When thinking about the future of creative tools, we often conjure up an image of someone designing in augmented reality or interacting with screenless interfaces. While technology isn’t quite there yet, we have certainly evolved the way we envision, design, and develop applications. Spectrum, Adobe’s ambitious new design system to create consistent, intuitive, and collaborative experiences for the next generation of users, is firmly focused on the future of interfaces. But you can’t design for the future without a strong foundation in the present.

We asked Eric Snowden, senior director of design for Creative Cloud and Document Cloud, to discuss the strategies he and the Spectrum team are following to design for the next generation of Creative Cloud apps.

Design your team and mission first

Setting yourself up to be able to innovate starts with having the right people on your side and instilling them with a shared mission and values. “Without the right team, set up in the right way, innovation is nearly impossible,” said Eric.

When Eric took over the Creative Cloud Design team, one of the first priorities was develop a mission statement. This mission statement, which highlights “modern and consistent customer experiences,” forms the backbone of the Spectrum initiative.

Creative Cloud Design Team

Eric notes the design team’s mission statement is ever-evolving, but it still serves an important purpose. “Mission statements help you values to scale, and they empower your team to make good decisions even when you’re not around,” he said. With Spectrum, Eric and the other members of the design team wanted ‘consistency’ to go one step further in the project’s mission statement. Users should be able to pick up a second or third Creative Cloud app and learn it quickly, because of common experience guidelines and the UI elements determined by the Spectrum visual design system.

“When we put the Creative Cloud logo next to something we want it to stand for something. That doesn’t mean that every application gets all the same elements at the same time. They have different vectors and growth paths, but we want to get to a place where there are some clear rules that users can count on,” he added.

Design your principles

With a mission statement in place, Snowden then set out to develop easy-to-understand experience principles for everyone on his team to work by. Many of these are already highly influencing Adobe’s latest products; Adobe XD, Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Dimension, and Adobe Premiere Rush are the first apps to ‘grow up’ in the Spectrum design system. The design principles are:

Cloud Centric: Leverage cloud storage and technology to simplify how users work.  
Multi-Surface: Your platform should not dictate which tools you can use.
Interoperable: Multiple applications should be able to work together seamlessly.
Touch-First: Develop apps with touch capabilities that traditional inputs could never offer.
Community-Driven: Engage the community in the design and development of apps, and in the sharing of content made with them.
Consistent UI: Design consistently across apps so users can learn things once, to reduce redundancy, and to set a high bar of craftsmanship.   
Powered by Sensei: AI and Machine Learning should be used whenever possible to reduce redundant tasks and accelerate users creativity.

Snowden’s team keeps these principles top-of-mind with every decision they make, and every project they take on. Adobe XD, an all-in-one design and prototyping platform, has been built from the ground up with performance prioritized, following design principles that make it easy to pick up and learn in for anyone familiar with the Adobe family of creative apps.

Design elements in Spectrum are being used to build future Adobe applications.
Design elements in Spectrum are being used to build future Adobe applications.

“A lot of the features we’re developing in XD aren’t just going to be for XD, they are going to be for other applications as well,” said Eric.

Part of coming up with these principles was determining what a design language looks like for Adobe. “Despite being visual people, all of our projects start with words,” added Eric. “Words scale really well.”

So what should Adobe products feel like? “Utilitarian, rational, and beautiful,” said Shawn Cheris, Adobe’s director of experience design, whose team is responsible for managing the overall Spectrum language. People come to Adobe because they want professional tools, but that doesn’t mean they can’t look simple and modern. With Adobe XD, Adobe Dimension, Adobe Lightroom, and Adobe Premiere Rush you see this new, consistent design language at play.

Design your culture

Developing great products goes beyond developing a mission statement, design language, and principles. It means putting processes in place that support these things, and that involves creating a workplace culture of transparency, collaboration, and innovation. It never means dictating a rigid set of rules, but rather engaging teams in conversations about a design system’s mission and goals.

Transparency is (almost) everything. Be open to other teams, and show work early and often. One way this happens at Adobe is through open cross-team critiques, where other teams are invited to weigh in on work they aren’t officially part of.

“If you’re working in a big company, bringing people along is a critical part of getting buy-in on new ideas,” said Eric. “You can’t innovate if you’re trying to do it alone.” This often means conveying your ideas in a way that speaks to the needs, challenges, and goals of that particular person or team. “To say ‘you must do XYZ’ never works. Being a collaborative company, that’s just not in our DNA. I think the best way forward is to set a vision and then talk about the benefits.”

Transparency should also extend beyond your team and involve your users, resulting in a robust feedback loop with customers. Eric shared one example of this at work within Adobe: many of Adobe’s mobile apps, including Adobe Comp, have a “Give Us Feedback” link in the settings which generates an email that goes to every designer, product manager, and engineer on the app’s product team.

Transparency is (almost) everything

“Years ago when we started this, an in-app email trigger was a radical concept. But as products launched and hundreds of customer emails came directly to the team, we had an unprecedented level of transparency between us and our users,” said Eric. “It allowed for an open and honest conversation about what’s working and what’s not.” With Spectrum’s first initial apps, user testing also played a large role.

“With the new look and feel of our most recent applications, we did tons of user testing to make sure that the system was well understood, and people didn’t get confused. It needed to feel not too foreign. We really tried to strike this balance between feeling modern, but also they can’t feel like these apps came from another company.”

Lastly, anyone who has worked on product development knows how hard it can be to get engineering managers to use the product they’re working on as if they are the user. To make this happen, the design teams hosts what he calls “design bashes,” where engineers are given an assignment and assets to create something with the product they’ve developed. “It’s so crucial for our teams to understand the workflows and challenges our users face as often as we can. It builds an level of understanding and empathy that really shows through in the final product we make,” said Snowden.

Collaboration means consistency and creativity

When working for a company as large as Adobe, it’s crucial to collaborate across products seamlessly, especially when you’re creating a new design system that will span the entire app ecosystem. Three things you can do to help make this happen are:

1. Supergroups: Create logical groupings of people that may not be on the same team, but share common users. Have them meet regularly to talk and share ideas.
2. Consistency deputies: Deputize team members, officially or unofficially, to be ruthless about consistency across products. With Spectrum, we’ve created full-time positions in each product area to help scale the effort and focus on the patterns those products need.
3. The two questions: Before starting a project have every designer ask, “Has anyone else done this before?” and “If I make this, does anyone else need it?” These questions should be answered in an internal context to spark collaboration and information sharing across teams.

Innovation is everyone’s job

The greater Adobe Design team is devoted to consistency of experience across all apps.
he greater Adobe Design team is devoted to consistency of experience across all apps.

Not every team member will have the desire to be part of a process like this, but even those who aren’t directly participating can have a voice during an open critique. This allows designers to contribute to innovation the way they want to, and it means they’re being leveraged for what they are good at.

Technology evolves, so design the future

With a foundation for innovation, there is always room for experimentation. “You have to have a solid foundation with your people, your process, and your product before you can really start to innovate,” said Eric.

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Creative Live Streaming
Machine Learning
AR and VR

Eric Snowden, his team of designers, and the creative community are ensuring that the future of Creative Cloud apps is bright. What can we expect next? A whole lot of innovation. We’ll be revealing more of the in’s and out’s of Spectrum across a series of blog posts coming up, sharing some details of the kinds of exciting new apps that are coming from  Adobe and some of the best practices for implementing design systems in their own organizations. Stay tuned!