You Are More Than Your Software

You Are More Than Your Software

Software is great. It makes our work faster, more efficient, and gives us more design power and capabilities that we otherwise would not have had. Software is also a crutch. Too many designers depend on their software to be able to design, to the point that they can no longer function if they’re not working in the exact right software environment, or even environment setup.

The advent of digital technology allowed us to do things faster, better, and in ways, we could have never imagined. The issue with software is that we can become very dependent on it without realising it.

When we interface with a tool, we frame our work process within a pre-defined mindset, or other words, the capabilities of the medium we’re using.

I love prescribing designers a pen and paper when they find themselves blocked. I got this idea from my professor, Jay Randle, who must have gotten it from someone else. A pen is a tool that does not limit you, nor does it introduce a pre-defined framework to work within. Your only real limitations are your visual representation abilities and patience.

Why a pen and paper?

It’s simple.

When you work with a screen, it limits your frame of reference. Your screen has a specific viewport size that you cannot see past, and how much you see is dependent on how much you’ve zoomed into the work area.

With a pen and paper, you can zoom in to a specific area, while also using your peripheral vision to get a full view of the artboard. This nature of a pen and paper is something software up until today has not managed to recreate.

You might be able to get closer to the experience if you had a big enough screen, but what’s the likelihood you have an A1-sized screen ready for you to work directly on?

Think about it. When you look at a paper, you can zoom in and out by either physically placing yourself closer to the drawing or surface, or focusing on an area. Your eyes can still see the surrounding environment with clarity. A big enough screen might show you the surrounding, but the visual clarity will be affected by the physical size of a pixel.

The Hand-Mind Interface

The way your hand flows on paper is also another factor.

With a screen you’re working with a mouse, or if you’re lucky a Wacom tablet. The way your hands work with either device is a lot more mechanical than it is with a free-flowing pen.

Your mouse is your first limiting factor. Your mind needs to send a signal to your hands, which need to interface with a mouse. You have to point and click. If you’re using a Pen tool, you’ll end up having to guess how you want your lines to look and pull anchor points to get it just right. If you’re using a tool that allows for freehand lines, you’ll struggle to create smooth lines if you are not using a tablet.

In contrast, a pen and paper allow you to draw lines accurately depending on your drawing abilities. There is no intermediary between your mind, your body, and the artboard.

The Loss of Understanding

I am not writing this as an argument against using software, but to warn designers of the limitations a software might impose on their design process.

On the contrary, software has empowered designers. We can create work significantly faster, and we can share our work freely with one another. It has allowed us to create designs we never thought possible through the simple click of a button. Look at the parametric design, these are design systems that would have been incredibly complex to create, but software makes it incredibly easy.

There is a risk of not fully owning the design process through the use of software. A click of a button might create an object that looks ‘cool’, but we might have no idea why it looks the way it does. It’s a slippery slope that can lead us to forget or lose the purpose of our design. We end up leaving too many things up to chance, and as a result, create undesirable consequences that we might not be aware of until a long time has passed.

I like to use a simple rule to deal with this type of situation:

If you don’t know why a command does something, or how it does it, then steer clear of it until you do understand it’s logic.

Use the wrong programs.

Don’t be afraid to design an architectural project in After Effects, go for it, and while you’re at it try and create a poster in AutoCAD. What have you got to lose? Experiment!

Mix and match between your software and the boundaries they impose. The final product will always surprise you for better or for worse.

Don’t limit yourself to one program. The programs you use will define how you approach a design problem. Don’t let your software determine who you are or how you design. Today you might master Illustrator, but you’ll never know if it becomes obsolete tomorrow.

If you find your software is limiting you, or if you find yourself banging your head against a wall because you can’t solve an issue, then change the method you’re using to design.

Is the digital environment limiting you? Grab a pen and paper and draw freely, then translate your work digitally. Your programs are tools, and that’s all they should ever be: tools that help you solve a problem.

If a tool is giving you a hard time, change it and tackle the problem from a different angle.

Final Thoughts

Software is both a blessing and a curse. If you misuse software, you will find yourself depending on it to design. Your dependency on software can imprison you and peg you into only one specific frame of mind.

Treat your software as part of your toolkit, and understand what their limitations are. Understand your tools, and what they’re capable of, and don’t be afraid to throw them out for more unorthodox methods. If you allow yourself the flexibility of using multiple tools, both digital and analogue, then software will empower you.

Never forget that you are the designer. Software is only one of your tools.