Given the fractious relationship that can often exist between designers and developers, the biggest surprise about Adobe Flash Catalyst ($399 list) is that it took until Creative Suite 5 for this brand-new app to make its debut. Intended to let designers take their creations to the next level themselves, it breaks down animation and automation tools to their basic elements in ways that don’t require coding or scripting knowledge. Adobe earns accolades for the idea, but the execution—at least in this initial version—falls short of making this a revolutionary product.
Flash Catalyst: The Wrong Brain?
The main reason for this is simple: Flash Catalyst has the more impersonal and less-polished design one might more readily associate with left brain–oriented programming tools than with more “artistic” apps like Photoshop ($699.00 – $899.00 List, ) or Illustrator ($599.00 List, ). But even the “geekier” components of the Creative Suite, such as the Web-design app Dreamweaver ($399.00 List, ) and the full version of Flash Professional ($699.00 List, ), are more inviting and appealing than Flash Catalyst. That makes it less useful than it should be as a “bridge” between the design and development worlds.
You can spot the deficiencies right at the start. Launching Flash Catalyst and kicking off a new project shows graphics that are much colder and starker than what you’ll see with other CS5 programs. When you get into the main workspace, the design of the various panels look no more attractive; in fact, it all feels half-hearted, even out of date, in its blocky, simplistic appearance.
This is, unfortunately, exactly the wrong approach for something that should be exactly the right product. Any software that aims at closing a gap between audiences must err on the side of caution. Flash Catalyst, however, looks like it was designed by programmers for programmers, not for people whose minds work in very different (and often less regimented) ways. For Flash Catalyst to really succeed, its interface and design need to extend more from the Photoshop and Illustrator lines, so that experts with those don’t need to relearn everything (or at least a lot) from scratch.
There are none of the traditional toolboxes that are so central to Photoshop and Illustrator, and few feature-rich dialogue boxes. You interact mainly with a few static panels. Some (Layers, Library, Wireframe Components, Interactions, and Properties) are docked on the right side of the screen. Others are located elsewhere: “Pages/States” (sort of the “before” and “after” of animation), “Design-Time Data” (for working with data lists, and so on), and “Timelines” (more or less self-explanatory) aren’t just prominent—they look like the only major choices. Also key to interaction is the floating Head-up Display (HUD), which appears whenever you select an image and is used for applying context-sensitive commands. It has no immediate analogue in the design programs, and takes time to become accustomed to it.
Another problem is the general lack of customization. You’re given two choices for your workspace, Design or Code, but you have a lot fewer configuration options than you do with applications such as Photoshop or Illustrator, which let you arrange your tools however you like, and save those layouts in custom workspaces for later. (CS5′s new Live Workspaces, which update your presets automatically as you change them, only make the absence more noticeable.) True, Flash Catalyst does not perform the wide range of tasks those applications do, and isn’t supposed to, so it doesn’t need quite as much malleability in this area. Still, it would be more newcomer-friendly if it closely mimicked those more familiar programs.
Flash Catalyst: The Right Stuff
This isn’t to say you don’t have easy access to those other applications if you need them. You don’t have to worry about using Flash Catalyst to edit images you’re working with if you decide on a last-minute design change. Just right-click on an image to open up Illustrator; each of the image’s various states (the mouse is moved onto it, the mouse is moved off, it’s being clicked on, etc.) will appear as a layer. After you make changes, you’ll find them applied when you return to Flash Catalyst.
That’s the kind of smart, cross-app integration Flash Catalyst could use more of, especially in terms of functionality as it’s a good, basic entry point into the animation realm. You may not have a ton of choices—just the standard elements of buttons, checkboxes, data lists, radio buttons, and so on—but what’s there will be more than sufficient for most designers.
Any way you look at it, there’s something satisfying about building a scrollbar from scratch using the various component pieces in just a couple of minutes—if you have the images you want to use, the work is more than half done. Although projects can be exported to Flash Builder to add more in-depth interactions, they can also be published as-is to SWF or AIR files, putting the final product in the designer’s hands as well.
Adobe Flash Catalyst CS5 may be wrapped in an unfashionable package, but it’s still a powerful tool. Designers who want to elevate their own creations without enlisting a developer for the simplest tasks will have every reason to love its basic functionality. But until it’s easier for the uninitiated to use—and look at—its appeal may largely be limited to those who already have the development experience they’re not supposed to need. I like the idea behind Flash Catalyst, but this first stab at its development left me wishing Adobe had done more with it—maybe in CS6?