Interview: Adobe’s Stephen Nielson discusses the evolution of Photoshop

Ben Moss.
February 01, 2016
Interview: Adobe’s Stephen Nielson discusses the evolution of Photoshop.

Adobe Photoshop has been an essential part of designers’ toolboxes for over 25 years. Continually evolving, arguably it has undergone its biggest changes in the last few years. We sat down with Stephen Nielson, Senior Product Manager for Photoshop, to ask him about the current feature set, and where he sees Photoshop developing in future.

Photoshop’s popularity

Webdesigner Depot: Photoshop was 25 years old last year, it’s arguably Adobe’s flagship product, and it’s even in common use as a verb; does working on such a high-profile product carry extra responsibility?

Stephen Nielson: Absolutely. It’s such a privilege to carry forward a product that is loved by so many people, but it’s also a big responsibility to live up to the success of the past 25 years. Millions of people use Photoshop, so the stakes are high. We have to build the right things and build them with quality. But it’s a high risk/high reward situation. I love the opportunity to make a difference to so many people.

[pullquote]The power of Photoshop is in the power and breadth of capabilities. You can create just about anything, customize anything, and work with enormous documents.[/pullquote] WD: The latest version of Photoshop is extremely fast—especially when rulers are toggled off—is the team rewriting large portions of code, or is something else behind the speed boost? SN: Photoshop as a product is 25 years old, but we are constantly rewriting code that is Photoshop! In nearly every release, the Architecture team rewrites large portions of the code. It’s a huge priority for us, especially for 2016. We have some big efforts underway, and you will start to see even more improvements soon. Stay tuned. WD: Despite the release of applications like Sketch or Affinity Photo, Photoshop is (according to net magazine) still the tool of choice for almost half of all web designers. What do you credit with its enduring popularity? SN: The power of Photoshop is in the power and breadth of capabilities. You can create just about anything, customize anything, and work with enormous documents. We have a long history of responding to customer requests to improve workflows, and setting the standard for the industry. More recently, we are able to respond to customer feedback even more rapidly through our subscription model, through more frequent releases. We are also pioneering new ways to collaborate with others with innovative services like Creative Cloud Libraries. And, of course, we have some of the best researchers in the world building imaging technology as well as things like the new Font Similarity filter.

Photoshop’s freshest features

Webdesigner Depot: Speaking of the Font Similarity filter—which is one of the coolest new features—are there any plans to extend it; perhaps introducing font-pairing? Could we see more extensive integration with Typekit? Stephen Nielson: I don’t have anything to announce, but I will say that we work closely with the Adobe Type team, which includes the former Typekit team. We know fonts and font management are important to designers. Fonts are like candy to designers. People love the integration we already have for replacing missing fonts and we continue to work on new ways to manage fonts. [pullquote]Many times [Adobe’s] plan involves inventing new solutions to problems that are unspoken, but we know exist. Those are the kinds of thing that once you see, you say, “wow, I didn’t even think about that!”[/pullquote] WD: Photoshop has hundreds of features, from pattern generation to 3D printing. Are you ever tempted to split those features off into dedicated apps and streamline Photoshop’s core elements? SN: We actually do this quite frequently. Lightroom became a dedicated app for photography. Project Comet is a dedicated app for web and mobile app design and prototyping. And there are other projects in the works. But still a lot of people love the amazing toolbox of features in Photoshop, so we try to make it more accessible and customizable, for example, by now allowing you to customize the iconic Photoshop toolbar. This is of course in addition to customizable workspaces, menus and keyboard shortcuts. WD: Recently added features—I’m thinking specifically of the glyphs panel—seem to be direct responses to requests from the community. Does Adobe have a long term plan for Photoshop, or are you tapping into the evolving needs of designers? SN: Both! As I mentioned earlier, we are always listening to customer feedback, in a variety of ways. And we take that feedback seriously. The glyphs panel was built in direct response to requests from customers. But we also have a long term plan for evolving the product. Many times that plan involves inventing new solutions to problems that are unspoken, but we know exist. Those are the kinds of thing that once you see, you say, “wow, I didn’t even think about that!”

Photoshop & responsive design

Webdesigner Depot: Artboards are one of the recent features in Photoshop aimed at assisting with responsive design workflows. When something as revolutionary as RWD comes along, how do you approach developing tools for it? Stephen Nielson: We’re constantly identifying trends like responsive design, and coming up with new solutions for them. With artboards specifically, a small team developed the initial vision, and then we put together a private Slack group of designers, hand-picked by our resident ethnographer. The collaboration with that group was almost daily, with new builds going out every week or so. When we need a broader pool of feedback, we release something as a Technology Preview, like Design Space. We also have a feedback site dedicated to new features where you can submit an idea, as well as vote and discuss other people’s ideas. We’re pretty active on Twitter as well, taking lots of feedback on recently released features. WD: We’re all excited to get our hands on Project Comet in the coming months. How much integration with Comet has the Photoshop team been working on? SN: Project Comet is super exciting. We are working closely with that team to identify the most important and compelling workflows to and from Photoshop. Some of the workflows are obvious, but others are more nuanced and will require more research and testing. In the end, I think Photoshop and Comet will have one of the tightest integrations between two separate applications. WD: Photoshop now has a UI that’s more in keeping with other CC apps. Will we see greater integration with the rest of the CC range in future? SN: Yes, although really, this has been a focus ever since the first Creative Suite. But there is a renewed focus on a consistent look and feel across Adobe’s products.

Photoshop’s future

Webdesigner Depot: The welcome screen now features tutorial suggestions personalized based on how an individual uses the app. Is it possible that we’ll see a personalized UI option in future, where panels and tools are laid out based on recent usage? [pullquote]The challenge is to provide something personalized and valuable, without surprising the user.[/pullquote] Stephen Nielson: It’s absolutely possible. We are building a lot of machine learning capabilities within Adobe and on the Photoshop team specifically, which is necessary to do something like this. The challenge is to provide something personalized and valuable, without surprising the user. It will take some time to find the right balance. WD: In 25 years time, will Photoshop still be the industry standard? SN: Absolutely. It’s hard to say exactly what it will look like, but you can be sure that Photoshop will be at the forefront of whatever new creative field emerges. We recently celebrated our 25th anniversary by highlighting 25 artists under 25. Their work is incredible, and is a great indication of what will come from the next generation of Photoshop designers and artists. Thanks to Stephen for taking the time to answer our questions. Thanks to Adobe we have 2 year-long subscriptions to the full Creative Cloud bundle to give away before the 15th February. Enter the giveaway here.

Ben Moss

Ben Moss has designed and coded work for award-winning startups, and global names including IBM, UBS, and the FBI. When he’s not in front of a screen he’s probably out trail-running.

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