Photoshop, Illustrator, and Sketch: Selecting a weapon of choice

For many years, Photoshop was my primary tool for comps. It was perfect for those early days of designing web sites and templates. And with some trickery, assets for dev teams could be produced. Though not often easily.

But as my work shifted to application interfaces, the volume of screens increased significantly. And often, these screens used the same components over and over again. I found myself managing far too many layers and smart objects, turning them on and off constantly for prototype exporting.

While working with some of the teams at Google in Mountain View, I noticed that more and more designers were switching to Illustrator, so I decided to give it a try. It opened up a whole new world, and a great deal of relief when managing assets.

Years later, while working with Merlin Entertianments in London, a member of the UX team asked me repeatedly why I wasn’t using Sketch. After some pushing, I gave it a try, and have found it to be incredibly strong for managing components and assets for consistency, not to mention export prototypes easily. I’ve completely converted once again, and couldn’t be happier.

In the end, it’s not about the tool, however. As designers, we use tools simply to communicate and deliver. So the best tool is the one that takes care of the fussy bits and allows us to spend time solving problems.

Sketching first

I’m sometimes asked if I do pencil sketches of work before moving into wire frames and comps. Indeed, I do. Though not with pencil. I tend to use bold markers—usually black, sometimes gray, and never color—on marker paper. It’s actually the same paper that an art director I worked for in high school taught me to use, and I’ve never dared trying anything else. I tend to stockpile these pads in the event they stop production. If they ever do stop making it, and my supply runs out, the world will have officially come to an end for me.

These sketches are my way of solving structure and pattern problems. They're rough on purpose, and only rarely are seen by a client. But they serve their purpose as a first step in organizing my thoughts.

The interview question

Many years ago, well before opening my own little studio, I was exploring job opportunities and had the chance to interview for a great design position. The interview, I thought, was going well. Right up until I fell flat on my face.

The interviewer asked: What is your creative hobby?

I panicked. Most designers have some form of fine arts outlet. They paint, and sculpt, and draw. I don't paint. Or sculpt. I draw, but that's for work, so it really doesn't count. I knew he expected an answer like I love to capture the the blue-greens of the Sierra before a winter storm. The cold, dry air gives my oils a unique texture, capturing the essence of ... . Well, you get the idea.

What I wanted to say was that I really enjoy cooking, and I'd love to be a writer some day. But I was young, and too terrified to admit that my creative outlets weren't in the visual arts. I burbled some sort of disastrous nonsense, and the interview was over.

My pathetic flame out pushed me, albeit many years later, into writing. So while my creative hobby isn't visual, it's an outlet that's loads of fun. To date, I've published three novellas (under a family-based pseudonym) on Amazon. When I travel with my family or for work, I'm always looking around, collecting the smells and tastes, the way people walk and talk, and the cultural tensions.

So if I were asked that question today, I'd jump right in, and tell him my hobby involves flying around the world, using a helicopter to stop a rocket attack, catching spies gone bad, shutting down terrorist networks, sneaking into Gaza, disarming bombs, and all manners of catching bad guys. I'd explain that we work with colors and shapes and proportions all day long, so why not paint with words?


Beyond Google Help

Thanks to the collaborative environment Google fosters so well, I've had the chance over the years to work with several Google product teams, including Groups, Apps, and Cloud.

As exciting as the projects I worked with them on were, most were long-range, and will remain under wraps for quite some time. While I can't show samples of the designs, the exciting, dynamic nature of the projects will remain with me for a long time. 

Google Help

In the portfolio, I've shown just a single Google Help page. It's a tiny glimpse of one stage in its constant evolution, an evolution that I've been fortunate to be a part of over many years.

My work with the help teams at Google began in 2007, when I worked with them on design improvements to both the front- and back-ends of the system. Part of that project also included a restructuring of help content, defining an organization system centered around user needs. It was a substantial change, and one the team couldn't scope in at the time.

To my surprise, some Google colleagues held on to my early intentions-based structural sketches, and asked me to come back to Google to see it through. It was an exciting time then, restructuring content and navigation systems for all Google products, and joining in on a company-wide design overhaul.

We continued to work together over the years, refining navigation based on beautifully rich testing and analytical data, and evolving through another company-wide design change. Even today, as the design has evolved now to Material, the core structure we put in place remains strong.

I could add more samples, but really, today's help systems across Google do the best job of showing what we were able to do with efficiency. Add to that the great work the team is doing to constantly improve the design and bring it closer to products, and you have a wonderful system I'm proud to have been a part of creating.