Show DN: Better Tools ≠ Better Designer(deardesignstudent.com)

2 years ago from Chantal Jandard, Product Designer

  • Marc EdwardsMarc Edwards, 2 years ago

    I agree in part, but I find the message confusing and largely a distraction. In the same way design is the product, not just a coat of paint, your tools are intrinsically linked to the result. Completely inseparable.

    Does that mean good work can not be done with bad tools? No, definitely not.


    But, that’s not really what’s being discussed here.

    Let’s kill the myth: a better tool can’t make you a better designer.

    The wrong tool can make you a worse designer.

    Many years ago, I started to learn how to write, produce and mix music. There’s many parallels to learning how to design — it’s a mixture of technical and creative, and the same discussions around tools and techniques are common. There were certain aspects of music production I struggled with. Dynamics processing is incredibly hard to master, and I was doing everything I could be to better at it, but just not getting the results. It didn’t matter what I did, I just couldn’t produce anything close to my favourite artists.

    I wasn’t sure if the problem was me, or the equipment I was using, or both. Eventually I came to a realisation: I could easily find out, simply by buying the equipment the artists I looked up to were using (within reason).

    It was an expensive experiment, but armed with an identical setup, I pushed myself until the results were good. I had to, because when there were sub-par results, I knew for a fact that the issue was me. It had to be me.

    Since that day, I have never, ever skimped on tools, or skimped on learning how to use the tools I have. With the same person wielding them, do better tools give you better results? Absolutely. Yes. A thousand times yes.


    I think it’s absolutely vital mimicking is deemed an acceptable learning technique, and I think a big part of that is mimicking tools and process, until a point where you feel comfortable enough to form your own opinions and processes.

    In fact, I’d say it’s dangerous to stray from industry standards too early. They’re standards for a reason. Don’t ignore the hard work others have done via tool natural selection.

    Tools are just vehicles for our ideas and if our ideas are lousy, no app in the world can save us.

    Absolutely.

    But, as a professional, choosing the right tool and being competent with a wide range of tools is essential. That’s what makes you a professional. In the spirit of your post being advice for design students, I would offer this advice: Start how you intend to finish.

    Although being a jack-of-all-tools feels deceptively productive, preparing to work is not the same thing as actually working.

    The right tool can save hours or days of work. This is especially common in the design field, where many designers are blind to the benefits of automation, and often waste hours or days on repetitive tasks.

    And, the tighter you can make the iteration loop, the more likely you will be to experiment, and the better the results. That can only be done by being a master of your tools.

    All this said, trying new tools out of curiosity isn’t a bad thing, but be deeply cognisant of the tradeoff: any time you spend learning a new tool is time you’re not practicing your craft.

    How can you learn a new tool without practicing your craft? They often go hand in hand.

    New tools can offer new perspective. Of the recent prototyping tools that have been released, almost all work in a different way (code vs timeline vs canned animation vs nodes etc). I can’t see how using them all, even briefly, is anything but a good thing for someone learning to be a designer.

    The way you work today will not be the way you work in 10 years: instead of investing in an array of tools, invest in being a better designer first.

    No, but the same basic concepts will.


    Thank you for the aricle, Chantal. I hope you find my comments respectful. My intention is only to continue the discussion. I am very passionate about designers having a deep understanding of their tools.

    22 points
    • Chantal JandardChantal Jandard, 2 years ago (edited 2 years ago )

      Hi Marc!

      Firstly, thanks so much for your comment. I really appreciate the detail and thought you put into it. Here's a bit more on where this post came from.

      I worried that with the flux of new tools, younger designers are mixing up their priorities. I'm seeing new designers present a grocery list of prototyping apps on their resumes, but their core design skills are visibly shaky.

      Looking back at my own growth as a designer, I am definitely guilty of that. I used Jasc Paintshop Pro back in the day, and I knew it inside and out, way before I knew basic typography, accessibility practices, or grids, and I made very bad designs.

      But Paintshop didn't care. Paintshop let me keep doing these bad practices, over and over. Then I switched to Photoshop. Photoshop didn't care either, and also let me produce bad designs. I also tried GIMP. Same thing. It wasn't until I sat down and read a book on typography that I realized where I was straying and what I needed to learn.

      With so many design tools now, going deep on all of them is hard, and costs time. No matter how easy the tool is, there's still ramp up. Trying out new tools can be so valuable, but it can also be really expensive when it's done unthoughtfully, especially when young designers have a lot of other areas they can grow in.

      I absolutely agree with all your points. A better tool can make life so much easier and help you tighten your workflow. And it's important to know your tools. And you can totally practice design and learn an new tool in parallel. And there's definite merit to having at least a passing knowledge of tool options and how they differ, even the pros/cons. Designers should know what's possible.

      But tools shouldn't be the #1 priority, and I'm starting to see that be the case as a trend for some designers, and it makes me uncomfortable. I wish young-me had spent more time studying basic concepts, instead of being a pro in design tools I no longer use. I wish more designers were learning one or two tools deeply, with light knowledge of others, and studying design theory more, instead of learning six, seven, eight tools very deeply and leaving the theory for later.

      My hope was that the post would help new designers think critically on their goals before diving into a new tool. There are lots of reasons to try something new, but trying new things does have a cost.

