While trends, techniques, and software come and go, and sometimes cause creative ripples, there’s not much that stops the Design industry in its tracks. But last September the announcement that Adobe had acquired Figma certainly did that. Having taken some time to digest the news, and now with some perspective, it’s an interesting, if indeed slightly worrying, proposition.
Back in November last year I was lucky enough to attend Figma’s Schema conference in London. The excellent talks were largely centred around Design Systems and Figma’s future plans to aid designers through exciting new features, but there was one thing conspicuously absent from the on-stage conversation – Adobe’s recent acquisition.
Although not yet fully ratified, the £20 billion buyout was a huge power move from Adobe, swooping to purchase – and possibly nullify – the leading web design software and competition in that sector. It’s no surprise that employees at Schema weren’t keen to elaborate on Figma’s future as a company, but it was certainly the main topic amongst most concerned attendees.
That said, it’s no secret that Adobe’s own XD software has failed. Indeed, while Adobe continues to be the industry leader for print and digital media software, it’s never successfully broken into web design.
Adobe Dreamweaver for many years struggled as an extremely clunky, bulky way of building sites (and unbelievably still exists to this day). Its successor Adobe Muse came and went with little fanfare in the mid-2010s. Adobe XD finally launched as the company’s first true prototyping software in 2017, but lacked any depth or killer features compared to the then market leader Sketch, and wasn’t used by many serious professionals.
Sketch was the first software in a long time that I truly loved using. Easy to learn, and hugely rewarding by mastering – both in terms of design and productivity – it excelled in its simplicity of form, especially being built so beautifully natively for Mac. It thoroughly deserved its place as the industry standard for UI software, until rival Figma became a disrupter in the market, favouring cross-platform, web-based collaboration over elegance.
It’s easy to look back now with rose-tinted glasses, but, of course, Sketch wasn’t without its flaws. Sometimes slow to innovate, and needing third-party software for prototyping and handoff, community-lead plugins often filled the gaps and pushed boundaries. While adding a huge range of features and capabilities, updates to the main Sketch software more often than not caused compatibility issues, sometimes even rendering files completely unusable.
In recent times, Figma’s success has caused Sketch to pivot away from its Mac-only stance, moving to subscription model and expanding to browser-based design. For most, it’s unfortunately too late, and hasn’t been implemented with great success. It’s easy to see now how Figma leapfrogged ahead in the market, while Sketch rested on its laurels.
Like many companies, we jumped on the Figma bandwagon two years ago. It seemed the whole industry was moving in that direction, certainly once remote working became the norm. While I was one of the more cautious voices towards a wholesale switch of software – remember Sketch itself had very quickly been and gone as the market leader over the course of a couple of years – Figma almost seemed a no-brainer, and we set about building a design system using its excellent collaborative tools.
Having spent so long devoting myself to this new startup community-crafted tool – not only through both work and personal time invested, but also being an advocate across senior leaders, other teams, and in the wider design industry generally – it’s fair to say the news of corporate Adobe’s acquisition really did hurt.
Having now had three months to reflect on the news, it’s still hard to see the positives. The initial industry reaction ranged from mockery to a feeling of betrayal. Jared Spool, who previously questioned quite how Figma would maintain its growth, summed up the general malaise succinctly:
Adobe is where great design tools go to die.
— Jared Spool (@jmspool) September 15, 2022
No-one knows what the future holds, but based on similar past situations most people are sceptical, if not exceptionally worried. We’ve been here so many times before, seeing acquired companies killed off – recently Apple’s axing of Dark Sky has upset many, and further back famously Adobe itself sunsetting most Macromedia products is still not forgotten.
However, it may well be another incidental strand of Figma’s success that also peaked Adobe’s interest. Following on from a long-used tactic of gaining market share through a free tier, Figma has amassed a huge following from all sorts of designers, not just those using it for website prototyping.
Ironically it’s effectively Adobe’s model that Figma has copied. Those of us of a certain age will remember some versions of Photoshop (notably CS2) being incredibly easy to pirate and activate illegally, and the usually strict Adobe, while not condoning it, certainly doing very little to stop it.
Whether or not it really was a genius deliberate long-term marketing strategy is unknown, but the result was a generation of young designers who all learnt and committed to using Adobe’s software, and inadvertently aided its monopoly over the design industry a generation later.
You will now find all walks of creatives using Figma simply because of its generous (for now, at least) free tier. From creative animations, to beautiful illustrations, to actual works of art – people are finding all sorts of ways to use the software.
You only have to look to forums and subreddits to find questions about all sorts of vector-based problems, normally something you would associate with Adobe Illustrator, not pixel-based UI software. I’ve even stumbled across people unironically struggling with printing at 300dpi from Figma – again straying into Adobe InDesign territory, albeit presumably unsuccessfully.
Maybe one solution would be for Adobe to spin off the original Figma UI and prototying tool into a separate app, to save on feature bloat. But with its unyielding commitment to an expensive subscription model, that seems unlikely. As Jessica Hische speculates, it’s more likely Adobe want the talent acquisition to improve their existing products.
As a person who didn’t use Figma day to day but admired it quite a bit, I’m excited to see what they bring to Adobe.
I know Figma folks hope it stays a siloed entity but I personally hope some of you new Adobe hires decide to tinker on Illustrator and InDesign for funzies
— Jessica Hische (@jessicahische) September 15, 2022
One thing that’s for sure is the huge risk to existing Figma design files – it’s easy to forget that everything is web-based. While you can export a .fig file to your desktop, nearly everybody uses the online file system, which is wholly controlled by Figma’s servers. Unlike, say, those who years ago didn’t want to switch to Adobe’s then new Creative Cloud subscription model and stayed with CS6, Figma’s software doesn’t exist locally.
Much like many forms of software and media these days, nothing is truly ours. While we professionals pay for Figma, we don’t actually own anything. We can only hope that’s not something Adobe chooses to use to its advantage.