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Design and Publishing Notebook

Innovations to Like in the Affinity Apps

A few months ago I wrote about my decision to start the move from Adobe Creative Suite CS6 to the new family of “Affinity” applications from Serif in the UK.

There’s a lot to like about this new generation of tools, but they do come with a learning curve.

Some of the simple but really useful functions which one takes for granted in the Adobe apps (because they seem to have been there forever) are at first glance not present in the Affinity apps.

But look more closely and you’ll discover that the Affinity apps just work differently. The Affinity “fresh start” has extended to re-thinking some well-established patterns.

Here’s a short list of things which I’ve discovered so far that work differently.

No “Repeat Last Transformation”?

Present in Illustrator since the earliest versions, this simple command is especially useful for repeating the last move or rotation, whether these were done via a dialog or mouse action. One could copy an object, either via option-drag or dialog, then just do cmd-D to replicate multiple copies at the same spacing. By repeating a rotation in the same way you could create beautiful rotational symmetries. Again, a simple idea which seems to be missing from Affinity Designer. But actually it’s not missing, it just works differently.

Affinity have a feature named “Power Transform”. It works like this:

  • Duplicate an object or group (cmd-J). This will make an in-place copy.

  • Apply a sequence of linear transformations (move, rotate, scale, shear) to the copy, either with the mouse or the Transform Palette.

  • Behind the scenes these transformations are aggregated into a single composite linear transformation.

  • Repeat the Duplicate command (cmd-J) and the new copy will have the composite transformation applied.

In a way this is a more sensible design, because there are clear begin and end points to the sequence. The initial Duplicate says “start aggregating transformations”. Any subsequent Duplicate ends the aggregation of transformations and applies the composite transformation to the new copy. Further Duplicate commands will repeat this process — applying the composite transformation to each new copy. Very interesting effects can be achieved this way.

To top it off, this works identically in all three applications — Affinity Photo, Designer, and Publisher!

No Step and Repeat?

This is something I have used regularly in InDesign to make multiple copies of objects with known separations. It’s not present as a “Step and Repeat” command in the Affinity apps, but you can achieve the same result using “Power Transform” together with the Transform palette. The steps are:

  • Duplicate an object (or group) with cmd-J.

  • Move it the desired x/y amounts with the Transform palette (and by the way the Transform palette will do arithmetic such as addition, subtraction, multiplication or division with values).

  • Repeat the Duplicate command (cmd-J) to create the required number of copies.

Although the result is the same as what a real Step and Repeat dialog would deliver, how to achieve it is not so obvious, especially for designers accustomed to the concept of “step and repeat” — a term which existed even in the era of manual prepress work.

Implementing a Step and Repeat dialog would be trivial, so why is it not present? Does Affinity not want to clutter the UI with anything they don’t deem absolutely necessary? If so, I think they’ve gone too far with this one. Numerous posts on the Affinity forums have complained about the absence of Step and Repeat. I’d like to see a Step and Repeat dialog added in a future release.

New Layer via Cut?

In Photoshop I regularly use the “New Layer via Cut” command, cmd-shift-J and was initially stumped that no such command existed in Affinity Photo. Then I found that to get the same result it’s a simple matter of Cut followed by Paste, which will place the copy — a new “pixel” layer — precisely in the position from which it was removed.

Cut and Paste in Photoshop CS6 will not produce that result — instead Photoshop places the newly pasted element in the centre of the image — in other words it discards the positional information. Affinity sensibly retains the positional information. That’s why Affinity Photo doesn’t need “New Layer via Cut” or “New Layer via Copy”.

As with Power Transform, this behaviour works across each Affinity app whether it be cutting a piece from a pixel image, or a vector shape. Fewer commands to learn. More consistency.

As I said, Affinity have made a fresh start and once you become accustomed to these differences (most of the time) they make a lot of sense.

There are even more innovations to celebrate in these applications.

No Need for “Smart Layers” and “Smart Filters”

One of the annoying characteristics of Photoshop is the distinction between ordinary layers and “Smart Object” layers.

Ordinarily all the raster layers (i.e. not text or shape layers) in a Photoshop document share the same pixel density, which is that of the document as a whole. If you resize a layer smaller, the pixels will be downsampled — i.e. you lose information. If you resize a layer larger, the pixels will be upsampled — more pixels but no more information. This assumption that all layers share the same pixel density must have been hard-wired into the Photoshop architecture very early in its life.

