Where’s Adobe Taking Us?

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image: jer thorp's "random number multiple," from flickr

image: jer thorp's "random number multiple," from flickr

So now that we’re all coming off a long weekend, I have a broader look at an issue we’ve all been discussing lately: where design’s marketplace is going.

The short answer to that is: screen-based devices. We all know this. Print is going to continue to become more of a specialized practice area, just like design for motion, like design for the web. Magazine publishing will more than likely continue moving to tablets and devices.

The problem with this movement from print to devices is that designers are not being taught in any way how to create programmed objects in design curricula, period. A keen understanding of the web is hard enough to find in today’s design curricula, and deep programming knowledge is nonexistent. Clearly, tools need to be made to bridge where educational institutions are failing.

The company who designs all our toolsets is in a position where they absolutely must lead the way into the future of publishing. Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Adobe’s Lea Hickman, who’s the VP of the Creative Suite team, and product manager for the Design and Web segments. I asked her a few questions about where Adobe’s leading publishing and design. Not just the CS tools, not just digital publishing—all of Adobe.

In a nutshell, Lea said that Adobe’s core market is, not surprisingly, visual designers without extensive technical knowledge but broad visual skills. Adobe’s current focus is on making visual tools for people who cannot program. That points to a few things which have happened pretty recently.

Firstly, Muse, which was recently released in a beta form. The tool is pretty decent from my first rough sketch in the site—its code is a bit of a wreck, but not much worse than the kind of automatically generated code from within WordPress or Tumblr, two of the most broadly-adopted tools designers are using. (I expect the code to improve, but not for designers’ benefits.)

Muse is interesting in that it’s the first time Adobe’s generated a purely-visual design tool for the web. Combined with its hosting and analytics services with Business Catalyst, this is new tool that will open Adobe to a whole new segment of the market it currently can’t reach (and this is a benefit to everyone, as far as I can see): the single designer who needs a place to host sites, but lacks the technical knowledge to handle it themselves.

This shift in employment, from designers working inside companies to designers working on their own, is also clearly in effect in Adobe’s new subscription pricing, as it should be. While subscription pricing has generated some heat from the design press, the truth of the matter is: corporate employment is disintegrating, and the economy is becoming a broader marketplace of smaller entities. Adobe’s basic decision here is: keep its eighteen-month upgrade cycle, and continue hemorrhaging revenue to software piracy (because none of us can afford $1800 in a single chunk) or break down the revenue into smaller pieces—so smaller entities can afford to participate.

One effect here that nobody’s really pointed out, except a single commenter on this post, is that if a company goes to the subscription model it can become more nimble and let its department of freelancers grow and shrink as necessary. Lea emphatically agreed with this point.

One thing Lea pointed out that will help us work more nimbly is a sort of listening period, during which Adobe listens to the public, makes a curatorial decision as to which requests are most feasible, and then implements them into tools and apps more quickly than they have been able to in the past.

If you’ve been working in InDesign lately, like I have been, you’ll have seen this happening recently as Adobe’s tablet-based publishing initiative has gotten more ramped up and the interface evolves in response—and, in fact, the entire development cycle of that workflow has been in response to a field trial during which Adobe designed a workflow while Condé Nast decided what they needed. Before digital publishing, this rapid call-and-response development between a company and its clientele was unheard of.

I asked Lea what Adobe’s involvement with the developer community was going to be, moving forward, since the company had essentially eaten its competitor specializing in developer tools. She pointed to Adobe Edge, which I somehow never heard about—it’s a tool which allows coders and developers to work out complex JavaScript, HTML, and CSS3-based animations and programmatic content, taking over some of Flash’s simpler functions. She also pointed out that Adobe’s been actively involved in JQuery’s development, which I was totally unaware of. (JQuery is a widely-used JavaScript library which powers a lot of the animated content you see on the web and on tablets lately.)

The most interesting thing Lea told me in the entire hour we had together was this: for the Muse development, the InDesign team members were instrumental in helping Muse developers abstract away confusing coded items that don’t mean anything to designers. While that sentence is a small one, it’s absolutely packed with meaning. It means that the future designer will be simultaneously more involved and further removed from technical code, especially on small jobs. And most importantly, it proved that there are valuable lessons to pass between static and interactive design disciplines.