Archive for 2009

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So you want to write a Photoshop killer

Posted on 24 January, 2009 at 3:28pm with 29 comments

The Macintosh platform is well-known for quality independent software, a fact that attracts an increasing amount of professionals looking to get away from overpriced and bloated enterprise software. Indie Mac software is usually well-tailored to a particular audience, has a streamlined interface with native controls, and comes at a bargain for the price. What’s not to love?

And yet, there is still one large (and vocal) market segment waiting for rescue from their corporate overlords. I’m talking about professional designers, photographers and artists, who continue to be slaves to Adobe and its golden goose, Photoshop.

Now, there are several independent apps out there that offer some of the functionality of Photoshop. Many of these are quite good: Acorn, Vector Designer, Pixelmator. But no graphics professional is going to use any of these apps instead of Photoshop, despite the much lower price tag. The problem is not that the apps don’t have useful features. It’s that they haven’t managed to target a segment of the population that uses Adobe software to do their job and present them an alternative with the feature set they need.

Well, I’m here to help. I’m presenting four professional user archetypes of Photoshop along with what features they would need to switch to another application. Note that they rarely overlap. Hopefully this illustrates the futility of appealing to all of these people at once. Pick one segment of users and fine-tune towards their needs.


Pierre the Painter

Pierre and others like him use Photoshop for something we call digital painting. Their typical workflow involves scanning a sketch or sketching onscreen with a tablet, then inking and painting the sketch with different kinds of brushes. They rarely if ever use vectors because they don’t have the same organic qualities as natural media, so they usually work at a very high resolution to allow for printing and exporting at a variety of sizes.

Essential features:

Brush editor: Size, shape, opacity, blending, pen pressure. The more options the better. Brushes are the crux of everything they do.

Peripheral support:
Must work seamlessly with their pen tablets and scanners.

Color tools: A fully featured and prominent color palette as well as an eyedropper tool that they can easily swap to from the brush. Color proofing tools are important for artists who want to print their work.

Smudge: Aids blending, should ideally have similar options to the brush tool.

Layers: Pierre uses layers and layer blending to build up a painting from bottom to top. Changes to layers should be in the form of layer properties – in other words, you can go back later at any time and add/remove effects. (We call this non-destructive editing.)

Wish list:

Canvas texture: Natural media textures that affect brush dynamics on the “canvas.”

Line correction: Automatic line smoothing, perhaps as a brush option, would help correct a shaky hand when inking bold lines.

Where others have done it right:

Take a look at the oekaki phenomenon. Oekaki typically uses a simple web-based illustration tool and enjoys massive popularity in Japan and all over the world. Even though the feature set is relatively small, a creative artist can achieve a wide range of visual effects.

Corel Painter is also quite good, but much more complex and just as crufty as Photoshop in some ways.


Dana the Designer

Dana uses Photoshop primarily to create mock-ups and layouts, usually involving a fair amount of text. She uses vector tools to draw shapes and embellishments, typographic tools for text layout and headings, and bitmap tools to add images to her design. Assembling all the various pieces of a design into a cohesive whole means she needs to be able to work easily with many different kinds of graphic elements.

Essential features:

Robust typography tools:
Design is 90% typography, so the more options here, the better. Kerning, anti-aliasing, conversion to paths – all the usual suspects.

Layers: The ability to move, group, lock, name and otherwise manipulate layers of all kinds is critical.

Layer effects: You should be able to add basic effects like stroke, drop shadow, transparency, etc. to any kind of layer. Same for blending effects. But keep it non-destructive! Anything you add should be removable later.

Basic vector tools: A pen tool, simple shapes and lines with the option for stroke/fill on any of them. Basic pathfinding tools (join, union, add/subtract) are a bonus.

Image masking:
Designers often don’t require extensive bitmap manipulation (level correction, etc) but do need to fit these images into shapes in their design.

Wish list:

Grid tool: Rules and guides are a given, but additional tools to help you set on a grid with pleasing proportions would be great.

System anti-aliasing: For web designers. A text tool that emulates the system anti-aliasing you’d see on various kinds of computers.

Where others have done it right:

Fireworks (originally Macromedia, now Adobe) is a good example of an app with a boiled-down feature set for designers. It includes “lite” versions of many tools you can find in Photoshop or Illustrator. Despite not being as powerful, many designers prefer it for its relative simplicity.


Patrick the Photographer

Patrick uses Photoshop primarily for post-production work on his photographs. He imports an image from his camera, opens it at a high resolution and does level/color tweaks on the image. He may also use some limited drawing tools for clean-up.

Essential features:

Level/color correction:
All the usual suspects for photograph enhancement. Non-destructive please! If you add a correction, you should be able to edit or remove it later.

Heal and clone: Used for cleaning up artifacts and photo manipulation.

Basic drawing tools: Airbrush-like drawing tools with blending options are helpful for enhancing a subject. Used often on pictures of models.

Quick mask: Easily isolate a subject or portion of the photograph for editing. The ability to have alpha properties on a selection further enhances this tool’s usefulness.

Wish list:

Automatic depth-of-field blur: Detect elements in the foreground and blur elements in the background. Useful for when you are working with low-quality photographs.

Photo browser: Interface seamlessly with the user’s library of photographs.

Where others have done it right:

Of the four archetypes, this one enjoys the best coverage on the Mac. Both Aperture and Pixelmator do a nice elegant job of working with photographs. Both of these are reasonable alternatives to Photoshop for professionals.


Ian the Illustrator

Illustrators and icon designers fall into the same group and generally need the same tools. They rely almost exclusively on vector tools to do their work, and the more powerful the better. They may work from initial sketches but otherwise rarely do hand-drawn work with a tablet.

Essential features:

Powerful vector tools: A well-designed pen tool, point/handle editors and pathfinding tools are all absolutely essential. Any path, once placed, should always be fully editable.

Standard gradient fills are a must have, but many will also want mesh gradients or gradients that follow a path.

Export to standard file formats: One of the reasons illustrators work in vectors is so the final output can be resolution-independent. You should be able to export to a variety of standards like EPS, SVG and PDF. Bonus if you can export to AI as well.

Bitmap layer for tracing: Your canvas should be able to support bitmap layers so you can easily trace over photographs with the pen tool.

Wish list:

Icon preview: Automatically generate a view that lets you preview your icon at a number of different sizes on various backgrounds.

Hand-drawing tools: Tools that convert input from a pen tablet to paths are great, but even better when you can use different kinds of brushes that respond to pen pressure.

Where others have done it right:

Sadly, I can think of no professional-grade vector illustration tool. Some swear by the open-source app Inkscape, but I’ve never seen it used in professional circles and don’t have much personal experience with it myself.


Say what you will about Photoshop, it’s pretty amazing that one single app services all four of these archetypes. However, the flip side of that is that for any one of them, 75% of the app’s features are totally useless. Specialization and customer service is where independent software is strongest. If you can align yourself with your users, and if you listen to their needs, you will find yourself with a very willing audience. We all hate paying $1k+ to Adobe for a bunch of features we never use. We’d much rather pay $50 to an indie developer for exactly what we need.

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