Earlier this month, we jetted over to Los Angeles for Adobe MAX, the technology company’s big annual conference focused on creativity. There, we heard not only about some of the major updates on the horizon for Adobe products and how they will affect our creative work in the next 12 months (and beyond); we also had the chance to listen to some fascinating talks by heavyweight creative practitioners, including Paula Scher, David LaChapelle, Shantell Martin and Theresa Fitzgerald, the creative director of Sesame Workshop, the organisation behind Sesame Street.

In his opening address to the 15,000-strong audience on Day 1, Adobe’s CEO Shantanu Narayen said that we are living through “a Golden Age of creativity” and that “creativity today is a fundamental skill”. We couldn’t agree more, and the three-day event at the Los Angeles Convention Centre certainly bore that out. Here are six of the top highlights.


Adobe Aero

The launch of Adobe Aero

It was revealed at last year’s event, but this month saw the official launch of Adobe Aero, the simple-to-use yet incredibly powerful tool for building augmented-reality (AR) experiences. Showing the product in a workshop, Elizabeth Barelli, principal product marketing manager for 3D and AR at Adobe, said: “We see the next evolution of storytelling coming from an immersive perspective, where the audience is not passive, but actively involved. Taking that from the world of games and applying it to other kinds of storytelling.”

Her colleague Stefano Corazza then demonstrated how easy the tool is to use by creating a few simple AR experiences live in front of the audience, for example, making a virtual owl sit on the table in front of him and fly around the room at the touch of his iPad screen. For him, it’s all about making this technology accessible to the masses: “We want to enable beautiful interactive experiences without the need to code,” he said. “We’re trying to go beyond keyframes and beyond code.”


Paula Scher: Posters for The Public Theater in New York

Paula Scher on living, breathing identities

Pentagram’s Paula Scher took to the stage on Day 2 to deliver a one-hour in-depth talk to a packed auditorium, focusing on her branding work over the past two decades and ranging across projects for massive corporates such as Citi Group and smaller ones for cultural institutions like New York’s Public Theater. She was at pains to debunk the myth that a rebrand is all about that moment when it’s first revealed to the public, instead arguing that brands and logos are empty vessels that take time to fill with meaning. “The goal of a logo is not about the moment of introduction,” she said. “It’s about how it accrues value over time. Brands are like babies or plants – you have to nurture them to make sure they grow up right.”

Having said that, Paula also admitted to a sense of frustration at the fact that, as a designer, you effectively hand your baby over to an in-house team to look after – and sometimes they don’t nurture it the way you would. “If you give someone a whole kit of tools, they’ll use three and ignore the rest,” she joked. However, a really good in-house team will do amazing things with your work, too, she pointed out. “Great in-house design teams can grow the brand and brands aren’t supposed to be boxed into a corner,” she said. That’s why, Paula concluded, she feels that “standards manuals are BS”.

Finally, in another moment of gentle (but honest) mockery, she chided graphic designers for being overly critical of the people they work with and for. “We complain about clients and say they don’t understand typography,” she said. “But we’re the ones who aren’t normal! Think about it. Who goes around talking about typography?”


Sesame Workshop: Guidelines for making an Elmo toy

Theresa Fitzgerald on Sesame Workshop

One of the stand-out speakers of the entire event was Theresa Fitzgerald, the creative director of Sesame Workshop, the umbrella organisation above Sesame Street. She spoke about the amazing work that the charity does in using puppets to educate children not just in the US but around the world, and about how her role is about ensuring consistency. “That’s our job – to create guidelines that help tell the stories that grow the impact,” she said.

Sesame Street has just celebrated its 50th birthday and Theresa explained how she and her team had created a new logo for the occasion. The logo distilled each character from the show down to its absolute essence, while making sure they were still recognisable – these then combined to form the shape of a “5” and an “0”. “We delivered a logo that stuck to the Bauhaus principle of form follows function,” said Theresa.

One of the most joyous moments of her talk was when Theresa displayed on the screens the design guidelines for the characters Elmo and The Cookie Monster. The Cookie Monster’s personality/temperament is defined as “persistent (when cookies are involved)” and he struggles with “being impulsive” and “self-control”. Meanwhile, Elmo’s nose must match Pantone 151 and said nose must touch his bobbly eyes. The guidelines also ask kindly that the offending designer “please follow the Elmo Eye Diagram, as previously requested”. It’s amusing, but it’s also guidelines like these that mean that, astonishingly, across the US, Elmo is as recognisable as Santa Claus to children five and under.


Adobe Photoshop on iPad

Photoshop arrives on the iPad

There were a couple of big announcements at Adobe MAX for Photoshop lovers. Firstly and most importantly, the product is now available as an app on the iPad. Terry White, the company’s Principal Worldwide Design and Photography Evangelist, who has been with Adobe for over 20 years, took a small group through the iPad version in an in-depth workshop. He focused on compositing several images together. “The desktop version [of Photoshop] is for everyone and everything,” he said. “The tool set that’s in the iPad version now is geared towards compositing. That’s not to say it can’t do lots of other things, but for a start it’s focused on that.”

To be specific, this first version of Photoshop for the iPad starts with the product’s top workflows: compositing, masking and retouching. But Adobe ensures us that “over time, we’ll add more capabilities and workflows as we learn more about how customers use Photoshop on a mobile device”.


Jeremy Mickel, founder of MCKL Type (Photo by Gabe McCurdy)

Jeremy Mickel on custom type design for brands

On the final day of conference, we managed to catch Jeremy Mickel’s talk on the world of type design and where it is heading next. Jeremy’s road to setting up his own type foundry, the LA-based MCKL Type, was long and winding. “I signed up for a type-drawing class in New York,” he said, looking back on the inauspicious start to his career as a type designer. “A day before the class, I got a note saying it was cancelled. I was the only person who had signed up.” Eventually, though, he did manage to learn type design and struck out on his own by founding his own company.

He started off his talk by asking the audience, “Why are so many companies investing in this laborious process of commissioning a new font or typeface? There are millions of fonts out there. Are none of these existing typefaces right for their rebrand?” He then explained that “branding is having a consistent voice” and part of that is having a recognisable typeface. “It’s a mode of communicating with your customers,” he said. Licensing is another reason why it’s worth doing, Jeremy pointed out, as brands want something that is ownable and controllable.

He did also accept, however, that a new typeface isn’t enough on its own to transform a company; that process needs to start with something deeper. “A font needs a mission statement,” he said. “One or two core ideas that make it different.”


Sneak peeks

Arguably the most hotly anticipated session of Adobe MAX is the Sneaks session, which offers a sneak peek at what’s brewing behind the scenes in Adobe Research. This year’s Sneaks were co-hosted by Emmy Award-winning writer and comedian John Mulaney, and Adobe’s Paul Trani, Senior Creative Cloud Evangelist.

Sneaks this year included Project Go Figure, presented by Jimei Yang, which allows video producers to track a person using skeletons and contours, enabling smooth and robust tracking even in a crowded scene; and Project Awesome Audio, presented by Zeyu Jin, which turns amateur audio recordings into professional-sounding recordings with the click of a button. Mina Doroudi also presented Project All In, which eliminates the need for a photographer to have a tripod and a timer by automatically identifying and adding missing people to a photograph, so that no one gets left out.

These projects are still in R&D and so are still some way off being available commercially, but Sneaks offered a glimpse behind the curtain to see what could be on the horizon in the world of creative technology in the coming years. Needless to say, it was all very high-tech and pretty exciting.