Are Your Design Tools Actually Hurting You?

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All-inclusive “product ecosystems” are great for companies who make media production tools. But what about the people who use them?

The last decade of software has been defined by the “product ecosystem.” When a program or operating system becomes popular, the developer creates complementary programs and internet services and markets it as a single, cohesive system. Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Cloud, Google Apps, Salesforce Customer 360, literally any Apple program…the list goes on.

At this point, rather than sell each product as an individual unit with compatibility with other companies’ products, they actively dissuade customers from using competitors’ services and focus on getting them to buy into the entire bundle at once. Living within the ecosystem is made more convenient than diversifying.

The key convenience? It tends to save time and money. In the short term, that is.

Ecosystems in use

At my CUSO, I use Adobe’s subscription-based Creative Cloud service to create marketing materials for credit unions in our network. I can swap files easily between InDesign (used primarily for layouts), Illustrator (used primarily for scalable vector graphics) and Photoshop (used for pixel-based raster graphics), and since they all interface with the Adobe Fonts and Libraries cloud services, the transitions are nearly seamless. Need our brand color swatches? They’re there. What about one of our department logos? Libraries saves all of them. Need our brand typeface, Aktiv Grotesk? Creative Cloud covers the licensing fee and has already imported it. It’s magical.

But what if Adobe pushes an update that causes issues on my aging computer? What if Adobe decides not to renew their Aktiv Grotesk license? What if I’m (gasp) working without internet access?

The problem with investing deeply into a product ecosystem is that by tying everything together, you’ve introduced a single point of failure in your workflow if that ecosystem doesn’t have redundancy built in. If that single point fails, it grinds the entire system to a halt, and no progress can be made until it’s been fixed. Not exactly the best way to deliver within a deadline.

It wasn’t always this way

When I first learned how to design graphics, each Adobe program was just that — a program. Singular. They could be purchased as a discounted bundle, but each had its own disc, and once you’d forked over the (high) upfront cost, it was yours to keep. Other things worked that way, too: phone apps were largely developed by individual companies rather than the companies designing your phone’s hardware. Typefaces were basically physical products, purchased once and used forever. Subscription services cropped up, but they were managed by type foundries and publishers, not software developers.

The negatives of this setup were instantly apparent. “You mean I have to install each of these programs one-by-one? Why does this software cost thousands of dollars? Which programs work the best for each purpose? Why can’t they all use the same key commands and terminology?”

But beneath those little annoyances was a highly diversified system with layers of redundancy that prevented any one company from having too much influence over the user. If your vector graphics software received a buggy update and started acting up, you could drop it and buy something else without touching the rest of your tools. In 2020, that’s much harder to do. Switching to a new program might economically require exiting the ecosystem, setting off a shockwave that could affect all the other programs and services you depend on. Because of this interdependency, users are more likely to just put up with issues for fear of the costs of leaving.

Diversification strategies

Luckily, most of these bottlenecks can be avoided if you’re willing to accept some annoyances and miss out on some sweet bundle deals. At my CUSO, we pride ourselves on our ability to flex and adapt to the challenges our clients bring us. Though we use Adobe Creative Cloud for the majority of our creative media production, we’ve worked to build redundancy into our workflows.

  1. We tend to prefer alternative ecosystems for different media types. Rather than rely on the powerful Adobe Dreamweaver (included in our Creative Cloud subscription) for our website, we collaborated with partners to build it in WordPress. For HTML emails and social media management, we use Salesforce Marketing Cloud. For presentations, we use Microsoft PowerPoint. To plan media production schedules, we’re rolling out a spreadsheet system in Excel. All this can be more expensive than just using a single company’s products, but it reduces the capacity of any company to end us.
  2. We value knowing how to create the same things with different programs. Our team frequently uses Canva for mockups and client work, and in a pinch, I turn to the growing roster of free browser-based design tools like Pixlr, Vectr, and Piskel, which are improving at an astounding rate and are typically less performance-intensive.
  3. A secondary benefit of using lots of different tools is that it fosters a more complete media production skill set and vocabulary. One program’s “raster” may be another’s “bitmap.” For instance, Microsoft Office has tons of simple design tools like opacity controls, gradients, and grids, but the way they talk about it is quite unique and can be very confusing without broader graphic design experience. By diversifying our approach, our team weaves together a blanket understanding of what’s possible and how to achieve it.
  4. We updated our brand with flexibility in mind. Aktiv Grotesk is our new brand typeface for a reason: it’s strong, clean, and adaptable. But in cases where it’s not feasible to use it, our brand standards permit us to use the lesser lookalike Arial, which tends to be available on everything. Similarly, the look of our brand was designed to avoid reliance on specific tools. It favors flat colors, white substrates, simple column layouts, and standard margins. It prohibits textures, patterns, gradients, and shading effects to ensure it can be faithfully followed with any software. This rugged approach won’t work for every brand, but it’s useful to consider the ways your brand could be distorted by the systems you depend on.

What are you without your tools?

All of this is to say: If you rely on your tools to empower you, they’ll be able to take that power away.

Imagine you’re a sculptor. You have a locked toolbox that contains every single one of your tools. You carry it around every day, confident in the abilities the tools grant you. As a creative, you define yourself by the things you create; the things your hammer and chisel allow you to make have become a part of your professional and personal identity. Why invest in spare tools when you’d have to carry them separately? Who needs to spend the cash for two hammers when one works just fine?

Now imagine you’ve lost the key and there is no spare. Your tools are locked away.

In a moment you become powerless. You still have your ideas and skills, but your agency to use them is stripped away. Your bare hands touch the surface of a marble block and feel cold, immovable stone. That’s what you’re risking by limiting yourself to one product ecosystem without redundancy built in. Branch out, explore your options, and diversify your tool set.

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