Design software is used by almost every designer - in advertising, web sites, and photography. But have these powerful apps killed creativity and made everything look the same? Or are good ideas still important?
There is a common theory that says function is more important than form - it's more important for a thing to work than to look good.
It's certainly true of advertising.
Advertising is a function - adverts convey messages. Adverts can be attractive and good to look at. They may be interesting or even artistic. But if an advert fails to get its message across - whether it's about a product, encouraging people to travel or go to a concert - the advert is useless.
Take for example the Cologne Philharmonic Concert Hall. It's currently celebrating its 25th anniversary with a bright advertising campaign to promote a range of concerts, featuring people like the renowned director Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.
The bright green, yellow and pink catch a passing eye
Their performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in August was broadcast live from the concert hall to a large screen on Cologne's Roncalliplatz. Hundreds - if not thousands - turned out to watch the free broadcast. And they were there because of the philharmonic's bright and bold poster campaign that had told them about the event.
"When we have the time, we do our own designs - in house," says Othmar Gimpel, head of communications for KölnMusik, which runs the philharmonic.
"But in this case we went with an agency and before we could give them a brief they had already presented their idea. They said they saw the philharmonic as a colorful and diverse place, where many different things happen. So they proposed a campaign that uses lots of different, bright colors and doesn't feature any artists' photos because that would be too specific."
The campaign reflects the philharmonic's history of diversity, but at the same time fits in with contemporary trends. Its use of bright colors and typography instead of images is in line with the pervading industry standards of the time, which include a widespread use of creative computer software made by an American firm called Adobe. It is credited with having changed the way designers work.
Where industry standards become "stupid"
Simple design - preset shapes and plenty of text
The current trend in advertising is for poster designers to use lots of bright or pastel colors, lots of lines and blocks or boxes, and typography rather than any distinct images - all created using computer software. In fact, in some cases the digital technology becomes part of the design. And if you do want an image of a tree, for example, you can use Adobe's readymade shapes, like arcs and oblongs for the trunk and branches and circles for the leaves - as in a recent United Nations campaign.
The software comes with a range of preset functions, shapes and color pallets. It can even automatically "correct" lines or circles that you draw with a mouse or design pad.
No imagination required
It has made it easy for designers to do things that were almost impossible before. Most will use Adobe's creative software at some point in a design process. Adobe's best-known software includes Photoshop, InDesign, Dreamweaver and Flash for websites, and Illustrator.
But some designers agree, Adobe has also created a design environment - whether intentionally or not - where things are starting to look the same.
"I know what you mean," prominent design historian and founder of the Köln International Design School, Michael Erlhoff, told Deutsche Welle, "and I can accept what you're saying is true for a group of stupid companies and stupid designers. But even they are starting to understand that if they just rely on this kind of software, everything is the same. But as a company on the global market you have to be unique."
Erlhoff is a total futurist. He says software has radically altered the design game - and that for the better.
"This is liberating design," said Erlhoff, "designers are no longer tools you use to do this graphic design or this typography, etcetera, but they are the people who are using the tools."
Finding the balance between imaginative and too forward-thinking can be difficult
Talent is the sharpest tool in the box
This is a key defense among designers who support the rise of Adobe's software - the idea that it's not the software but the people operating the software who create good design.
Sabine Rünnenburger is co-managing director and designer at GED-Artworks in Cologne. The company was founded more than ten years ago with a focus on digital or computer based design - as the GED in their name suggests they are part of the "Generation of Electronic Design". And one of Adobe's best-known applications, Flash, enabled them to offer cutting edge design from the start.
Adobe's software is one of its kind and is the industry standard if you want to make photos look better, websites more interactive, to change the shape of a font, or layout an entire magazine.
However, Rünnenburger is not concerned about Adobe's dominance in the design world because she says there is at least one thing that software can't replace - and that is talent.
"You have to know the software very well," says Rünnenburger, "but you can learn this. First you need to know how things should look. If you can't work with typography, if the type doesn't fit the image, your design will look bad."
But because Adobe - and on a consumer-level, the computer maker Apple - have developed software that makes design work relatively easy, it's allowed some people to think that absolutely everyone has the talent to design. It's homogenized the industry to such an extent that too many designs look the same. When Adobe releases a new function, like 3D Imagining, for instance, it seems everyone feels an urge to use it - like a fashion.
Designer vs. client
Rünnenburger concedes that some aspects of the Adobe Creative Suite do get overused by designers. But she suggests the problem lies most with clients and not the designers themselves.
Apple's corporate design has inspired many copies
"So many clients have said they want their website to look like Apple's - and I can't hear it anymore!" says Rünnenburger.
"What they don't understand is that Apple's website is not just a simple design with a white background - it's also great photography. And the clients don't understand that if they want to look like that, first they need a product that's as cool as Apple's and second they need photos that make their product look as cool as Apple's."
The bold and the boring
Back at the Cologne Philharmonic Concert Hall, head of communications Othmar Gimpel presents the perspective of the marketing executive. While reminding that adverts have to convey their message, he suggests challenging designs can get in the way.
"You can always try to do something completely new," says Gimpel, "but you then run the risk of alienating the public if your ad campaign is too bold or daring. But then again if a campaign is not bold enough, or you stick with tried and tested ideas, it can be just as off-putting."
Faced with this dilemma it is easy to understand that some designers might choose to switch off their own creativity and use tools like Adobe's software to get a job done quickly. After all, the aim is to deliver what the client wants. And if advertising really is just a function, a way to convey a message, you could say there is little room for art, creativity or innovation.
But it's hardly what design is all about. And in the long run, it is designs that stand out that will get the job done even quicker.
Author: Zulfikar Abbany
Editor: Stuart Tiffen