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To Affinity and Beyond

For the majority of the past twenty years I have used Adobe apps every day. I am intimately familiar with them. I have also been using the Affinity suite for the last few years. I wanted to discuss the rising popularity of Adobe alternatives and what Serif specifically brings to the table.

To start, people who know me are aware that I’m not a fan of subscription software. I refuse to even sell my own software as a subscription.

A few years ago Adobe drastically changed the landscape of the design world by moving all of their Creative Suite apps to a subscription only offering. Since that point, the trinity of Photoshop, Illustrator and Indesign has been locked behind a monthly paywall.

A lot can change in a few years though – like the reinvention of European developers Serif.

Serif are the developers behind the Affinity suite of design apps. If you haven’t heard of them, Affinity is a modern reimagining of the Photoshop, Illustrator and Indesign triangle. What’s wrong with the Adobe apps you might ask? I mean most designers were trained on and have 20 years or more of experience with these apps. Keyboard shortcuts for all three programs are ingrained in the subconscious of designers. Why even chance switching your entire design suite up for something that you’ve used your entire career?

The two things that pushed myself (and many other designers) were cost and quality.

I had previously read that most designers updated Creative Suite every other version. This makes sense for a few reasons. Cost is of course reason one – why buy new software you don’t need. Creative Suite had always been healthy investment, over $2000 for the Master Collection. But the reason that gets less headlines is the more interesting one – when you have a production workflow up and running well, you don’t want to be doing app updates every year. You want to keep that workflow as stable as possible. The conflict here is that Adobe would like you to spend money as often as possible. After acquiring Macromedia and snuffing out their largest competitor Adobe had created an interesting market. Outside of a few niches, they had no realistic competition. While most industries at the time couldn’t have dared be as hostile to their customers, creatives literally had no choice. Creative Cloud was something no one the industry was really asking for. It only benefited Adobe’s bottom line, but it did that exceedingly well. Adobe stock rose on increased revenue.

The message Adobe delivered to soothe designer’s scorn was that renting software instead of buying it would provide lots of awesome new features at no additional cost. Pay your monthly fee and always be up to date. In theory this sounded great, but again ran against what most design shops needed. Initially I don’t remember a lot of drastic changes. Which was fine from a production standpoint, but did agitate designers who did not want to rent the same app every month. Increasing the pressure was an influx of prosumer customers. Master Collection at $2000 was a far cry from $50 a month – and this did enable solo prosumer customers to access Adobe apps legally. These customers, who didn’t have extensive workflows, added to the pressure for Adobe to deliver constant improvements. What happened it seems, was Adobe pushed new features through to justify the subscription cost. With this, there has been a drastic rise in bugs, slowness, crashes and features that don’t work right. Adobe has been so quick to rush features out that they have broken features designers depend on daily. So while you are paying for updates, they are nowhere near production quality. Even more unfortunate is that the next major version has to be released before the bugs are fixed, so even more bugs get introduced. We have been using two year old software because we have workarounds for the bugs present. While we test newer versions, they aren’t suitable for daily use. Right now Adobe only has two things saving them. First off, apps such as Affinity are young and still catching up to the 20 year old feature set. Those features can’t all be recreated overnight. Secondly, designers have built up a large amount of Adobe specific assets and client projects which cannot be easily imported or recreated in Affinity. Both of these problems will be solved in time.

To take on the juggernaut of creative apps is no small feat, but Serif has become a formidable opponent. Designer, Photo and Publisher are professional level apps that offer the first complete solution for creatives who need vector, photography and page layout software. Each app has been written from scratch to make the most of modern hardware and hardware accelerated APIs. They approach each task with familiar features – tools on the left, palettes on the right, toolbar on top – but with unique features thrown in. Personas for example, allow the entire UI to reconfigure to accommodate different tasks. This allows a full pixel editing mode in Designer, which is by nature a vector graphics program. Instead of a tool that operates strangely, you get a completely optimized interface and set of tools. Another benefit of this integration is that any Affinity program can open any Affinity file. This culminates in StudioLink, the first of it’s kind feature which basically allows all three programs to merge Voltron-style into a pixel/vector/layout mega robot.

Ironically Affinity’s biggest advantages are cost and quality. Each Affinity app is a $50 one time purchase. You could rent Adobe CC for 3 months and have nothing or own three comparable apps you can use as long as you would like. Besides being a tremendous value, Serif has a great track record of quality software. Serif provides regular updates that improve performance and tools, but mostly these apps are already stable and predictable. I appreciate the extra work that goes into making them as bug free as possible. That being said everyone has their pet feature they want Serif to add. Many of them are either on the way or planned. However for the cost the software is already remarkably powerful.

While the Affinity suite solves most creative’s problems, there is still a slight learning curve. Twenty years of keyboard shortcuts and tools are not forgotten overnight. You can fully customize Affinity keyboard shortcuts which does help. As long as the features you need are available, workflows can be easily recreated. Everything isn’t there yet – data merge and IDML import in Publisher for example – so research before switching. However many creatives will find with the Affinity suite they no longer need a Creative Cloud subscription.

Even Adobe is starting to look to Affinity for inspiration. Since Photoshop has been around forever, it’s methods are sometimes a little stale. Affinity Photo’s resize tool wisely works proportionally by default and forces you to hold the shift key to break proportion. Adobe has always done this the opposite way. However in Photoshop 2020, Adobe has now adopted the Affinity method. This is one example of the benefits of a modern reexamining of how creative apps work.

As a bonus Affinity has full featured iPad apps that take advantage of the iPad Pro and allow you to work on the go. While Adobe has largely built tech demos on the iPad and “Photoshop for iPad” is widely considered a joke at this point, Serif has maintained cross platform compatibility with Windows, Mac and iPad. Publisher for iPad is planned for 2020 release as well, meaning you could have a complete creative studio to go.

The launch of Creative Cloud was a tectonic shift for Adobe and not one that seems to have benefited creatives. Affinity may not be the solution to every problem, but for the first time in a while it has me excited about the field and where things might go in the future.

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