Design, Art Direction, Graphics, Illustrations & Photography, in pixels or print. 
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Swimming against the tide?

I’ve been a long time fan of Adobe’s Creative Suite, from way back when they started binding together their various apps to slay the mighty Quark Xpress.

I’m a CS5 user myself and, despite the frequent criticisms of growing bloatware, the CS Suite is an awesome and comprehensive set of tools, in fact it covers pretty much everything a graphic designer needs. But the accelerating development path (and more particularly the expense involved) of the recent CS Suite upgrades has raised a few heckles in the Creative Industries. It’s understandable that a company of Adobe’s scale needs a certain degree of profit to sustain their considerable momentum and also that they clearly wish to be seen as catering for the ‘Pro’ market, but the entire concept of software ‘Apps’ is currently undergoing serious re-evaluation as the platforms, marketing practices and the Apps themselves continue to evolve.

There’s an increasing number of alternatives cropping up to seriously challenge Adobe’s products and, while Adobe always had competition, the nature of their competitors has changed significantly. As the Mac OS has gained in popularity (including an overlap with the booming iOS world) developer resources have grown to reflect this. The big guns of the software market have always had competition from talented independent developers, but now those independents have access to a very mature programming ecosystem - and online marketplaces on a scale that they could never have dreamed of just a few years ago.

Granted these competitors are usually stand-alone applications and no-one is producing the convenient all-in-one toolbox that Adobe offers. However, a set of well designed single-focus applications, operating to industry standard file types, can achieve similar results and often with only a little more inconvenience. But by far the most compelling reason to try any of these competing apps is that they’re only a fraction of the cost of the Adobe products, so even if you have to buy three or four apps it’s still a huge saving over the cost of the complete Adobe Suite.

In the Creative Industries, as with many others, the trend driven by ever-improving digital toolsets has been towards a low (and decreasing) cost of entry for new talent. This has helped reveal some amazing new talent in Music, Design, Video and the Arts in general. But Adobe’s pricing policies for their Creative Suite appears to go against this low-cost trend, most noticeably with the new services and extensions to their existing CS Suite, intended to encourage content development for iPad/tablet publishing.

Currently the potential of the iPad as a publishing platform is generating a lot of excitement, with some very interesting start-ups making their intentions known. For example, this post (from the Adorama blog) on the impressive work from Pushpoppress, initially for Al Gore’s ‘Our Choice’ iPad book:

A team of ex-Apple engineers have created a specialized book publishing service for iPad. Originally created for a one-off multimedia version of Al Gore’s environmental opus, Our Choice, Push Pop Press has emerged into a full-fledged development platform, which promises to bring drag-and-drop simplicity to the process of creating multimedia books. It’s an obvious competitor to Adobe’s suite of digital publishing tools for iOS, which have a prohibitive price barrier and learning curve, suited more for developers than artists and writers. Now you don’t need an engineering degree to design an attractive user experience.

Of course it has yet to be seen if they will eventually sell this software to the public - and if it really will be as easy as it appears to produce such specialised content. But, like a few others, they see the opportunity for a lightweight dedeicated authoring App and I believe their approach to this is definitely on the right track.

And this from Wired Magazine:

The 800-pound gorilla in this digital space is Adobe, whose tools are used to create some tablet periodicals (including the iPad version of WIRED magazine). But the complexity — and expense — of Adobe’s Creative Suite is an opportunity for new entrants in the self-publishing game.

Sadly I think it is very unlikely that Adobe will attempt to make their pricing more competitive, as they still appear focussed more on the established (and presumably better monied) Pro market rather than those struggling to become the next generation of that market.

So what do you think?

Are you an established Pro who can easily afford the latest and greatest from Adobe and could care less about their costs?

Or are you a design graduate trying to balance your need for quality software tools with your bank account?

A new icon for iThoughts

Ithoughtsicon 114Much as I love using my iPad it’s only as good as the apps that run on it and ‘good’ for official ‘business’ apps is especially important as these are not for casual entertainment. Efficiency and fit-for-purpose are the main reasons for buying business apps in the first place.

A while ago I was looking for a good mindmapping app for my iPad and, while waiting for the ‘official’ Buzan app, I discovered iThoughts HD. The Youtube demos were very impressive and it was further encouraging to read some very positive testimonials to iThoughts from a lot of folks whose opinion I respect, including one of my heroes, Steve Krug.

IThoughts HD makes great use of the iOS touchscreen, offering an intuitive and fluid experience that makes it easy to focus on the work of actually building the mindmap, rather than the tools being used to build it. I’m convinced the touch interface actually makes for much more efficient mindmapping experience than a desktop UI, there is something unique in driving data around the screen directly just using your fingers. I find this with many of the more ‘mature’ iOS touch apps, where the developers have taken full advantage of what iOS is capable of. Some tasks seem to be a natural fit for a touch-driven interface, if the apps themselves are designed well.

