Life Without Photoshop

by Lance on February 26, 2011

When Rebekah Cox first described the product design process at Quora, one of the biggest surprises was the absence of Photoshop. She said that every part of was designed in code from Day 1. I asked a few incredulous questions, nodded politely, and figured that once I started work I would surely continue my love affair with the Creative Suite.

6 months later, I'm a convert. Almost every feature I've worked on at Quora has been designed exclusively in code, from concept to iteration to launch. As my copy of Photoshop accumulates dust, I've come to see the myriad benefits of this system:

Consistency and Re-usability
If a design can be effectively realized using existing site styles and interactions, it probably should be. The benefits range from a consistent user experience to more maintainable code. When I prototyped in Photoshop, especially without a good library of site assets, it was all too easy to fudge this rule: Colors, paddings and margins were similar, but not identical, to existing ones; interactions would differ slightly, a discrepancy that seemed acceptable in the vacuum of Photoshop but felt off when integrated into the full site experience. Prototyping in live code, and designing with an asset library of real, pre-existing components, enforces the design principle of consistency.

Try The Simplest Design First
A corollary to easy re-usability is the incentive to try the simplest solution first. If I can use existing interactions in a new design, it's almost guaranteed that I will, due to the sheer ease of doing so. It's only after seeing these simple solutions come up short that I consider more disruptive approaches. As with consistency, the principles of what we consider good design are reinforced through the tools used to create those designs.

Code Structure Begets Design Structure
A good site will have a design scaffold, the basic architecture of each page upon which new components are hung. With any luck this scaffold is codified, both in CSS and server-side view code. Prototyping within this structure guarantees that new designs conform to the world they'll eventually be living in. Gone are the temptations to widen a Photoshop layer by 10px, even though it breaks the grid. Designing in and with well-structured code ensures that every part of the site is aware of its surroundings from its first moment of life.

Understand Interaction Details
There are countless details of a successful design that only become apparent after it's fully interactive: How responsive is it? How does a button feel when pressed? How fluid are the animations? The best Photoshop design in the world can't prototype the details that make or break a design. The faster I can answer these questions, the faster I know if a design is working.

Prototype is Halfway to Completion
At Quora, we write the view code for our designs, while the backend is written by the stellar engineers. A thoughtfully-architected prototype can become the foundation for the eventual production code. Though the process involves multiple re-writes, re-factors, additions and deletions, the re-usability of that code gives a project momentum that moves from initial exploration to launch.

In fairness to my old flame, Photoshop has tremendous benefits in any design process, even ours: working with our image resources, prototyping interactions on other platforms, work with color palettes, and more. But for the day-to-day work of iterating on new website features, I'm now happy to stick to my browser and text editor.

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One comment

LOL! I thought the post was originally yours Lance. I was about to say : “WOW he’s really stepping up his game”. But nevertheless, it’s still a great post. Some of the workflows are a bit “nosebleed” for me though

Maeng :)

by Anonymous on 28 February 2011 at 1:47 PM. #

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