Gilles Vandenoostende

Hi, I'm Gilles Vandenoostende - designer, illustrator and digital busybody with a love of language, based in Ghent, Belgium.

Adobe MAX Autopsy report: Flash Catalyst

Crossposted from pool.proximity.be.

As you may have seen last week, we (Matthias, Pieter and myself) have had the privilege of attending Adobe MAX in the lovely (yet very wet and cold this time of year) city of Milan, Italy.

MAX is Adobe’s yearly conference, held in North America, Europe and Japan, focused on presenting the latest technological advances made by Adobe, as well as providing education on the software currently available. The sessions are presented both by Adobe “evangelists” and members from the community.

In this first blog post, I’ll be talking about the big thing of the show this year, namely Adobe’s upcoming new entry in the front-end webdeveloper market-segment : Flash Catalyst. Read on after the jump.

Flash Catalyst presents itself as being a third step in the current Flash development pipeline. Today, the usual workflow consists of 2 steps:

  1. The designer creates a mockup in Photoshop/Fireworks/Illustrator.
  2. The front-end developer builds that mockup in Flash and scripts it in Flex (or FlashDevelop).

This workflow means that the interaction design (determining how the site/application works/behaves) is all in the hands of the front-end developer. It also implies that unless you have excellent communication between your designer and developer, certain things in the design might end up being “lost in translation”, as it were.

Flash Catalyst aims to fix this by providing a third step in the process:

  1. Mockup created by the designer in his/her tool of choice.
  2. The interaction designer (which should ideally be the same person who made the design) takes the static comps into Flash Catalyst, and creates a working version, with state transitions, skinned components, etc… yet without any real front-end (or backend) logic attached.
  3. The developer then takes this FC file into Flex, and hooks up the interactions to the necesary logic and webservices.

We’ve been given a Beta version of FC and the latest version of Flex Builder (codenamed “Gumbo”) at MAX, and so naturally I’ve been playing around with it a bit. So far, the transition between design and interactive front-end still seems very rough around the edges. Imported Photoshop documents that rely on custom blendmodes, pattern-overlays or clipping masks don’t accurately import yet, and the interface feels slow and awkward.

There’s also no support for importing from Fireworks just yet.

Adobe currently recommends using Illustrator for creating Flash Catalyst designs, as its vector-based designs should import with the highest fidelity compared to the other, pixel-based design tools. As I’m more of a Photoshop person, I’ve yet to try this out, but the reasoning behind it seems sound. Flash is vector based after all.

But seeing as it’s still in Beta, I expect a lot of these issues to be fixed in the final release.

However, the thing that I’m worried most about is what or any merit this new workflow might have over our current way of doing things here at Proximity (and a lot of other interactive design agencies I suspect). I personally feel this Catalyst to Flex workflow is aimed more at creating Flex-based Rich Internet Applications (RIA’s) or Web- and AIR-applications, rather the heavily customized Interactive Experiences that we try to create for our clients. Also, the added overhead of the entire Flex Framework might be a bit overkill for a lot of the micro- and minisites we make here.

It also seems that FC is geared towards making rather traditional website layout, with buttons, states, pages and the like – but in my mind the whole point of the flash platform is that you can make unconventional interactive websites. If you want a traditional website, you might as well stick with HTML and CSS in my mind.

But speaking from experience, the current way of skinning Flex applications is a real pain in the ass, so it looks that at least in that respect Flash Catalyst will provide a markable improvement over the current situation, where a myriad of faux-CSS files and hacked MXML components could be replaced by single FXG file. So I think that, in time, Flash Catalyst could earn its place in the natural order of things.

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