      (Also, as full disclosure, since I've seen some people question the Adobe sponsorship, Adobe sponsors the Dear Design Student publication, not this post in particular. I received no money for writing it and my personal flow right now is a mix of Sketch, Principal, Framer, Illustrator and Photoshop.)

      3 points
      • Marc EdwardsMarc Edwards, 2 years ago (edited 2 years ago )

        But tools shouldn't be the #1 priority, and I'm starting to see that be the case as a trend for some designers, and it makes me uncomfortable.

        I think lots of new tools are being released because we’re in a transition period. Mobile has changed many aspects of web and native design — RWD, widespread use of animation, pixel density, multitouch and different input methods have shown some flaws in existing tools and workflows. The entire industry has needed to adapt.

        If designers are spending time exploring tools, it’s likely because they need to? I agree that it shouldn’t be a number 1 priority, but I don’t think I’ve seen examples of it being that way.

        My hope was that the post would help new designers think critically on their goals before diving into a new tool. There are lots of reasons to try something new, but trying new things does have a cost.

        Absolutely.

        But Paintshop didn't care. Paintshop let me keep doing these bad practices, over and over. Then I switched to Photoshop. Photoshop didn't care either, and also let me produce bad designs. I also tried GIMP. Same thing. It wasn't until I sat down and read a book on typography that I realized where I was straying and what I needed to learn.

        Reading that paragraph, I interpret it as:

        1. Get set up with the tools of the trade.
        2. Get competent.
        3. Learn higher level concepts.

        I'm not sure how easy it would be to do 3 without 1 and 2.

        Ultimately, I guess we both likely have a similar opinion, but a slightly different view on where the current deficiencies lie.

        Also, as full disclosure, since I've seen some people question the Adobe sponsorship, Adobe sponsors the Dear Design Student publication, not this post in particular.

        Thanks for the info. The article definitely didn’t seem for or against Adobe’s tools.

        1 point
        • Mike WilsonMike Wilson, 2 years ago (edited 2 years ago )

          1 Get set up with the tools of the trade. 2 Get competent. 3 Learn higher level concepts.

          I'm not sure how easy it would be to do 3 without 1 and 2

          You can't learn design concepts without knowing Photoshop first? I think Herb Lubalin, Paul Rand, Dieter Rams (insert design hero here) would disagree with you.

          I think her intent was to explain she did it backwards. Learning GIMP, Photoshop, and Paintshop Pro didn't make her designs better. Learning design itself before learning the tools would have been far more efficient. That way you can spend your time learning Photoshop with purpose, and can ultimately judge if it's the right tool for the job (ie. not wasting time learning how to use unnecessary filters like ceramic tiling effect).

          Learning tools before design theory is like trying to figure out which hammer to buy without knowing what size nail you'll be hitting most with it.

          DN as a whole tends to over-fetishize tools and process, so I think that's why a lot of comments on this article have been negative. But in many instances, spending hours and hours learning all the latest tech is counter-productive.

          For example, I know a design student who bragged to me about how many weeks he spent learning Grunt/Gulp, all the various CSS preprocessors, and optimizing his front-end workflow. However, when I asked him how many times he actually does site builds....he told me once a year at most. So he spent 80+ hours trying to save 2 hours per year by having the most efficient Gulp/SASS setup. And at the rate of web technology advancement, this knowledge will be irrelevant in 1-3 years.

          Meanwhile, his design skills are nowhere near as cutting edge as his knowledge of tools. Since he wants to be a designer, wouldn't that time be better spent learning the fundamentals?

          1 point
          • Marc EdwardsMarc Edwards, 2 years ago (edited 2 years ago )

            You can't learn design concepts without knowing Photoshop first? I think Herb Lubalin, Paul Rand, Dieter Rams (insert design hero here) would disagree with you.

            They all used tools to design, just not necessarily Photoshop. When I studied, we were only allowed to spend one day a week using computers. The rest of the time we used paper and markers. But, paper and markers are still tools and they still need to be learned.

            Learning tools before design theory is like trying to figure out which hammer to buy without knowing what size nail you'll be hitting most with it.

            I never said before. My objection is to thinking that tools are unimportant — if you aim to be a professional, you need to master the tools you use, and a big part of mastery is time and experimentation.

            And, as stated previously, learning tools and practising your craft go hand in hand.

            DN as a whole tends to over-fetishize tools and process, so I think that's why a lot of comments on this article have been negative.

            A lot of comments have been negative, because a lot of people disagree.

            But in many instances, spending hours and hours learning all the latest tech is counter-productive.

            Balance is always needed, but I wouldn’t advise a student to spend less time learning their tools.

            I know a design student who bragged to me about how many weeks he spent learning Grunt/Gulp, all the various CSS preprocessors, and optimizing his front-end workflow. However, when I asked him how many times he actually does site builds....he told me once a year at most.

            There’s a vast spectrum of designers and skills needed. If the design student really enjoys exploring what can be done with Grunt, Gulp and CSS preprocessors, that’s brilliant. My advice to them would be to get really, really good at it. If it’s interesting to them, go all in. Be the most amazing front end web developer you can be, because that is valuable.

            Not everyone needs to spend their time thinking about grids and font pairs. Not everyone needs to have a favourite Mondrian painting.

            0 points