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The case for making your own design tools

In an era of off-the-shelf supertools, sometimes homemade is better.

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Designers really like this quote, and often use it when explaining why certain industries need to be more creative in the face of new challenges. We’re not so good at heeding it ourselves, though.

The tools available for doing creative work — especially in the digital realm — have never been so powerful or so easy to use. That’s made it easier than ever to make new things quickly, but it’s also nudging us steadily toward a design monoculture. Creative professionals from Brazil to Beijing increasingly default to the same set of software packages or web standards, just as they read the same blogs, and hang the same posters on their walls.

How do you work with app, cloud data, and hardware interactions all at once?

The most obvious problem here is that many tech-enabled experiences today look and feel the same, regardless of who designed them, or even, to some degree, what they do. But there’s an even bigger concern, in our view:

Over-reliance on commercially available tools prevents designers from taking full advantage of new technologies and responding to changing user needs.

Off-the-shelf digital tools lag several years behind what technology is currently capable of. We have available to us, right now: voice interaction, physical-digital bridging, AI and machine learning, VR/AR, living systems, wearables, and other non-screen endpoints. But we still tend to think of user experience primarily in terms of screens, not because we lack the interest or technical capacity to pursue other types of interaction, but because our design tools can’t imagine them yet.

We’ve always borrowed paradigms from established technologies, and that cripples our ability to design fluently in new ones.

For most of human history, people who make things have built their own tools, or had them built by people nearby. The Industrial Revolution shifted this somewhat, with the advent of interchangeable parts and assembly lines, but the link between maker and toolmaker remained quite close, with mass manufacturing tools still customized as a rule. Even modern tinkerers — whether woodworking, fixing cars or weaving carpets — tend to assemble their own unique toolkits, augmented with the odd hand-built gadget.

The digital world is different. Budding visual designers think nothing of buying a license of Adobe Creative Cloud and letting that be the beginning and end of their toolkit. On the web, off-the-shelf standards have made flavor-of-the-month sites so pervasive that it’s often difficult to tell one “disruptive” Web 3.0 service from the next.

Because after all, why NOT use Sketch, InVision, Illustrator, or whatever’s the current industry standard in your field?

These tools tend to be powerful, relatively easy to learn, and they get you to a professional-looking result quicker than anything else out there. They’ve become the design/tech equivalent of PowerPoint, allowing anyone with enough diligence to produce something that looks serious.

So we should clarify: we have nothing against these tools, and we use them ourselves. But we don’t use them exclusively. And we believe strongly that: Products and services would be smarter, more powerful and more human-centered if more designers expanded their toolboxes with customized or custom-built tools.

Design culture is hard to define, but its results are everywhere. Whether we’re talking about Bauhaus-era consumer products, Nordic Functionalist buildings, or the superflat aesthetic that’s defined app design for the past five years, design tends to flow in waves, as thousands of unconnected designers espouse similar ideas of what looks, works and feels right. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but it can lead to stagnation if those cultures become too entrenched, rehashing the same ideas and approaches over and over despite a changing world with evolving technology.

Design culture has several sources, but one of the most persistent is the tools that designers use. This is why the popular aesthetic of car design went from boxy to bubbly in the 1990s, then to sleek and blade-like in the 2010s: as the CAD available to car designers got more capable, their conception of what a car could be shifted too. It’s not quite correct to say that designers just made what was easiest to make, but we do tend to explore possibilities more fully when it’s easy to do so. We’re also good at convincing ourselves that what we’ve made isn’t just the best within that tool’s constraints, but the best, period.

Car design moves at a glacial pace, though, compared to digital-first categories like mobile devices, IoT and smart homes. When crafting early mobile experiences, we were stuck with tools from the desktop era (i.e. Illustrator and Photoshop) and this had profound influence on the kind of experience those devices delivered. This is why early mobile operating systems tended to resemble computer desktops, and it’s taken us more than a decade to recover.

What are we getting wrong in IoT right now because we’re still relying on tools developed for the screen-based devices of five years ago?

“Building your own tools” in the modern era can take many forms. The video game industry has done a good job of this, creating specific game design platforms like Unreal Engine and Unity 3D, and then building studio-specific tools on top of these. Legendary animation studio Pixar got a leg up in the 80s and 90s by creating RenderMan, a proprietary rendering application that was eventually embraced throughout Hollywood. Even Airbnb has its own tools for creating charming animations and generating code from low-fi wireframes.

Even as a relatively small, young design studio, Topp has put effort into shaping our own tools as well. The most notable example is Noodl, a digital prototyping platform that we use for building and sharing IoT, app and connected device experiences, internally and with clients. It took several years to build, but the effort’s been well worth it. The domains we work in are mostly brand new, which means any commercially available prototyping tools are already behind the curve.

Building our own tool lets us react to emerging technology in real time, and constantly improve the speed and fidelity of our prototypes. It also makes the tools themselves part of what we offer our clients: something we can shape to their needs, and use enable collaboration and feedback.

But even more important is this:

Using tools we’ve created helps us keep control of our own design culture, and hang on to the sense of exploration and self-determination that drew us to design in the first place.

It’s also a unique opportunity to design for ourselves — a taste of our own medicine, so to speak, that makes us more empathetic to the plight of clients and collaborators.

We won’t lie: building Noodl was a monumental task. But it wasn’t impossible, it wasn’t unpleasant, and we learned a tremendous amount along the way. Just as the tools for doing design work have gotten more powerful and easier to use, so have the tools for building the tools.

This DIY approach isn’t just limited to gee-whiz technological tools either. There’s also plenty of value to be found in building conceptual and strategic tools. So while some of us in the studio work on updating Noodl, others are identifying and cataloging effective UX patterns, creating reusable libraries of illustrations and animations, and writing up effective strategies for communicating research insights. We’ve recently started codifying the key attributes of successful creative workshops, based on our experiences hosting hundreds of them. Each of these organized observations becomes a tool in its own right, smaller but far more personal and powerful than anything publicly available.

And it doesn’t have to stop there. If you’re fed up with the results of traditional brainstorming, invent your own idea generation technique. If you have user researchers on staff who consistently get great results, encourage them to outline their process, and write it down. Whatever you’ve gotten good at through trial and error can — and should — be turned into a tool.

Building your own tools isn’t just a task for engineers; it’s a philosophy for good design, for every designer.

Design is an exploratory discipline, but that doesn’t mean we need to keep reinventing the wheel. If you’ve found something that’s worked four times, chances are it’ll also work the fifth, and that’s worth solidifying. No matter what your experience level, building or customizing tools is a worthwhile pursuit.

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Roger Andersson Reimer

Head Of Design & Co-Founder

roger@topp.se
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