Can designers blame their tools?

Cummins 7x12 mini-lathe 1

Design (in all fields) extends beyond a designer in isolation from a context. By definition, it is the plan or execution of a goal with a specific intent. So, design is an instrument and a resolution for a given context.

You can’t hide behind your tools.

I heard that one back in design school, and I wholeheartedly agree with it. I grew to appreciate the value of thinking critically above memorizing every Adobe shortcut known to humankind. It’s the mind applied in tandem with the tools that creates unique, ingenious work. Putting a 10 out of 10 for Photoshop on your resumé has little meaning of how you employ your ideas.

But still, designers complain about their tools, and people blame designers for transferring that blame. A good example is Microsoft PowerPoint. Can you think of any bad presentation slides? Chances are you’ve seen more ugly ones than good ones. People might scoff and think it there was no design intent–the presenter carelessly assembled it. Or perhaps, it was actually a bad designer… Both could be the case.The quick rebuttal is that one should know how the tool works, and adjust the approach to improve the workflow. This is pretty evident by beautiful presentations made in PowerPoint. So yes, we can blame designers. But not always.

Folks might say the tool is bad. I can empathize. My mental model doesn’t always align itself with the interactions in plenty of software I use, or the things I see. Sometimes the tool isn’t efficient, or it wasn’t intended to do the new things we conceive.

Think about a logo. Let’s say that a newly proclaimed graphic designer dives into Microsoft word to make a blazing hot logo destined to be laser-etched into 3 million belt buckles. Specifically, he spends 4 hours fiddling with WordArt from 1997 until the dissolved gradient wrapped in Comic Sans feels just right. If you can imagine the result, it might end up looking something like this:

sorry for scortching your eyeballs

This fictional designer just didn’t have the creativity to design a top-notch brand identity (unless the demographic was 11-year-olds who traveled to the future from 1997 in search of gaudy belt buckles). And it’s his fault. Even if he was commanded to use only Word, he could have tried to layer text within text boxes to get a unique letter arrangement and mixed a bit of Wingdings dingbat to make an assisted readymade logo. That sounds like a pain though.

Or he could have used Illustrator, Photoshop, an open source tool, or even just pen and paper. Sure, Microsoft Word can make logos, but it might not be the correct tool for a timely, high quality result. There may be no best tool, because the intent and context can vary. We can be upset when tools aren’t able to do what is expected of it. We can also suggest improvements or replacements to frustrating software, or build our own.

Back to PowerPoint– it can create good presentations, and I would rate it as adequate, with room for improvement. I haven’t needed to use Powerpoint extensively for a long while, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the current interface could benefit from better defaults and features. I personally found Keynote for Mac easier to use.

Before you bash your designer, realize they are the ones finding the weaknesses and limits of these tools, and hopefully they are also suggesting improvements for them (after all, designers design tools too). And designers–before you bash your tool, think about your intent and whether it works toward your goal. If you are locked into the software, do the best with what you have. Sometimes a shoe makes an okay hammer.

photo by: Gadget_Guru
  • Elliott Ditman

    Most mainstream design software releases of the last few years have come with promise of bringing great design to the masses. Instagram and it’s picture filters is probably the easiest one to single out.

    But in the the end I still think that taste comes into effect. The taste of a great designer will hopefully exclude the great majority of anything that contains a gradient from WordArt.

  • ekloff

    That’s a great point. It also brings up how tools can be somewhat limiting in terms of fine control, but still successful. Even if many Instagram photos end up being less unique than using a DSLR + Photoshop, it’s not due to the app alone, but the taste to know how to compose images.