From Critique to Collaboration: The Creation of Adobe Comp CC
Scott Belsky and Khoi Vinh‘s friendship precedes Scott’s tenure at Adobe, so when Scott approached him with an invitation to collaborate, it didn’t take long for Khoi to accept. In fact, in some ways, the collaboration, between the co-founder of Behance and VP at Adobe and the former design director of the New York Times, seemed pre-destined.
Since its introduction, Khoi had been touting the merits of the iPad as a creative tool: “I’ve always seen it as a really capable piece of hardware that at the same time imposes some really wonderful constraints. When you’re using your finger to manipulate things, you lose a sort of fine-grained ability to ‘get things absolutely perfect.’ I’ve always looked at that as a benefit.” He didn’t know it at the time, but the iPad environment he felt so strongly about (the one that forces people to focus on concept rather than execution) would become the foundation for Adobe Comp CC.
But it wasn’t Khoi’s appreciation of the iPad, or the fact that he’d built an app called Mixel in 2011, that prompted Scott to call him in the fall of 2013. It was, instead, Khoi’s skepticism about Creative Cloud. Khoi summed up the reason for Scott’s call in a recent blog post: “The perception at that time was that a CC subscription was a scheme to allow Adobe to charge repeatedly for software that previously users could buy just once. That’s what he wanted to discuss.”
From that conversation, things moved quickly forward.
By the end of 2013, Khoi was working as a consultant to Adobe with principal product manager Will Eisley and director of design Eric Snowden on what would become Comp CC. Khoi remembers, “Adobe assigned prototyping engineer Renaun Erickson to the project and for a couple of months it was just the two of us trying to figure out the fundamentals of the app, its basic concepts, what was important, what wasn’t.”
Their ideas began taking shape when they realized that the key to the app’s success would be enabling people to get what’s in their heads onto the screen as quickly as possible. It meant they needed a “drawing engine.” One that would enable people to draw, move things around, and resize them—with familiar touch-screen gestures. Khoi explained it like this: “With Comp CC, you don’t access a different tool to get a box or crop a picture or create a block of text; you draw a box with an X in it and get a picture object into which you can put an image and crop it, or you draw several horizontal lines to generate a block of text. It’s much more natural. It’s much faster. And, most importantly, it’s much different than working on desktop software.”
They intentionally kept the build media agnostic and with a focus on brainstorming. The canvases are familiar, but they are blank; there are no tools for pagination or trapping ink, and no library of interface widgets or pulldown menus. Because it keeps the focus on rapid-fire iteration, it’s a welcoming tool for conceptualizing juxtapositions of type and image for any medium.
It wasn’t long before it was time to share the build with an audience.
When Khoi presented during Sneaks at Adobe MAX 2014, the application was about 60% done. He remembers, “Not all the gestures were in there, the history feature was still pretty fragile, and as far as exporting to the desktop apps, I think only InDesign CC worked at that time.”
By the end of 2014, however, Comp CC’s two most important features were in place.
The ability to export files to Adobe’s primary desktop design applications makes Comp CC a powerful addition to an ingrained workflow. Many mobile apps have great approaches to creative exploration, they’re just not as attuned to a designer’s needs. Khoi believes that’s Comp CC’s game-changing feature: “We put a lot of emphasis on building those bridges to Illustrator CC, InDesign CC and Photoshop CC; I’m willing to bet that the bridges we created, to what designers already use and what they’re comfortable with, will be really powerful for people.”
As for the history feature that saves every iteration of every layout… it’s the team’s acknowledgement that ideas flow continuously. People don’t come up with one idea, jot it down and move on to the next one. But since any need to “manage” brainstorming sessions runs counter to the course of creativity, the saved history relieves, entirely, the burden of worry about preserving concepts, while also giving people the ability to scroll back in time—maybe even to the point of rediscovery. (Note: The feature is demoed in Khoi’s Sneaks video beginning at 3:40) A similar history scrub feature, already in Adobe Photoshop Sketch and Adobe Illustrator Line, provided the perfect interface but Khoi mentioned a characteristic unique to Comp CC: “You can actually go back and mess around with something you worked on 20 minutes ago but then whatever you did between then and now is preserved (you won’t lose it just because you elaborated on something).”
That’s the condensed version of the Khoi Vinh-Adobe partnership and the launch of Comp CC.
Now that Comp CC is in the hands of the creative community, Khoi knows the collaboration isn’t over, “For it to succeed and for us to effect meaningful change to ingrained workflows, we have to listen to feedback and understand how people are using it.”
And about Khoi’s skepticism of Creative Cloud… it, ultimately, fell away: “It wasn’t until I collaborated on Comp CC that I truly understood why Adobe made this huge move to Creative Cloud. It’s not about ‘renting’ software that we used to buy; it’s about a connected ecosystem of tools that’s only possible with the cloud. I was won over to the strategy.”