Photoshop reinvented

celebrates another birthday soon and will then be old enough to drive a car, but how are today's creative mavericks getting to grips behind the controls of Adobe's pole-position front runner?

The dawn of the digital age at the start of the 90s bore witness to many of the crucial developments that were to challenge and change the nature of technology and how we, not just as designers but as humans too, would interact with it.

Within the first year of the new decade, 1990, we were to see the introduction of barcode readers, the photo CD player, the Oxford English Dictionary arriving on CD-ROM for the first time and the birth of the web at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, although it would be the following year before the first website would actually go live. The first digital soundtrack was created for the movie Dick Tracy while elsewhere we were at the cinema watching Pretty Woman, Total Recall and GoodFellas. In 1990 we saw the death of two-inch videotape and the typewriter, as IBM was to sell its Selectric division. Oh yes, and in February 1990 the digital age came of age when Photoshop 0.1 shipped for the very first time following ten months of development by a new company: Adobe.

Brothers John and Thomas Knoll could have had no idea what impact their father's enthusiasm for photography and the early beginnings of the personal computer were to have on their future and their subsequent invention of the digital image-manipulation software application. Photoshop (originally PhotoShop, with a capital S) would go through many revisions and redesigns during the next 17 years, but the underlying fundamentals of the application would remain pretty much unchanged. Bob Gordon, the author of The Complete Guide to Digital Graphic Design, software tutor and trainer to both education and industry and an early adopter of Photoshop, agrees. "What is so incredible about Photoshop," he muses, "is the fact that its core features were brilliant from day one. Virtually all of the upgrades have been for extra bells and whistles and greater productivity."

With new software applications such as Photoshop hitting the streets and hardware becoming more affordable, the late 80s and early 90s became the new gold rush for many within the industry. Joe Magee, now an illustrator and digital artist and a regular contributor to The Guardian newspaper, had graduated in 1989 and was to find himself in the right place at the right time. "It was a mad moment in time," he recalls. "I was working for a company that sold Apple Macs when the digital revolution took hold. I was responsible for selling kit to many of London's top design and advertising studios - one day I was selling to Neville Brody and the next Peter Saville. I was then training them how to use the kit and the software and, of course, Photoshop was part of the package."

Revelation then rejuvenation
Magee had already been introduced to an early version of SuperMac's PixelPaint but when Adobe launched Photoshop he instantly recognised the impact that it was to have. "As soon as I used it for the first time," he says, "I knew it was the answer to all my own illustration needs - it was a complete revelation! I had wanted to combine photography, sketches, etc., and before Photoshop I had to work in silkscreen to get the right effects."

With the very first version of Photoshop being as advanced as it was, fresh out of the box back in 1990, what have today's designers been able to do to continue to push the boundaries of digital image manipulation? What has really changed, how has the medium advanced and has it actually reinvented itself?

Ben Cox, at CIA - Central Illustration Agency in London - sees the current state of play within the field right now as "Intelligent Manipulation". He explains his theory: "Designers and image-makers now really have to know how to construct an image pictorially and to understand the visual language of how their work communicates. The best work is being created by those who have a solid background in image-making, but it wasn't always this way." Cox recalls the early days of Photoshop image-making and manipulation. "There was certainly a lot of 'wow' factor about then, almost like the technology was leading the visuals. There were a few people making a lot of money simply because the clients didn't know how the work was being created - they were dazzled by how clever they thought it all was," he says.

Magee agrees with Cox on the early period of Photoshop. "People were using every colour under the rainbow, using a million layers and every effect and filter imaginable - there was just so much overworked dross around in those days," he explains, with more than just a hint of venom in his tone.

It appears now that many of the real advances being made in image-making are by those working at the cutting-edge of the discipline. Increasingly, the majority of those prepared to take risks in their work are likely to be those free from commercial constraints: graduates with attitude, young freelance designers with a funky client list, as well as some of the smaller, more independent practices less motivated by current practice and more concerned with new trends and ways of working. These individuals and small groups yearn to create seminal work and recognise that in order to do so they must use a range of skills - strong creativity, clever ideas and thinking combined with both excellent traditional and contemporary design skills. And this is as well as a deep knowledge of hardware and software expertise that is second to none.

Seen but not heard
Even a strong command of software skills may not be enough. At the heart of creating great work is the real sense nowadays that the image should not betray its roots or origins - the software shouldn't shout louder than the image. Bob Gordon has worked with the entire range of Adobe products. "Like all good design," he states, "remarkable and memorable images should not appear to have been influenced by software intervention. It is to Adobe's credit that, in the right hands, Photoshop can assert its magic and its influence remains unseen."

