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Being tool-agnostic

June 29, 2021


We, designers, love our tools. They’re always a topic of hot debates in the design community. We could endlessly debate Sketch vs. Figma or which prototyping tool is the best.

There’s only one universal answer to these debates:

The best tool is the one whichever works best for you and your context.

But here’s the kicker: the definition of “works best” can be wildly different across contexts. And designers need to be able to adapt. We should be tool-agnostic.

Let me explain my thinking behind this.

The design tool landscape

If you’ve worked in the design industry for some time, you probably used Photoshop, maybe even Dreamweaver at some point. Then Sketch came along and most designers switched to it. Then Figma appeared and also Adobe decided to get back in the game with XD. And ten years from now it’s quite likely that a completely different tool will be setting the pace.

Tools come and go. The landscape of design tools shifts every year with new tools appearing and old tools trying to catch up. There is no one tool to rule them all, though.

Some designers might have the luxury of choosing the tool of their liking. Others have to pick up a tool their team already uses.

In either case, we shouldn’t cling too much on one tool but rather explore what’s out there.

Tool-agnosticism for team players

When you join a design team, chances are that the team’s been using a different set of tools than you’re used to.

If you’re a one-tool person, what do you do? Learn a new one or try to get the team to switch? Switching between design tools isn’t easy – you are either leaving legacy files behind or migrating them to new tool. Often, it’s a long process of introducing a new tool and phasing out the old one. No walk in the park.

Adopting what the team’s been using is the more practical option. If you’ve been trying out various tools previously, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to get up to speed much more quickly than if the given tool is completely new to you. That’s a great advantage to have.

Tool-agnosticism for decision makers

Whatever tool is your primary right now, how many other tools are you comfortable working with? How many others have you tried?

Constant experimentation is vital, maybe even necessary. As the definition of what works best changes over time, you need to be able to adapt.

Trying out new tools regularly is healthy. It enables you to push for a better way of working. You should to be on the bleeding edge of the field, because without knowing what’s out there, how can you decide which tool is the best for you or your team?

Building a better foundation for learning

When you try different tools all the time, you’re also building knowledge that you can use to learn new tools more easily. You build mental models that allow you to pick up a new tool and already know your way around it, even if you’re seeing it for the first time.

It’s a bit like learning languages. The more languages you learn, the more you’re able to see patterns across them. You’re already familiar with similar grammatical concepts. You already know a lot of similar (or even same) words that two languages share.

The cost of learning a new tool or switching to it gets lower and lower.

Sidenote: The absurdity of image-based tools

Since we’ve touched on the topic of switching tools a couple of times, allow me a few thoughts on that.

As I said, switching isn’t easy for designers because different tools use different formats. In contrast, it’s fairly easy for developers.

If you use Sublime Text, for example, and want to switch to VS Code, it’s not a big problem. The substance you work with—code—is the same in both. There’s no portability issue.

This doesn’t apply to designers, because design files aren’t usually fully compatible between tools. Which is absurd.

It’s the result of tools being primarily image-based. Having code-based design tools would allow designers move seamlessly between them. If the material designers worked with was code, it would’ve been so much easier. It’s another reason why I believe code-based design tools are the future.

The case for tool-agnosticism

All of the above illustrates the importance of tool-agnosticism.

When the time comes for a new category of tools to take the spotlight, are you ready for them? If you’re joining a new team soon, are you comfortable to adopt a new tool quickly? If you’re a leader, do you know what’s out there to make sure your team is using what’s best for them?

There’s also an inherent paradox in this idea. Tools are just tools, they just make you more or less efficient. At the same time, you need to spend a lot of time with them so that you can focus on the more important parts of your job.

In summary, being tool-agnostic means that you are comfortable using a variety of tools. It means that:

  • you’re always looking for the tool that will make you better at your job
  • you’re not in love in just one tool, you can adapt
  • you can also master any tool more quickly so you can focus on more important stuff
  • you’re ready for whatever tools the future brings

Tool-agnosticism makes you a better designer and future-proofs you.

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