Designer, developer, let’s call the whole thing off

I’ve always been skittish around After Effects expressions, which when you think about it really doesn’t make much sense. I’m pretty good at programming and I get the concepts, so why the discomfort? Recently, I was adding some expressions to scripts and found myself really enjoying the process. I thought about it a bit, and it wasn’t the expressions I was skittish about, it was the entering the expressions that was making me uncomfortable. The one line data entry, the hierarchical function list, even the pickwhip with its cool little animation feels utterly confining and claustrophobic. What I was struggling with was a programming interface developed for use by designers.

And it’s not just After Effects. Flash has had that same kind of push and pull between developers and designers. From the hideous Normal/Expert mode to the pick your identity at startup evolution, every version seems to take another stab at the right mix. Even tools that have evolved into developer focused applications continue to show the roots of the struggle. I wince when I watch my Filemaker Pro using friends developing Repetitive Stress Injuries from the legacy programming environment, which amounts to a 400px x 200px bit of screen real estate, filled with buttons. Ok, I exaggerate, but still.

I’ve always been the type of guy who pinballs between the left and right sides of the brain. I’ve got a design background, but I like to program and end up working on the technical side of projects a fair bit. I think this is pretty common these days, Jen deHann coined the term deseloper (not much here right now) to describe that combination of designer and developer. What happens sometimes when I have my developer cap on in a design tools environment is a sort of cognitive dissonance between the ideas I want to express and the program interface.

I think this happens from a misguided understanding of what being a designer is all about. Design is not about being able to twiddle buttons and graphics, but about problem solving. Some of the most amazing problem solvers and process experts I know are designers. There has to be a better toolkit for letting designers express their ideas. There is a term used in computer science about a languages expressiveness or its ability to let the programmer express her ideas easily and without hinderance. I think there is a lot of room for design tools to develop that expressiveness outside of the gui toolkit. It’s obvious from the experimentation in interfaces within design applications that there is an embrace of the problem I’m trying to articulate.

My main hope is that there continues to be a flowering of cross discipline avenues of exploration. I hear similar complaints from my developer friends who feel like they are pushed away from creative solution making. I think there will always be folks who are more comfortable in a more analytical setting as well as others who embrace the more feeling parts of the Myers Briggs spectrum, but there’s also a fertile middle ground for us deselopers to explore.


  1. Nice post! I too straddle those two worlds often in what I do, with more techie (but not codie) stuff going on the last couple of years. But when I did motion graphics (and After Effects was my bread and butter, going back to CoSA 1.0), I definitely wore multiple hats.


  2. I’d love to see a script recorder and an expressions editor that was a bit more user-friendly, but you do know that you’re not limited to “one line data entry” if you just resize the expressions area by click-dragging just below it when your cursor changes to up-and-down-pointying arrows?

    Keep up the great work!

    /Jonas Hummelstrand

  3. Dale said


    CoSA 1.0…ahh, the memories.


    >>just resize the expressions area by click-dragging just below it when your cursor changes to up-and-down-pointying arrows?

    You’re right… but I’m so keyboard focused that I usually throw in a few returns so I can arrow-up and down with a bit of room to think.
    Which I guess points out yet again what a difficult task it is to balance the left brain/right brain keyboard/GUI needs of a diverse user set.

    I just wanted to get a few thoughts down in this post. With a couple of days behind it and re-reading it, I sort of lobby for a lot of different things. There is a grain of something interesting but I’m not sure from a usability, user-interface standpoint you can have it both ways.

    btw. Love the diverse coverage at General Specialist.

  4. Johannes said

    I know what you mean by “claustrophobic” in terms of editing expressions in AE. I’m especially bothered by the way an errormessage pops in your face when you quit the expression line before you finish your code (e.g. if you have to look up a value or name in another comp that is required for your expression). I think it would be better if expressions where deactivated by default after creation so you can finalize it before they take effect.

    Another thing on my list would be an automatic update function that changes your expressions when you change the name of a comp or layer. Shouldn’t be too hard to implement.

    At least you have a full expression editor in AE7 now that comes alongside the graph editor so you don’t have to figet around in the timeline anymore. I think thats a step in the right direction.

    Anyways, nice post.


  5. Lloyd Alvarez said

    quote” Another thing on my list would be an automatic update function that changes your expressions when you change the name of a comp or layer. Shouldn’t be too hard to implement.”

    Hey Johaness, this was implemented in AE7..

    And great post Dale… I began my career as a designer/animator and that’s what i call myself, but i used to do basic way back in my Commodore 64 days and with the introduction of expressions and scripting in After Effects, my curiosity for programming has been completely reawakened. I’ve been wondering if those 2 sides of the brain could co-exist…. I am happy to report that they most definitely do as i find myself using both more and more on almost every job i do now.. although i don’t think i can call myself a programmer just yet, perception is everything in this business and i doubt i would keep getting booked as a designer if i called myself a programmer.. at the moment i like to think of this skill as a “secret weapon”.. but i do hope to make it less secret in the future..


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