OPINION

The future of design tools

A new perspective on the past, present and future of design tools

Written by Ahmed Al-Ismaily
Published July 5, 2024
Last updated July 13, 2024
Disclaimer: This opinion be edited for clarity and brevity over time
PRELUDE

A boy full of wonder

It was the year 2006, and I was 13 years old. Our teacher walked us over to a new class, “Computer Lab”. I took my seat on a small plastic chair in front of a translucent turquoise teardrop-shaped iMac G3. I remember the design leaving an impression on me. It felt alien and futuristic. 

It was the first day so they let us play around with the computers as a sort of low-touch onboarding experience. I opened the Applications folder and spotted an application icon that caught my attention. I clicked into it and Kid Pix booted up. I was intrigued but unsuspecting. 

Within a few clicks, the screen came to life with animated textures, sounds and motion. I was in a daze, locked in a creative stupor, swirling down a never-ending whirlpool of randomly generated content. I had no idea computers were capable of such serendipity. My mind was struggling to capture the breadth of what I was experiencing. It sucked me in. 

From that day forward, I fell in love with computers. More importantly, being eternally tethered to the promise of tools unlocking creativity. The radical idea of bringing ideas to life in seconds never left me. Ever since that day, I’ve been chasing the euphoria of creation.  

For years I would gaslight myself, coping and convincing myself that I was being unreasonable to have a tool that realized the promise of accelerating human creativity on an exponential scale. At other times, I told myself to be patient because one day one of the big companies like Adobe, Sketch or Figma would come along and deliver true to the promise of such a tool. That day never came. 

Disappointed and disillusioned, I turned to history to study the path of design tools as a way to understand how we landed here in the first place and potentially how we might move forward.

The PAST

Magic wands & gold diamonds

In the beginning

To gain a deeper understanding of design tools, we must go where it all began: Adobe Photoshop. While there are other significant touchpoints such as pen to paper or oil to canvas, the personal computer or the iPhone, it’s Adobe Photoshop that marks the inflection point of what would become a Cambrian explosion of creative digital works. Nothing would ever be the same. 

Adobe Photoshop was created in 1987 as an image editing program by Thomas and John Knoll. Photoshop popularized the concepts of editing images through layers and direct manipulation. Although Photoshop was primarily designed for image editing, it became an extremely popular tool for designing posters, websites and even software applications. The premise of Photoshop required direct manipulation, which meant that you needed to use a mouse and subsequent clicking to achieve your desired result. 

In 2008, I came into contact with Adobe Photoshop, again in a computer lab class. I vividly recall using the magic wand tool and clone stamp tool on images. I was immediately blown away. It was no Kid Pix but it was impressive. The ability to easily digitally manipulate media was mind-blowing. Our reality is largely informed by our perception and with digital manipulation we could change what people see, consequently changing their perception of reality. If Kidpix was the embodiment of chaotic creativity, Photoshop embodied lawful creativity. 

Like many other designers, my formal relationship with Adobe Photoshop began with poster design, then apparel and website design and finally software design. In 2014, I was tasked with designing the KFC Canada app. I was very excited. 

I inherited a project that contained dozens of PSD files, littered with linked PSB objects. The tiniest change could take days. The excitement soon dwindled into dread. I vividly recall a screen that was a map of KFC locations that used chickens as pin icons. The previous designer had titled the layers “f***ing chickens”. 

The pure play of designing had faded away. Design became a laborious, tedious job. Deep down, I knew it wasn’t right. I knew that there had to be a better way. But my young mind at the time, was not able to compute what a better way would look and feel like. The need was there but the conceptualization was too far and distant. I couldn’t grasp it no matter how hard I tried. And so like everyone else, I settled and chugged along.

Gold diamonds

In 2010, Photoshop’s reign over digital design faded into irrelevance with the rise of a new tool that took the design world by storm: Sketch. The gold diamond application icon embodied a new generation of lawful creativity, focused exclusively on digital design. The makers of Sketch knew very well that Adobe Photoshop was a Swiss Army Knife and the majority of the tool remained unused. While retaining the same interaction premise of direct manipulation via mouse, they went on to strip away all the cruft to build a tool custom for designing apps and websites. 

It was a hit. The minimal elegance of the tool was exactly what people wanted and needed. Coupled with brilliant plugins and a robust ecosystem, Sketch became the king of the digital design world. Sketch’s revolutionary impact lay in its premise of being purpose-built for digital design. Sheer focus on a specific problem set and space proved to be a winning strategy. 

Sketch felt like a breath of fresh air. It was the first time designers felt that the tool was made for us. Like a glove that just fit. An app focused on digital design, exclusively available on the designer’s platform of choice: Apple. 

In contrast, it was abundantly clear Adobe Photoshop hardly possessed any features that directly addressed designing for software. Adobe was lucky to have a community of creators who were successful in being crafty with Photoshop to get it to work for software design. 

Even back then, you would see a lot of “PSD to HTML” services and software. The desire to get closer to the machine, the metal, the code has always been there on the horizon but always too far for us to grab it.

