“Better When” Scenarios with Design Thinking

Photo. Two designers debate creative decisions, or "better when" judgment calls.
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Design Thinking entails a lot of problem solving. Behind every great design is art theory, color theory, informative architecture, experience design, content strategy, technical strategy, creative strategy…the list goes on! Most importantly, design is not just a pretty picture. Some pictures are even intentionally ugly and disruptive. Rather, design is a creative solution to a real-world business need.

As the experienced designer will know, designing requires a lot of judgement calls. A tool or technique might be effective in one situation but counter-productive in another. Alternatively, a technique might be good at accomplishing one task but even better suited for another task. Therefore, Design Thinking must evaluate solutions against a problem. Knowing when and how to use different design tools and techniques is a core skill of senior designers.

What are some scenarios in which Design Thinking would be useful? Here are examples of the “better when” creative judgement calls I’m describing:

InDesign Native Vector Art vs. Links

Both Illustrator and InDesign all allow the creation of native vector artwork but Illustrator the most advanced shape and path building tools.

Simple vector artwork built right from InDesign permits edits in size, color, and shape. Native artworks also eliminate the need to maintain and store another Link. Designers can still build more complex vector artworks in Illustrator and copy-pasted into InDesign to import it, achieving the same benefits of InDesign native art.

However, other times, especially where complex gradients and color blends are involved, the vector artwork retains integrity only as a native Illustrator file and must stay an InDesign Link instead.

Therefore, it’s better to add vector artwork natively when the shapes are more simple and don’t require detailed editing.

Animation. Desaturation vs. true grayscale requires a "better when" judgment call.

True Grayscale

Black-and-white and grayscale images are created using two methods: desaturation and true grayscale.

Desaturation averages all color data to achieve a black and white tonal image. Techniques for desaturation include:

  • desaturation using an image adjustment tool (e.g. Photoshop > Image > Adjustments > Desaturate)
  • laying a gray shape set to a Hue or Saturation blend mode on top of an image
  • laying the image set to a Luminosity blend mode on top of a white shape

Desaturation automatically averages out the RGB values to calculate the gray tones. Each channel will have identical settings, so even a channel-mixed image that applies values equally results in a desaturated image. Desaturated images are quick to make and save on file size, making them useful for demonstration purposes, quick edits, and web graphics.

On the other hand, true grayscale weighs color data to achieve a black and white tonal image. Unlike desaturation which automatically averages out the RGB values, grayscale can favor one RGB channel over another. This gives photographers and photo editors a lot of control in presenting the range of gray tones.

True grayscale is achieved with RGB channel mixing. Photoshop’s more refined RGB channel editors achieve true grayscale images rather than applying a simple desaturation blend. The results of true grayscale are rich with a wider range of gray tones. Ed Knepley at blog Photography Improvement details the differences between desaturated and grayscale displays and how their calculated in a useful post, “Luminance, Grayscale, and Desaturation” (March 2011).

Therefore, it’s better to use true grayscale to achieve greater visual depth and contrast, and desaturation to keep file size small, especially useful for web projects.

Animation. Image trace requires a "better when" judgment call.

Image Trace

A popular tool for many beginner vector artwork illustrators is Illustrator’s Image Trace tool. This tool runs a small program that automatically identifies paths and applies vector shapes around a bitmap (raster) image. Image Trace is quick and easy, and offers customizations to fine-tune the end result.

Image Trace is often used to recreate lower resolution graphics into a clear, infinitely scalable vector format.

However, Image Trace also produces either clunky or imprecise results. Tracing an image with a high degree of accuracy results in far too many anchor points. Too many anchor points increases file size, makes editing difficult, and causes scaling issues at small sizes that warp and break the shape. Reducing the anchor points automatically generated by Image Trace results in an overly simplified image that doesn’t retain original curves or angles.

For the highest quality, highest fidelity images, use a human touch. Manually tracing vector artwork (by placing the bitmap image into Illustrator and tracing it by mouse or stylus) allows the illustrator to determine when and where to place anchor points and how to angle them.

Therefore, it’s better to use Image Trace to quickly produce rough images and to manually create vector artwork high quality, high fidelity images.

Content Aware Background vs. Clone Stamp

Photoshop’s automatic content-aware tools are quick solutions for scaling and expanding bitmap images and can have easy high quality results.

For scaling, try Photoshop > Edit > Content Aware Scaling.

For expanding an image to fit a different layout or isolating a subject, use the selection or lasso to create a selection, then hit Shift + Delete and select Content Aware for the fill contents. This tool is reliable for repetitive backgrounds, but can create some interesting results if the selection picks up nearby content it shouldn’t.

Conversely, the Clone Stamp allows the user to pick a source to copy and apply the image data somewhere else. Since it’s manual, there’s a high degree of user control. While it can sometimes get tedious, Clone Stamp works great in conjunction with Content Aware background fills to edit an image quickly.

Therefore, it’s better to use Content Aware tools to quickly scale and expand images. On the other hand, it’s better to touch up images with Clone Stamp.

There are all kinds of creative judgments required of designers. Time and experience provide insight into when these situations can develop and what tools to use to create the best end result.

To learn more about what other high-level design thinking creatives do, check out “What You Get by Hiring a Designer Besides Someone with Adobe.”