Most good developers will put their best into programming and coding their app, which is the right thing to do after all, but some surprisingly neglect the presentation of their app (and it's usefulness) to potential customers. Unfortunately neglecting the presentation of an app could significantly hobble the sales potential of the finished offering.

The iTunes App Store is an eye-candy battleground, with the bar already set high for quality of presentation. When faced with a row of competing and similarly featured apps a potential customer will be easily swayed by a more polished, professional and 'expected' icon for an app, rather than a weak ‘DIY’ attempt from someone who is obviously not a designer.

I have actually bought some great functioning apps that display poor branding and icons, but only after fairly exhaustive research in gaining enough trust to overcome the mis-matched branding. Unfortunately most potential customers won’t undertake that amount of work before deciding on buying an app.

So I contacted Craig Scott, the developer of iThoughts, and suggested that improvements could be made to the core icon for his app and the presentation of it via website, iTunes Store, etc. Craig was under no illusions about the quality of the existing icons for iThoughts HD and readily understood the need for improvement. Although I’m familiar with mindmapping apps I asked Craig to brief me on how he wanted iThoughts HD presented and, taking this into consideration, I proceeded to develop some concepts for a new icon style for iThoughts HD.


Ithoughts icons sketches


From the initial pencil concepts Craig chose one to take to a more polished visual treatment, he had a clear idea of the elements we should use in the icon as he primarily wanted to convey the purpose of the iThoughts HD app itself. So I worked on the concept of branched nodes, a fairly direct visualising of what a mindmap typically looks like. I particularly wanted to keep the elements strong and simple, for swift recognition and clarity at the smallest image sizes, such as document attachment icons. We both agreed on a strong contrasting colour scheme, saturated blues and a bright orange, for contrast on the finished icon. The icon works best when it is quickly identifiable, to help sales in the iTunes Store and for actual use on the iOS device itself.

Ithoughts oldnew icon

I’m pleased to have heard positive feedback from Craig that the new-look icon was well received by his customers and it’s also good to see that the presentation of the iThoughts app now more closely matches the experience of using Craig’s excellent software.


Ithought masthead banner


Craig was lucky too when iThoughts was chosen to appear as a featured app on the iTunes Store. I created a few banners for this and enjoyed seeing iThoughts displayed prominently on the storefront, for a short while.

If you’re familiar with mindmapping, and are an iOS user check out the iThoughts apps, for iPhone and iPad.


I ‘shopped the Sheriff!

Back in the day it was called airbrushing and indeed I once wielded this magical, mythical illustration tool myself, long before Digital roamed the earth.

Today Photoshop is the ‘daily driver’ for most of us with more than a passing interest in image editing and illustration, and rightly so, as Photoshop sports an amazing roster of tools which truly make ‘Ye Olde Airbrush’ appear barbaric by comparison. Strangely it is interesting to note that although Photoshop’s digital toolbox is very sophisticated the techniques of masking, painting and shading etc. are still remarkably similar to the days of airbrush and ink.

When I first saw what Photoshop could do I immediately realised that my beautifully made Iwata airbrush was now an antique. The flexibility and speed of working in Photoshop was a total culture-shock from the glacial pace (and the ensuing high costs) of airbrush work, with the icing on the cake arriving in the form of Wacom digital tablets and pens. 

So here we are years later and the efficiency of Photoshop has driven retouching work from mainly a salvage operation well and truly into the realms of illustration. 

Software advances have significantly accelerated the use of retouching, of course (Photoshop CS5 has just been released as I write this), but much of this type of work is still crafted manually and can be time-consuming as it often requires a high level of actual drafting skills. For professional retouching a Wacom tablet is also pretty much an essential requirement, as is developing some degree of skill in using it. The big deal here is that Photoshop now does so much of the grunt-work that I can spend much more time exploring the more creative possibilities when editing my images.

The photographs shown on this post were part of a website design for Mainstream Renewable Power, and are intended to convey that they are a ‘people company’, so at concept stage I suggested we create images of their own personnel, but with a creative approach that allowed us to feature them prominently as part of their website design and to reinforce the newly developed corporate ID. 

Well in advance of the shoot I sourced some real-world props that I could retouch to transform them into elements of the brand, these props were specifically chosen with regard as to how I could illustrate them in post-production to suit our brief. So in this case the photos were shot specifically to be retouched. 

I was pleased we were able to accomplish this featuring the real heroes of the company, Mainstream’s own personnel, as opposed to models, and Mainstream themselves were very happy with the results.

Roll-over the retouched images to see the original images we started with...

The photos were all taken by the very talented Phil Smyth The full set of images may be seen in the masthead area on Mainstream’s current website here.