Light touch paper, stand well back

Why use four Web design packages where one would do? Because that one didn’t exist – until Macromedia’s Fireworks came along.

Mac fanatics bemused at the demise of Rhapsody and the long wait for its substitute, Mac OS X, have been engaging in rapturous schadenfreude over Microsoft’s Windows 98 woes with the US justice department. The real joke, say PC pundits, is that Windows 98 looks to be little more than a maintenance update of Windows 95 rather than, as Microsoft would have it, a radical operating system whose non-appearance in mid-July this year will bring the US economy to its knees.

The question being slyly asked around Soho bars is, when will Macromedia become the subject of similar anti- monopoly scrutiny? It’s not that Macromedia has anything in common with the Evil Empire’s juggernauting, but it has plainly taken over from Adobe as the indispensable graphics software house. With its standard interface and metaphor for its family of new Web apps, such as Dream-weaver, Flash, Fireworks, Shockwave and so on, the company has done all the right user-related things – especially with that consistent metaphor which enables somebody who is used to, say, Director to find out that all the others work along the same thought processes.

Designers being a perverse bunch, there have recently been arguments that maybe interfaces ought to be different from each other – and the example cited is Bryce 3D’s beautiful interface. But, if you have to use four or five applications urgently and in anger, beauty comes a poor second to familiarity and speed. But, really, ask yourself why you should have to use four or five applications to do what you want.

It’s something that designers, with their heads down bashing out images, don’t always get around to questioning. Say you are doing a website which involves a small video-sourced animated image. You start off by digitising the image in Premiere and turning it into a PIC sequence, either there or in After Effects. You change the colours in After Effects, export the file to Photoshop (running on a PC because the PC version of Photoshop is better at file exports), clean things up and turn the sequence into a series of GIFs before exporting it to GifBuilder to animate the GIFS, and then to an HTML tool such as Dreamweaver to locate the animation on the Web page. And there it is.

But wait. Your client now decides to change the colour of the background, or you discover someone has made a spelling mistake. So you have to unravel all the stages, make the change, and go back through the process again. You had, of course, recorded all the settings at each of the stages – hadn’t you? And then your client changes its mind again. And again.

What you really need is a single application which can do everything, or which remembers the sequence of events and the settings, or which allows you to dip in and make isolated changes without having to run the sequence over and over and over. And that is what Macromedia’s new Fireworks does.

There is an analogy with Quark, where elements can be assembled and then edited individually without destroying the whole ensemble. And in Fireworks, if you want to, you can still use After Effects, Photoshop, and the rest.

You wonder why it’s taken so long for something like Fireworks to appear. Maybe it’s because Web design stuff is still fairly new. Maybe it’s because a lot of the hot shot stuff in computer graphics involves an arcane knowledge of which application to use at what stage of the design and how to use it. Maybe the hot shots like to keep it that way.

Not any more.

Designer’s dictionary

StiNG

We’ve had png, wavelets, fractals, and other compressed image file formats. Now StiNG digital handling technology is here, courtesy of Iterated Systems, the fractal encoding people – which means we have to take it seriously. Iterated argues, with some justification, that everyone likes the idea of having just one image format for everything. It claims that StiNG files suffer no loss of quality as they are moved from application to application, and can be output to any device at any resolution and a wide variety of bandwidths. So once you’ve captured an image and converted it to a StiNG you have a lossless image that can be scaled up and down as desired. It’s Photoshop-friendly: layers, channels and clipping paths are retained. Excellent. Iterated is calling for partners as, like all new approaches to file structure, it will need some heavyweight backing if it’s to become properly embedded in our hearts and minds.

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