My love for Sketch reached its peak when I began to use Sketch Runner, a tool that lets you design faster by allowing you to perform quicker actions with your keyboard. It was like a command line but for design. It was amazing. I would zoom through my design work because of Sketch Runner. I knew deep down that Sketch Runner was the first clue in what the next generation of creative tools would look like.

Blips of the future

My curiosity was piqued and I was naturally prompted to search for new tools. I found Subform by Ryan Lucas and Kevin Lynagh which allowed you to design UI with dynamic layouts and real front-end code. I eagerly signed up for the waitlist, but they closed up shop before I could get a chance to use it. The tiny hope I had was snuffed out. Disappointed, again. 

I then stumbled upon Sketch.system built by the creators of Subform which allowed you to “Sketch out states, add prototypes, and clarify questions quickly” simply by typing. It was mind-blowing. I knew at that time that the secret to the future had something definitely to do with typing. Because with a few words, you could flush out states and logic. Another clue into the future of design tools.

Later I discovered Airshots, an internal tool by creative technologists at AirBnb. Seeing this tool turned my brain upside down. Airshots allowed designers to see how their app on production looks and works on any device, platform or language; it was mind-blowing. Slowly but surely, an idea of a new tool began to take shape and form inside of my mind. Over the years, it would become less blurry and more clear.

THE PRESENT

A new game: Multiplayer

What goes up, must come down

Sketch’s tool began to bloat and became a far cry from its minimal beginnings. It had become a late-stage design tool, burdened by feature complexity. Its decision to remain exclusive to Apple would also prove to be problematic in the future.   

In 2016, a new entrant debuted a multiplayer web-based design tool known as Figma. For a while, the tool was not taken seriously and sometimes even drew ridicule because it ran in the browser. Like Sketch’s early beginnings, Figma also began as a relatively simple tool and combined with speed, it caught the attention of many. 

Figma’s multiplayer feature became a flagship feature and allowed the company to differentiate, achieve product market fit and it grow quickly. In a few years, Sketch had come to be seen as a legacy Apple tool and Figma was seen as the new multi-platform tool. Combined with a friendly brand and a passionate global community, Figma was very much on its way to being king - and it still is.

Fast forward to today and Figma’s usage amongst designers is ubiquitous. They’ve achieved a miraculous amount of market saturation with multiple layers of customer lock-in. It is objectively impressive as both a business and engineering feat. They’ve had quite the run. 

Today, when Figma launches new features they are met with massive fanfare. Like most designers, I revered the exciting new features and updates. But over time I began to grow weary of the huge flares of excitement since they would eventually fizzle away against the backdrop of the daily grind. The shiny stuff is cool, but what’s going to make my life easier day-to-day? What will provide a leapfrog change in my design outcomes? I want changes that will multiply my creativity and productivity, not incremental changes. 

Figma’s AI snafu is a good example of shiny stuff that doesn’t really help with day-to-day work. Many of the issues Figma’s AI was attempting to solve were non-problems for most designers. Their AI seemed to lean more towards replacing the creative aspect of a designer’s work, rather than replacing the mundane aspect of a designer’s work. Had they focused on the latter, Figma AI would have been met with much fanfare.

Emerging technology must naturally fit within the customer experience, rather then innovating for innovation’s sake. How emerging technology like AI fits into our everyday lives to provide regular casual value rather then remaining as novelty is one of the greatest challenges technology companies will continue to face.

Shadows on the wall

I would continue to reminisce on the memories of old, of Kidpix where in a few clicks I was off to the races. And so I had to come to believe that with the current state of design tools, all that glitters is not gold. I broke free from the shiny object syndrome that had such a profound grip on so many of us. But despite breaking free, I was still left with disenchantment and disillusion about what could be. What began to bother me, was our acceptance of a miserly status quo which reminded me of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:

“In the allegory "The Cave", Plato describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners' reality, but are not accurate representations of the real world. The shadows represent the fragment of reality that we can normally perceive through our senses, while the objects under the sun represent the true forms of objects that we can only perceive through reason. Three higher levels exist: the natural sciences; mathematics, geometry, and deductive logic; and the theory of forms.

Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are actually not the direct source of the images seen. A philosopher aims to understand and perceive the higher levels of reality. However, the other inmates of the cave do not even desire to leave their prison, for they know no better life.[1] Socrates remarks that this allegory can be paired with previous writings, namely the analogy of the sun and the analogy of the divided line.”

To break away from the shadows on the cave wall, I began to try to understand what exactly the problem is with the design tools we have today. I firmly believe that four central issues clearly articulate the problem space.

A crack in the crown

The first issue I came to realize was that the primitives in design tools are all wrong. We design for products and software, but the tools we use have no understanding of such concepts. When you design there is data, business logic, products, features, states and more. In the tools today, there is no conceptualization of these concepts. Instead, we get projects, pages and layers which don’t map correctly to the primitives of how products and software work and do not map to how engineers think about their code. The mismatch represents a deep epistemological problem with design tools. The rift isn’t simply a gap between design and code, it’s the gap between the concepts that exist within the design tools and the concepts that exist in real-world software and products. 

