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Uh-Oh: InVision’s New Free Tool Wants To Kill Sketch, Adobe, And Framer

The company thinks it’s time for a sea change in how digital design is made.

Uh-Oh: InVision’s New Free Tool Wants To Kill Sketch, Adobe, And Framer

As every designer knows, the process of digital design is a mess. Almost everyone today uses Sketch to draw their screens, but Sketch can only do so much. If you want to turn that file into a clickable prototype for the schmoes in marketing, there’s InVision. If you want to create prototypes with slick animations that will sell how the thing feels, you probably jump over from a Sketch file to Framer or Principle. Once you have your animated prototype, the file becomes a dead end that you can’t put back into Sketch. “Even big companies are using a cobbled-together set of tools,” points out Clark Valberg, the CEO of InVision whose name should be well known to any designer from his constant emails to InVision users, which including designers from companies ranging from Airbnb to Amex. “Even on the same team, some people use Keynote to do animations and some people use AfterEffects,” adds Tom Giannattasio, the product manager who led the creation of InVision studios.

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Clark Valberg [Photo: courtesy InVision]
After two years of figuring out how to fix those problems, today InVision is releasing Studio, a new desktop app that’s meant to do everything a digital designer needs, all at once. The interface borrows liberally from Sketch. But it also has the power to animate screens, join them up as clickable prototypes, and share them directly to InVision. Working on responsive behavior is as simple as changing the size of your art board with a click-and-drag.

And as for how InVision studio hopes to pull users away from Sketch, whose users happily pay $60 a year? Invision Studio is free.

Can A Tool Be Both Expressive And Simple?

Almost all the tools used by interaction designers today were invented in the last five years, which speaks to the massive changes in the industry–from websites to mobile and responsive web. Maybe the biggest success story is Sketch, which created a thriving business with just a handful of employees by building a screen-design tool from the bottom up. Where Photoshop was originally built for photo editors and changed over time, Sketch was easy to use precisely because it didn’t have so many of Photoshop’s countless features. Perhaps Sketch’s greatest success was lowering the bar for how much expertise it took for someone to start designing screens.

[Image: courtesy InVision]
“Sketch did a good job of pulling people away with something simpler,” concedes Valberg. “We think that opportunity exists again. The ecosystem today is disjointed and incapable.” Which is, of course, obvious to anyone that designs digital products.

But as obvious as the need for a tool like InVision Studio is, the hard part is squaring a number of competing demands. How can you make a tool that’s simple to use, but that also can do everything that Framer might, for example? And, if InVision Studio really does do a good job at auto-magically figuring what you’d like to animate, how do you make sure it doesn’t just spit out generic designs that become cliched in six months–much in the same way that the Bootstrap javascript library created an entire generation of websites that look the same?

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The Copy-Cat Test And What’s Next

Giannattasio says that the guiding principle in the design was “simple by default, but deep by choice.” In the case of animations, he says InVision Studio allows you to dig and customize animations with just a couple more clicks. He also says that fully capturing everything that users want–everything that’s possible in Framer, for example–will be an ongoing challenge. But Valberg also points to a test that InVision’s own staff did constantly while developing Studio: Picking out a big-name website such as Airbnb or Pinterest, and seeing if they could redesign those sites from scratch using Studio, in 1/10th the time it might take to use Sketch, Framer and InVision. “We think we’ve reached that mark,” Valberg says.

He also says that Studio will always be free to designers–and that the revenue will come from InVision’s web platform, in which you pay to make it possible for more people to view and comment on the screens you’ve created. It’s a clever approach to the reality of many companies today, where designers might not be so numerous, but which might employ thousands of other people that see and sign off on their work. (For example, Valberg says there are 3,000 InVision customers inside of Capital One, and 1,000 in Uber.)

As for what’s next, Valberg points to the growing trend sparked by big startups such as Airbnb, which have invested heavily in creating design systems–standardized buttons and interface elements and page layouts that make design less about picking fonts and perfecting pixels, and more like picking a meal off a Chinese menu. Valberg is quick to point out that such systems have allowed designers to focus more on issues of what to build and the strategy around it, rather than visual design. And he promises a solution that will solve the headaches involved in making sure 1,000 developers are all picking the same fonts: “We have a big announcement coming soon, but you will see a full stack solution.”

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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