Last Friday, we wrapped up our ten-part Tech Specs interview series, in which we talked to designers from a variety of sectors about their computer setups, most-used software, favorite apps, biggest tech gripes and related issues. Obviously, this is too small of a sample size to extrapolate any broad generalizations about the design community's tech needs and wants. Nevertheless, we noticed a handful of outstanding themes (and complaints) emerge from the interviews. Here are our seven top Tech Specs takeaways.
Immediacy is key
Over and over, our interviewees pined for a more immediate digital experience—for a way to interact with software via less clumsy interfaces and with fewer redundant tools, and with a far greater feeling of directness and intimacy. As Microsoft’s Andrew Kim pointed out, even with relatively straightforward drawing apps, “there’s still that difficulty of getting out the tablet, turning it on, going into the app, opening your notebook, creating a new page. It’s not the same as just opening your sketchbook and putting down an idea.” The digital artist Jonathan Harris made much the same point: “I wish it could be more direct, the same way a pencil is direct—you just make a mark and there is the mark, whereas with software there are all of these steps you need to go through in order to make a mark.” Maybe software can never achieve the same immediacy as paper and pencil, but the designers we interviewed are hoping it can get a lot closer than it has so far.
Of course, some of our interviewees were also wary of the effects of too much acceleration in the design process. As Ammunition’s Victoria Slaker told us, “being more responsive with the hardware [design] side of things, and more iterative—that’s something we’re always chasing. And that has pushed the ID and engineering side of hardware to go faster and just be more nimble.” And this can be a blessing and a curse.
Elaborate work does not necessarily require an elaborate computer setup
As a writer, I have a pretty bare-bones computer setup—laptop, external monitor, printer . . . that’s about it. Going into this interview series, I expected designers to have much more complex and personalized configurations, and for the most part this was not the case. Most of our interviewees use a MacBook Pro with an external monitor. A few also had a Wacom tablet or maybe an iPad, but for the most part everyone was focused on keeping their hardware as streamlined as possible.
Indeed, most of our interviewees do not consider themselves early adopters of new technology, and many were wary of adding new digitals tools to their workflows until absolutely necessary—and careful not to let the tech itself become too central to their designs. As Local Projects’ Paul Hoppe put it, “The technology is fascinating and it allows us to do what we do—but if that becomes the focus of the work, instead of thoughtful ideas and compelling stories, then we’re missing the point of why we’re designing and who we’re designing for.”
Analog tools still rule
This one is not so surprising: The designers we spoke to still sketch with a pencil or pen; they still build models using an X-acto knife and paper or foamcore; they still make to-do lists on sticky notes or whiteboards. Not everyone we talked to starts with physical media—Bresslergroup’s Thomas Murray has switched to 100-percent digital sketching—but everyone incorporated analog tools at some point in their process.
Apps are not a crucial part of anyone’s workflow
Designers certainly rely on their smartphones for e-mail, text messages, maps, photos and social media—as does virtually everyone these days. But when asked for apps that are crucial to their workflow, most of our interviewees struggled to name more than one or two kind of useful examples. Their favorites included some neat tools for distraction-free writing, photo editing, ordering lunch, creating legal agreements and viewing 3D files on the go. But none of them were absolutely essential to anyone’s design process.
Everyone just wants to work from the couch
OK, maybe not everyone—only a couple of our interviewees specifically mentioned the couch as an ideal spot for their design work. But almost everyone we talked to placed a high value on portability, and many of them were willing to sacrifice a bit of computing power in exchange for being able to work from anywhere. Ram Trucks design chief Greg Howell, for instance, initially worried that he wouldn’t be able run Alias on a laptop, but now he’s so hooked that he’s hoping for a tablet version next. And Outlier cofounder Abe Burmeister has embraced a dual computer setup, with a powerful desktop workstation and an iPad Mini for couch work sessions. Guess which one he spends the most time working on.
Dude, back up your work!
This last one is more of a recommendation than a takeaway. When we asked designers for to tell us about their most epic tech fails, most of the stories involved lost data—a hard drive that fell onto the floor at the worst possible moment; a MacBook that died in a remote mountain cabin; an office auto-backup system that turned out to be faulty. All of these designers learned the hard way the importance of religiously backing up their data. So if anyone out there has not yet devised a rigorous backup system, take heed! You don’t want to be the next designer to lose months of work to a spilled Coke.
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This article is part of the Core77 Tech-tacular, an editorial series exploring the myriad ways that technologies are shaping the future of design.
Mason Currey is a former Core77 editor and the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Previously, he was the executive editor of Print and the managing editor of Metropolis. His freelance writing has appeared in the New York Times and Slate, among other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.