Productive, creative, or captive?

The horror, the horror: one day, you look down at your Dock (coz, like, you’re using a Mac of course) and see that you’ve got the entire Microsoft Office suite running, but none of the Creative Suite. Yup, you’ve kept your head down, kept your nose clean, and done your time – and have now officially become a manager. Your gleaming MacBook Pro is doing nothing more than a corporate drone’s Dull flaptop.

But consider the task at hand and what your output is. For example, I can spend hours pushing the same thing around in a so-called creative app (and still not get anywhere) but bash something usable out from Word or Excel in a fraction of the time. Perhaps this is because of Word’s inherent restrictions or Excel’s grid structure – one cannot muck about with positioning, only structure and hierarchy.

And so—somewhat unbelievably for a career designer—I have to say that I quite like using Office applications – but only on a PC. Yes, there’s that infuriating bubble thing constantly telling me that Windows wants to update itself again, and PowerPoint thinks it’s a better typographer than me, but the simple fact remains that I feel, well, productive when I work in Office on a PC. That last bit (‘on a PC’) is key of course, because the same cannot be said for Office on a Mac, which groans or crashes at the first sight of anything too involved. Windows and Office just work together, it’s as simple as that.

For example, there were the chart and graph templates I completed for Telephia, using PowerPoint. A lot of detailed fiddling and formatting, and the kind of thing the Mac version of PowerPoint would just not be able to handle. More recently, I did a little database project for my son’s preschool. Despite some clunks here and there, I was able to smoothly import material, format it, and get something out again. By comparison, how many times has even a simple copy and paste just not quite worked on a Mac, resulting in a big sigh and a whole load of manual intervention.

Presumably, we just get used to what we have, rather than question what we need or could have. Dear Adobe is one example of (mostly) intelligent feedback about how the user experience could be made better. (And by that I mean the actual functionality as opposed to the look ‘n’ feel, which can often become the focus of so-called experience design.) Michael Johnson’s recent article about the continued popularity of Freehand in the UK struck a chord here too, since it’s a case of an arguably better piece of software being slowly left behind due to the developer’s, rather than user’s, preference.

Conversely, there are lots of small, highly targeted, applications out there – and I find myself turning to them more and more. Mostly they’re utilities, for day to day admin tasks. But the current crop of home-grown type development tools are a great example of inter-operable lightweight utilities that do specific tasks very well. And they don’t leave you stuck with proprietary data formats that can’t be used elsewhere. The recent Robothon09 Conference showcased some of these tools very well; full video coverage is available, and I’d recommend Erik van Blokland’s intro in particular.

Having ranted this far, I guess I should say that discussions about programmes, platforms, and experiences can be very boring. But I think I’ve made my point, so I’ll stop for now. And for the record, I always preferred Freehand. Once I left college though, I could no longer call the shots and had to capitulate to my Illustrator-loving colleagues.

Care to comment?