Mar 23, 2009

The importance of a good name

Names are important. Jerry Seinfeld once quipped “if your parents name you Jeeves, they’ve pretty much mapped out your life for you”.

As a production artist, I see hundreds of files that other designers create. One of the most common things I find are items that shall remain nameless: Layer 2, Layer 19, New Pattern 12, Unnamed Gradient 34, Paragraph Style 8, and so on.

A name adds meaning. Without a name, you may have layers, but you have no idea what’s on those layers. And trying to find what you’re looking for becomes that much more difficult. When you carefully name the elements in a file, it not only makes you more efficient, it also enables others to easily decipher that what’s in your file.

Likewise, when designing a web page with CSS, specifying DIV IDs could mean the difference between spending 5 minutes or 5 hours when trying to troubleshoot a problem sometime down the line.

If you think about it, applying the wrong name to an element is arguably worse than not naming it at all. If you had a layer named “text” and yet that layer only contained images, that would be completely misleading. In other words, the names you use in your work have a huge impact on how others use your work.

OK, so you get the point – it’s important to name your elements carefully – but that isn’t the reason why I’m writing this.

The tools that we use every day – applications like Photoshop, Illustrator, or Flash – all have hundreds, if not thousands of functions and commands. Naturally, each of these have a name, otherwise it might be hard to choose Image > Adjust > Menu Item 12 when we want to use the Shadow/Highlight feature in Photoshop. And so, companies like Adobe not only create the tools and functions that appear in their applications, they also have to come up with names for those items.

And if you stop to think about it, the names that Adobe gives to their tools and functions has a huge impact on how we perceive those tools and on how we use them.

For the most part, the names that Adobe uses in their applications are determined by the product managers and the user interface designers. It’s extremely rare that Adobe would haphazardly apply a name to a tool or function without spending a lot of time thinking it through or doing some kind of usability testing. At the same time, coming up with a catchy marketable name or phrase can sometimes cloud one’s vision (and cute names can be too tempting to pass up). The danger is, if the perceived meaning of a feature’s name is misleading, the result is a feature that is either totally misunderstood, or ignored altogether by users.

Having been a product manager at Adobe myself, I can count many stories about how certain features got their names. I’m sure that any product manager, over a couple of drinks, could rattle off numerous similar stories as well. Sometimes, a tool gets its name from the kind of effect it appears to create (i.e., Blur tool), while other times, the name is somewhat descriptive of the mathematical calculations it performs (i.e., High Pass filter).

In either case, I thought I’d list a few features, that in my opinion, have misleading names. Those that have gotten beyond these names probably know how to use these functions well. If you’re among those who struggle with the way these functions work, you might trying thinking of them as “Unnamed Feature 23” and see if that helps…

The Pen tool is found in most of Adobe’s core applications, and one could argue that it’s the first Adobe tool ever created, by John Warnock, back in Illustrator 1.1. However, the Pen tool has frustrated users in the 25 years of its existence.

The digital Pen tool doesn’t function at all like an analog pen. In Adobe applications, the Pen tool plots anchor points. If you had to come up with a less-exciting name, the Anchor Point Plotter Tool describes the tool better, and may even set a better expectation for new users. However, John Warnock’s concept of transferring the analog world of art to the computer screen made the paradigm of a digital “pen” tool a great marketing message. And today, we’re stuck with a tool that is hard to learn. I believe it’s because people think you can draw with it, when in reality, the Bezier curves the Pen creates isn’t the same kind of drawing many users expect from it. (If you struggle with the Pen tool, check out these helpful exercises.)

A few versions back, Adobe introduced a filter called Smart Sharpen. But before Smart Sharpen appeared, professionals who wanted to sharpen their images turned to a feature called Unsharp Mask (the feature still exists, and many still use it, myself included). Why would you use something called unsharp mask to sharpen something? It’s almost as good as Microsoft making you click on the Start button to get to the shut down feature to turn off your computer.

Here’s the funny thing, though. Unsharp Mask is the perfect name for the feature, because in reality, that’s what the feature mathematically does (using a mask to “protect” areas that you don’t want sharpened). Still, for years, so many Photoshop users were baffled by the feature (after all, if you were new to Photoshop and were looking at a fuzzy image and wanted to sharpen it, would you try Unsharp Mask while searching through the menus, or would your brain say, “definitely not that one…” and move on? I suspect that one of the reasons why Adobe did indeed name the Smart Sharpen filter as it did was specifically to correct this issue.

