Design Tools as Materials in the Creative Process

March 20, 2023

Like a painter switching from oil to acrylic or an carpenter working with oak rather than their usual mahogany, many advances have occurred when new materials have been used while practicing the same creative activity.

Much has been written about how tools or methods influence the creative process, but I think it’s worth thinking about the impact of materials. Using the painter analogy to articulate this let’s assume that despite changing paint type they’re still using the same brush, in the same way, on the same canvas. If we apply this to Product Design (and here is where I contradict myself as materials in the digital world manifest themselves as tools so go with me…), you use a different tool (Figma, Framer, code etc.) to create the same interface or component to solve the same problem.

Why do I think this is important? Well sadly I feel we’ve entered an age where Product Designers are expected to become a one-tool-person in the name of efficiency, which limits our opportunities to make new discoveries by experimenting with new tools.

After all your employer doesn’t pay for you to experiment, they want you to produce more at an ever faster rate. And while the employer-employee relationship has evolved to judge individuals on outcomes, not time spent, efficiency is now the focus-du-jour in the age of Elon-inspired company building. This is in-spite of the fact that just like managing our own money or making decisions, none of us know how to be efficient with our time (we wouldn’t spend so much time doom-scrolling if we did).

The disappointing part is that this move to efficiency, is happening at a time when the quality of the tools available and what they can help you achieve is truly staggering. And if we continue along this path and the opportunity to inject new things into your daily routines will forever be deprioritised.

Just imagine if artists, scientists, engineers or even your regular-ol’ software designers, aren’t given the space to explore with new materials in their hands, and progress is left alone to those watching their time in pursuit of profit, we’ll likely be much worse off.

Now I recognise that constraints are a critical part of the creative process - but so is experimentation. Even boredom, which only occurs if given time, can lead to discoveries that are simply not possible if we’re always heads down.

Let’s take for example how I design in Figma. Now this isn’t a boast, but I’ve got my shortcuts down, I add auto-layout to everything, and I even name layers as I go (as it actually saves me time in the long run). Does this inhibit exploration, 100%, but I’m just so familiar with the tool and process, I honestly can’t use it any other way.

However, when using new tool, which I force myself to do and carve time out for, my goal isn’t to get bogged down with the structure and hierarchy of things or even use the features that have been thoughtfully designed “correctly”, it’s to get to the point where I can start to see things in a new light - perhaps a feature in Framer or CSS or even Keynote, might provide fresh insight into how to solve a particular problem I’m having (or just provide more ideas). Sure I could use Figma that way, but to be honest I’ve forgotten how.

So for those of us that have always wanted to try a new tool, but feels its a waste of time, I say ignore that. Waste an hour. Waste a day. I guarantee that what you discover (if only pleasure) will be worth it. And if you find yourself thinking that you’re wasting time, then just remind yourself that you might discover something that will save you (and your company) more time in the future.

Onwards! ✌️

Got feedback? Let me know over on Twitter.