design tools need to have the flexibility to let designers envision and design for those future paradigms. For example, we invested in Framer because of its focus on a code-based infrastructure that allows it to be used for very complex prototypes like AR/VR experiences. Similarly, Figma’s web-based approach enabled an API that can then connect a design tool to other products in ways the Figma team has yet to imagine. If we’re going to be building design tools we have to bake in the flexibility to help people design for the future.
“We’ve taught thousands of people how to program. With Framer X, we’re lowering that learning curve to provide millions more with a design tool that helps them express interactive ideas more effectively.”
– Koen Bok, CEO of Framer
Bring design/engineering together
Unlike the gaming ecosystem where designers and engineers largely collaborate in Unity, the gaming ecosystems go-to development platform, software designers and engineers currently live in different spaces and workflows. This means a lot of manual work to go from design to engineering, lost communication in many different tools, and ultimately a longer process to create inferior products. The more design and development tools can close that gap and help designers and engineers collaborate in similar virtual spaces the easier it will be to build high quality products and services.
Abstract’s version control hub that allows designers and engineers to see the latest updates on design files is a great example of this. Also Framer’s upcoming product, Framer X, is React-based and will allow engineers to build on Framer prototypes and conversely, for designers to use production components directly in their designs which is another way of bringing design and engineering closer together. This is where design and development tools are going, and the sooner we get there, the better off the ecosystem will be.
“Abstract brings the design and engineering process closer together. We want to create a space for designers and engineers to collaborate and focus on design and development, not file management.”
– Heather Phillips, Design Director of Abstract
Bring on the Revolution
Judging by the design and development tool landscape we see no slow down of new tools being created. Some will succeed and become a standard while others may fail or get folded into larger companies. However, if more toolmakers adopt this shared set of principles we believe we can help more people create software to solve our world’s biggest challenges. That’s a future any design toolmaker can be excited about.
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