I’m going to take the blame for this one. I was working as the product manager for Illustrator at the time when the healing brush was being developed at Adobe. Often, Adobe will invite certain companies or influential members of the design community to preview technology that’s in the works. At one such event, I was giving a demo of some new Illustrator features in development (I believe it was the 3D feature), and my presentation was followed by the Photoshop team that was showing this new type of brush. It was kinda like the Clone tool, but it seemed to be able to magically blend into any colored background. The demo the team showed was the ability to sample from one photograph (the smooth face of a baby) to another photograph (the wrinkled face of an elderly man). The result was an elderly man’s face with soft baby skin. The team mentioned they didn’t have a name for the feature yet, and as we left the meeting, I mentioned to the Photoshop team how I thought it would be cool if they would call the tool “the healing brush” based on the demo.

The next time I saw the tool, the Photoshop User Interface designer created this cute little band-aid icon, and the tool’s name was set. Don’t get me wrong – the tool really does seem to heal skin as you use it. But what I find is that people think that healing is all the tool does. Some people think it only works on skin. In reality, the tool is far more versatile. But with such a name, people expect it to only have a single purpose.

With Illustrator CS2, Adobe introduced a new feature called Live Paint. The idea behind this feature was to enable users to draw visually rather than be forced to think about shapes, anchor points, and control handles. The feature was actually a response of sorts to the way that Macromedia Flash allowed designers to easily edit, color, and erase vector objects without the need for complicated mathematical paradigms (this all happened shortly before the merger of Adobe and Macromedia).

However, if you ask most people about Live Paint, they tell you that they don’t need to “paint” inside of Illustrator. Many focus on one aspect of the feature (the Live Paintbucket tool) and don’t realize that the more powerful functionality lies within Live Paint’s ability to edit artwork visually (through the use of the Live Paint Selection tool).

In reality, Live Paint is a cute marketing name that rolls easily off the tongue. But at the same time, it’s a phrase that has little meaning. Worse, it portrays the feature as having to do with painting, which is only a small part of a really powerful feature.

Illustrator, InDesign, and Acrobat all share core display technology, allowing you to view artwork across any of these applications and see the exact same results. One specific viewing mode, called Overprint Preview, was created to allow users to preview artwork on a computer screen that previously was only able to be previewed by inspecting physical color separation films, or matchprint or color key proofs. Most specifically, this viewing mode allows designers to view artwork with overprint commands, which is when a designer instructs colored inks to mix with each other on a printing press.

For the most part, only experienced designers who deal with special effects or trapping techniques care much about overprints, and as such, the majority of designers ignore the overprint preview setting. However, the overprint preview mode does more than just display overprints – it also uses the LAB color mode to display spot colors (i.e., Pantone colors) far more accurately. I can’t tell you how many times I hear designers lamenting about how their colors on screen don’t come anything close to what they see in their Pantone color swatch books. Upon instructing them to turn on Overprint Preview, they exclaim their joy and then admit “man, I’d never have thought to turn on overprint preview to see my spot colors better…” I don’t blame them either…

This story has a happy ending. Back in Illustrator CS3, Adobe introduced a feature called “live color” – again, another cute roll-off-the-tongue marketing name, similar to Live Paint. The problem with Live Color was two-fold. First, while Illustrator CS3 featured a completely revamped color engine, and a tremendous amount of new functionality around the use of color, there was no single feature called Live Color. If you purchased CS3 because you liked the Live Color feature, you’d have been scratching your head after a few minutes trying to actually find something in Illustrator called Live Color.

Then there’s the “live” thing. There’s nothing live about the color features in Illustrator. You can apply color. You can edit color. You can do lots of things. But the color isn’t “live” in any way. Compared to Illustrator’s other live features – Live Paint and Live Effects, those elements are indeed non-destructible and can be edited at any time. Live Color was nothing more than a name that Adobe’s marketing department invented.

Fast forward to Illustrator CS4 and the words Live Color are gone from Illustrator’s lexicon. Now you’ll see references to Illustrator’s Recolor Artwork feature. And wouldn’t you know it, the feature actually recolors artwork. It makes sense, and I’m happy to see that Adobe made this change.

In Illustrator CS4, Adobe introduced a new type of paintbrush tool, called the Blob Brush tool. The tool itself is actually awesome and fills the needs of many artists and illustrators. At the same time, I can’t help but think the name of the Blob Brush had a similar story to how the Healing Brush came to be…

So do you have any names that you take issue with? Any names of functions or features that have thrown you off base, or that have had you staring at the screen saying "huh?" -- if so, share them! I'd love to hear what others have to say about this topic as well...


Marco said...

I keep forgetting where the Pantone swatches are located because of the menu named 'Book'. (roughly translated from the Dutch Illustrator CS3).

Anonymous said...

I'm happy that you wrote that post!!


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Best regards,

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