The second issue with design tools is that making changes remains a tedious and rote task, especially when designing at scale. It feels like very little has changed in terms of productivity, since the time I designed the KFC app in Photoshop. Even in Figma, simple changes can take hours. 

The third issue is the lack of intelligence. The tool has no idea what I’m currently doing or what I’m trying to do. I wish design tools knew that for example, I was designing an iOS app so it could offer me guidance on best practices or correct me on mistakes that I’m making with design conventions. Devtools for example, know which programming language you’re using, and what variables you’re using and as a result will help you correct your mistakes. IDEs have some level of intelligence on what you’re trying to achieve. 

The fourth issue is the inability to simulate your designs against real word constraints like screen size, internet connectivity, language, platform and accessibility. Designers including myself can only manually design so many states and with no ability to see how your one design looks against the many permutations of real-world constraints, we remain deeply ignorant to what users experience.  

But even with a clear articulation of the issues at hand, we are still plagued with a crisis of imagination. It’s very difficult to imagine a different way of designing and working. For 37 years, the legacy of direct manipulation has endured without change. It is rightfully powerful but also by that same degree, deeply problematic as it restraints interaction to click inputs.  

In a search for answers, I began to look into dev tools. In 2015, my good friend Mohammed El-Mahallawy taught me front-end. I’ve realized since then, that my experience with dev tools has been superior to that of design tools: coding in IDEs that lint your code for syntax and errors; hot reload so you can see your designs in real-time; running commands in the terminal to automate tasks or pull packages. Having an idea, being able to build the idea and seeing the idea play out in real time was euphoric. It brought me back to using Kid Pix all those years ago. It was then that I knew that the answer lay in dev tools. I knew code and command lines would have a critical role to play in the future of design tools. With all the clues in hand, the stage had been set. All I had to do now was to put all the pieces together.

A BREAKTHROUGH

A new paradigm

In 2023, I toiled over countless concepts for a new design tool. At every turn, it felt like I ran into a brick wall. Then I made a breakthrough. The veil of ignorance lifted and 17 years of darkness dissipated. I had finally come up with a concept that successfully reconciled the issues of primitives, productivity, intelligence and testing.

I titled this newest creation, Falcon. It embodied everything I had aspired in a tool. Speed. Velocity. Intelligence. And most of all, the ability to get a bird's eye of what you’re building. I couldn’t believe it. From there on out, I would make it my life’s work to bring Falcon into the hands of every designer around the world.  

When I began, I had a difficult time explaining Falcon to people. I was using tired concepts and dated ideas to communicate. Then I realized that I had to come up with new definitions to pave the way for a new kind of thinking that would help people grasp what we want to do with Falcon. 

I found an old, but well-known, interview with Steve Jobs where he describes computing as a “bicycle for the mind”. This metaphor began to live in my head rent-free. Falcon is a motorcycle for the creative mind, one that accelerates you toward your destination and that can keep up with your speed of thought... It’s design compute

Design compute will be the way to craft your designs at scale. It will give designers the ability to easily automate, augment and simulate their designs. “Design once, test everywhere” is the ethos of design computing. 

Falcon will pave the way to show the world that the future of design tools will go from pixels to code, from multiplayer to multiagent and from direct manipulation to multimodal prompts (text, voice and more). Falcon will allow anyone, from technologists to small business owners, to begin designing with a few taps on a keyboard.

THE FUTURE

A brave new world

New pioneers

Falcon is pioneering the acceleration of design. Our mission is to create design tools that augment good designers with the superpowers of breakneck speed, heightened intelligence and masterful automation. 

Our vision is to exponentially increase the world’s creative throughput by democratizing design compute and granting everyone the power to design. 

We believe more creative entropy, serendipity and energy is needed in our world. After our work is complete anyone, technologists or laypeople, will be able to design anything, anywhere, anytime on any device.

In the future, Falcon is a world-class IDE (integrated design environment) beloved by designers, engineers and anyone who wants to design. Falcon will grant people the ability to ideate, iterate, automate, simulate, test and handoff 10x faster.

The Falcon Experience

With Falcon, you’ll run your favourite snippets which are detailed text prompts that will automatically generate screens, insert components and invite collaborators. You might go to the Falcon store and download the most popular snippets from other designers. 

With a few more prompts you’ll be able to make sweeping changes to your designs, instead of pixel-pushing and nudging. On the go? No problem. Using text or voice-to-text prompts on the mobile app, you can make sweeping changes to your designs. 

When the designs are near competition, you can test your screens against any state, screen size, language, network connection, accessibility and best practices. You’ll see your designs break in a few scenarios, after which you’ll run a few more text prompts to ameliorate the issues.

As you’re designing, Falcon will generate rich documentation and specifications for your design. Once you’re ready, you can send the link to the engineer you’re working with. Your engineers will see a text summary of the file, a user flow chart, an interactive prototype, a list of all components with states, status and code, assets and a chat thread for deep rich conversation.

We fundamentally believe that designers and engineers deserve a breakthrough experience when designing and building software. There is so much more we can do. We’re just getting started. 

Let’s accelerate design.

Join the brave & bold

We’re looking for long-term minded investors and early adopters who believe in our mission of accelerating design. Join us in helping shape the future of design tools.