What You Should Know About Design Tools

Jakob Suckow
4 min read
What You Should Know About Design Tools

From 1987, the introduction of Adobe tools till today, design tools have gone a long way. What's around the corner for tomorrow? The following article summarizes the development of the digital design tool market over the past decade to the present and gives a glimpse into the future. 

Digital design tools - A bit of history

Adobe made the start: In 1987, the first Adobe program appeared on our screens and revolutionized the graphic design market. From there on, illustrations could be created in a much shorter time relying on a computer, instead of time consuming manual-only work. Three years later, a student named Thomas Knoll developed Image Pro, which later became world-famous as Photoshop. Adobe expanded its offering with InDesign and Premiere Pro, launching a layout and moving image editor. Subsequently in 2003, the company pooled the individual programs into the Creative Suite. In 2011, Adobe announced the discontinuation of the established purchase model and introduced Creative Cloud, which bases their product suite on a subscription business model that is, at least in some part, used by pretty much anyone working even remotely related to design. 

The Rise of Sketch: For a couple of years, Photoshop was the most used UI design tool, until Bohemian Coding’s Sketch took over the reign in 2015. With Photoshop not being native to web design but rather to photo and graphic design, Sketch’s realization of frontend designs were in general more efficient. Thenceforth, the new ruler is a vector graphics editor, which was specifically developed for web- and application design. 

Adobe’s response: While Sketch’s user base started to grow, Adobe’s Project Comet was already in the making. It later became Adobe XD. In October 2017, after one and a half years, it was announced to be out of beta. Adobe XD offered a vector-based ux design tool within the Adobe ecosystem. XD is especially popular among Windows users, also because of Sketch’s sole availability for MacOS. After 2 years on the market, XD surpassed its sibling Photoshop in the category of the most used UI design tools. Highlighting how much Photoshop is integrated in ui design processes, especially since it is still in the top five of most used ui design tools in 2020.

The Present

It is rather a set of tools: At present, the use of different kinds of digital product design tools is an ongoing debate. A wave of new tools has hit the market, serving specific functions and offering solutions to niche problems, which can not be covered by a single tool. 

Nowadays, it is common to use a combination of multiple programs in order to create the desired end product. Designers use on average 3.5 tools to complete their prototypes according to a survey conducted by in 2018. Confirming the assumption that we do not use a single tool throughout the whole process, but rather a set of tools for various tasks.

A Glimpse into the Future

Collaboration is key: According to surveys from 2018 and 2019, about 75 percent of ui/ux designers work in teams. Emphasizing the need for transparent tools which make the whole process visible to the co-workers and enable them to collaborate simultaneously and efficiently on the same project. This is exactly what the cloud-based web app Figma offers. Figma was rated the most exciting tool for the upcoming year two times in a row for 2019 and 2020. This excitement is apparent: With over a million sign-ups and $40 million in Series C funding, Figma is truly worth looking at in the upcoming decade. Meanwhile, Adobe XD caught up by integrating collaboration and Sketch announced that they will support teamwork with one of their upcoming updates. Highlighting the importance of collaboration and the fast response of design tools to what the market might demand.

The Pole Position: It is rather difficult to objectively rank these three, not simply because they all got their pros and cons, but also due to the fast changing market and especially the users‘ needs. By looking back on the last four to five years, repeatedly tools appeared out of nowhere and took a respectable part of the market share. At the moment, Figma is the cool new kid in the class, but it is impossible to say who will join in the upcoming decade. Currently Sketch‘s biggest bottleneck is their unavailability for Windows and Linux users and restricts collaboration to Mac users. Adobe XD is continuously improving and got a fair amount of users feeling native in the Adobe ecosystem. However, based on the excitement around it and their ongoing growth of subscriptions it is likely that Figma will take the lead in 2020.

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