What we don't talk about when we talk about design tools

I have never met a designer who got a job because of the tools they use.

Yet designers talk about tools all the time. There is a seemingly infinite stream of articles in the design sphere covering everything from "Why Your Team Should Switch to InVision” to "Why Your Designs Look Better in Sketch” or even "30 New Must-Try Design Tools!”

In addition to the countless articles and videos covering design tools, we're seeing more new tools being produced almost every day.

For any designer today the sheer amount of stuff related to design tools can feel daunting, if not debilitating. Where do you look if you're just starting out? What new thing do you need to try if you've been designing for a long while? Who should you listen to when everyone is preaching the tools they use as being the best? How do you know which tool is right for you?

Trying different tools is of course important, and sharing details about the tools we love and how we use them is also valuable too. But when we obsess and salivate over every new thing in the industry we mistakenly fool ourselves, and others, into thinking the tools matter most.

Tools matter, but they can also be a distraction from real work.

We should be wary of designers who talk about tools without sharing their process too. The tools we use are only ever as good as our reasons and methods for using them.

A polished hammer does not make the job of hammering any easier, particularly if you're using the wrong end of it. A tool designed for one type or way of working may not be the right one for you. The tool you use to make magic may merely create a mess for another designer.

We're seeing so many new tools being produced because the cost for building a digital tool is lower than ever, but also (and primarily) because someone, somewhere, decided the tools that already exist weren't fulfilling their unique needs. This reasoning—of designers having unique needs—highlights the problem most of these design tools run into, and why so many articles about design tools are often little more than hot air or clever propaganda.

What type of designers use this type of tool to do what type of work?

Before any of us can rant and rave about the tools we use and why they matter — or before we should go off to build our own — we must first cover some important details:

  • What type of design do you do, specifically? Illustrations, VR or AR, apps (and for which platforms?), industrial, branding, web, furniture, healthcare, political, or something else?
  • What type of problems are you trying to solve through your designs? How large and complex or simple and straight-forward is the work?
  • What is your individual process of for taking designs from idea to execution? How did you learn, are you attempting to adjust or maintain?
  • Do you work on a team, and if so: how big is it, do you need to share files? Do you need to share files with non-designers, in specific formats or layouts?
  • Who else will be collaborating with you on the project, if anyone?
  • Where will you physically be working from, does your work require constant Internet access or substantial battery power?
  • Does your tool help with habits or processes you want to have? Or would a new tool help build better habits?
  • What are the technical requirements to your work, if any? Do you need to export assets at a certain size and density, or include redlines, or other details when sharing your designs?
  • Do you require any type of customization in your tools, such as plugins or third-party software that integrates with proprietary frameworks or APIs?
  • Is there budget for what you do, for your type of work, that impacts software licenses or support costs?
  • What processes are you currently using to do your job? Do you have resources or help available if you get stuck during the process?

When we look out at the swelling library of commentary on design tools the answers to these critical questions rarely come up. Yet, it does us no good to hear about the "most incredible new design tool” if it doesn't relate to the work we do, or how we work, or how our current tools might not be fully meeting our needs.

For the majority of designers the answers to these critical questions will be different, yet we treat conversations around tools as though they each serve every purpose, meet every need, check every box, for everyone.

We know this isn't the case: how you work is different than how I work. My design team has different needs than yours. Your company has different advantages and problems to solve than mine.

We should talk about design tools, but only if we can specify which designers, which contexts, which problems they help with.

Knowing this, why do designers occupy themselves with researching, writing, or talking about the latest, greatest tools all the time without sufficient context? Why are many designers almost obsessed with talking about tools?

Is it the tool or process we're talking about?

Frank Chimero explains it's partially because we, as creatives, often conflate our tools with our process:

Creative people tend to romanticize their tools. We place them on pedestals as the conduits for our ideas and the enablers of our craft. Contrastingly, though, I think all creatives believe that a good tool does not make a good designer, and a good designer does not need top-of-the-line special tools.

This is important: when we talk about the tools we use are we being clear about where our process ends and the tool begins? Or how our process leverages the tools effectively? Do we mention what's unique in our process that benefits the tool?

How do I pick the right tool for my work?

As Merlin Mann puts it:

Ultimately, the tools that we choose for any purpose will only be as useful as our ability to use them effectively and to understand what their improved quality means to the way we approach our work (as well as the challenges that led us to seek out these new tools). You can buy a successively more costly and high-quality series of claw hammers until you've reached the top of the line, but until you learn how to use them skillfully, you're going to keep making ugly bird houses.

If you're just starting in design: any tool is a good place to start.

If you're part of a university or school, see what other students are using and use that. If you're part of a team, ask what designers on the team are using and use that. Doing so will allow you to learn quickly, as whenever you run into any sort of problem you can get help or guidance from your peers.

If you've been designing for a while, look at what parts of your process the tool is either slowing you down or otherwise hindering you. If there's a tool that might work better for resolving that particular hiccup, experiment but certainly don't feel pressure to take the new tool on if it doesn't actually help you eg the work done.

Worry less about whether you're using the trendiest, shiniest, most hip tool, and instead focus on the tool that enables you to do what it is you need to do effectively and efficiently.