Smart Object layers were introduced as a work-around for this limitation. They are like a document-within-a-document. You can resize a Smart Object layer without it being resampled. This is a very handy facility because it permits much more flexible experimentation. Make a layer smaller. Too small? No problem, enlarge it a bit. None of these transformations are information-losing or “destructive”.

Photoshop also provides Smart Filters which, however, work only with Smart Object layers. Smart Filters are “live” filters that can be re-adjusted at any time — i.e. they are non-destructive. Standard Photoshop filters are destructive — the pixels in the layer are permanently changed.

The problem with Smart Object layers in Photoshop is that they feel like an afterthought, which they are. They exist in their own space separate from the rest of the document. You can’t edit the pixels or paint onto a Smart Object layer. To do so you have to open the Smart Object in its own window, make your edits, save it, and then the updated layer will appear in your document. Very clumsy.

For years I have asked myself: “surely it can work more seamlessly than this?”. Affinity have shown that it can. They have done away with this distinction between ordinary and “smart” layers. In Affinity Photo, the equivalent of Photoshop, all layers are equally “smart”. The document model supports raster layers (which they call “pixel” layers) of different resolutions in the same document.

Affinity Photo also offers “live” filters which can be applied to any layer — raster, shape or even type and re-adjusted at any time.

This apparently simple improvement makes a big difference — you don’t have to think about the distinction between different kinds of layers any more — you can work more fluidly.

Single Document Model and File Format

For this ground-breaking topic let’s begin with a little history of the incumbent Adobe applications.

I can recall seeing the original John Warnock demo video for Adobe Illustrator at a technology conference in 1987. Although Illustrator in 1987 was a vector shape editing tool only, it was a game-changer, providing as it did a visual interface to the elements of the Postscript imaging model — high precision bezier curves, strokes, fills and linear transformations. Nothing like that had appeared before on graphical desktop computers — which at that time meant only the Apple Macintosh.

Photoshop was originally developed by brothers Thomas and John Knoll and was acquired by Adobe in 1989. It began percolating into my consciousness around 1990 at which stage it was a raster image editing tool only.

InDesign began as a re-write of PageMaker, which in turn had been acquired from Aldus Corporation by Adobe in the mid 1990s. When InDesign was launched in 1999, it was fresh and innovative, but it was its own beast with a very different development history from Illustrator and Photoshop.

Although Adobe pretended that these applications were related as part of a “Creative Suite”, in fact they represented distinct and perhaps radically different code bases. Each had its own development team, sometimes in different cities.

A severe practical limitation was that each tool had its own unique file format which worked only with that particular tool.

Over time Illustrator and Photoshop began to converge in their capabilities — almost as if the two teams within Adobe were competing with one another — perhaps they were? Illustrator added the ability to import and transform (but not edit) raster images. Photoshop added limited capabilities with vector shapes and text layers. But they retained distinct file formats and were unable to escape their fundamentally different document models, a limitation which remains to the present day.

Affinity had the benefit of hindsight when they began developing their apps circa 2010. They could learn from the Adobe experience yet start with a clean slate, and they made the radical decision that their apps should share a common document model and file format.

In this regard, each of the three Affinity apps can be thought of more as a specialised viewer and toolkit for a shared document model. Because these apps share the same file format, a file created in one can be opened in another. In fact you can switch between apps while editing the same document.

This single file format and document model is a game-changer, just like Illustrator was in 1987. Affinity have eliminated the vector/raster divide between Illustrator and Photoshop and produced a semi-seamless integration of tools for illustration, photo manipulation and publishing.

Pricing, Subscriptions and the Future

One thing that puzzles me is how Affinity can afford to sell these apps at prices which are well below that of the dominant competition. Affinity’s product pitch highlights the fact that they do not lock you into an annual subscription fee — an obvious appeal to those of us who have rejected the “Adobe Tax” and have been stuck with Adobe CS6.

Someone needed to break the stranglehold which US-based Adobe had on the world’s publishing software and it’s refreshing to know that a British-based company is offering a very credible alternative.

Affinity have clearly done much thinking and sought lots of user feedback in designing these apps, and it shows. I’m learning more about these new tools each day, with lots of positive surprises along the way. They’ve become my preferred design tools in which I can work more quickly and flexibly than in the Adobe applications.

I look forward to even better things in the future from Affinity.