Liz Farrelly, design writer, regular contributor to Design Week and author of numerous books on design and image-making from the Scrawl Collective to Zines and April Grieman to Tibor Kalman, offers a stronger opinion. "I'm never really that interested in which programs designers use to create images... the less identifiable the better," she states. "Programs should be incredibly flexible - they are, in fact, just a tool and never anything more."

Bob Gordon reflects on the upside and downside of Photoshop's abilities. "It's unfortunate, perhaps, that some of the application's remarkable filters steal the limelight!' he says. "It is the quiet, solid, workman-like image adjustment tools and sophisticated selection functions that are, in my mind, the wonder of the application. They provide the designer with the freedom to be creative in totally innovative and user-controlled ways." A genuine enthusiast, Gordon continues: "Photoshop is so un-prescriptive. The software allows for a half a dozen or more different ways to achieve a given goal."

Gina Cross sees a huge range of illustration artwork on a daily basis. As art and design manager at The Guardian, she works with the entire design department of art directors and designers that commission images six days of every week. The Guardian, under creative director Mark Porter, has widely been credited with bringing illustration into the homes of more and more people with a vast number of exciting and brave commissions in recent years. "Most of our illustrators use Photoshop as a tool rather than as a means to an end," states Cross. "Works are most often initiated by drawing or painting, then worked on in Photoshop. The use of masks, filters and the building of layers can help create an image that wouldn't have been possible to do in only traditional media." Cross looks to other mediums for comparisons. "It's similar in a way to how music is produced in a studio, because you can add effects that wouldn't be possible to produce live and which enhance the finished product," she offers.

Across town at Cond Nast, Nick Booth, art editor of Vogue magazine, draws a similar musical analogy to Cross. "Just like DJs do with music - sampling and layering sound - I think people are increasingly pushing and testing the limitations of technology. I do feel that the techniques and tricks that a designer or illustrator employs are becoming ever more subtle and involved," he states.

Back to basics
Ben Cox at CIA believes that there has been a recent shift back to realism and the culture of less-is-more. "Think about it," he says: "an average family now has the technology at their fingertips to manipulate an image - everyone can now blur and distort, we all have access to that magic wand and at the very least we can all reduce red-eye. It's so understandable that it is now all about the return to the fundamentals of picture-making."

Realism is now in vogue at Vogue. "Within the beauty/fashion industry there seems to be a feeling that less is more," Nick Booth adds. "Photographer Corinne Day recently did an entire story for Vogue, September 2006, without any retouching."

Tim Spencer at Studiospooky moved from his fulltime job as an art director to a freelance career in illustration in 2001 and has created memorable images for a vast number of clients that include the Scissor Sisters, Selfridges and Pepe Jeans. Spencer has had a long-lasting relationship with Photoshop, and has noticed the changing trend towards the less obvious use of digital effects. He admits he's a big fan of a return to real skills.

"As advanced as it gets," he states, "I think that there is a move away from the use of Photoshop as a filters factory, used to produce obvious effects-driven images, and a move back towards its use as a digital darkroom, as it was originally intended. At the end of the day, if you can't draw something effectively with your hand using a pencil and paper then Photoshop is unlikely to be able to do it without it looking very obviously computer-generated."

Back to the future
A magic wand is one thing, but a crystal ball is another matter entirely and the issue of what the future holds for Photoshop as it approaches its 17th birthday is a tricky one. Nick Booth at Vogue and Gina Cross at The Guardian share a similar vision of a potential merge that they believe will emerge. "I think Photoshop and Illustrator will become one program," states Booth, but Cross goes one further: "It's not unfeasible that in the future the demand for Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign will mean that all three packages will become one thing..."

Studiospooky's Tim Spencer yearns for something far more dramatic than the merging of software applications. "I've been in the creative industry since 1985," he admits, "and have observed that there has always been a strong visual trend going on. Right now though, if you can conceive a visual in your mind's eye, it's now easily achievable using a reasonably priced combination of hardware and software. Great visual material can make your head swim or your heart thump, but those magic moments have become few and far between lately. We have reached the glass ceiling - our fantasies and the means to visualise them have finally met."

Spencer wants to push the discipline forward and is enthusiastic for the future, albeit with touches of Spielberg's Minority Report. He concludes: "The digital medium needs to be reinvented, it needs to be injected directly into the mind's eye or projected around us in convincing 3D environments, it needs to be ink that can crawl across the paper - it needs to leave the past behind and start exploring the future a bit more..."