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Interview with Matt Priestley, lead Affinity Designer developer

Almost five and a half years ago, we launched the very first app in the Affinity suite: Affinity Designer. We caught up with the app’s lead developer, Matt Priestley, to learn all about the now award-winning app, its ongoing development and the ‘pinch me’ moments along the way.
How did you get to where you are today, leading the development of Affinity Designer? Have you always wanted to be a developer?

I’ve always been interested in coding—when I was about eight, my brother had a Commodore 64 that I used to type games into from magazines (complete with obligatory print errors that you needed to work out!) and by the time I was 15 I’d written a vector drawing program for Acorn Archimedes called MattDraw v1.0. It was shocking, of course, but it’s crazy to think I’ve been writing vector drawing software since then! I’ve always been artistic and I guess I just feel happy when I’m creating in vectors. After leaving university, I got a job at one of our competitors, then left in 2002 to come to Serif where I worked on all products, but my ‘affinity’ for vector drawing eventually meant I was placed in charge of DrawPlus 8. I was one of the first developers on the Affinity project and the rest is history as they say…

Affinity Designer was the first Affinity app ever released—how did it feel to be asked to develop it and how did it feel when the public beta was made available?

It was great to be asked to start from scratch, truly target a creative professional as the customer and to work to create something to be proud of. We were developing for about three years before we got to the point where we felt it was ready to share with anyone. Even after years of constant development, we knew the first Beta still wasn’t ‘there’ yet—and the feedback from the Beta itself showed that we were onto something good, but it was just the start. We listened to the feedback and reacted quickly to turn Designer into a more rounded, productive, enjoyable application. There’s still plenty to do though, I suspect there always will be—that’s part of the fun though…

“It was great to be asked to start from scratch, truly target a creative professional as the customer and to work to create something to be proud of. ”

Affinity Designer
You once described Affinity Designer as “the program you always wanted to make”, citing your love of vector drawing. From your point of view as not just the developer, but as a user of vector drawing software, what would you say sets Affinity Designer apart from similar apps?

I think that Designer feels very ‘lightweight’ to me—it kind of gets out of my way and lets me get on with drawing. There’s a large amount of functionality, but the workflow and fluid responsiveness means I’m very productive, which means I get my thoughts onto the page before they lose focus and I feel like I can be a bit more ‘creative’ in trying different things without it being laborious.

You previously mentioned that your favourite features in Affinity Designer when it was first released were Pan & Zoom, Pen Tool, the Gradient Tool and being able to paint with pixels on your vectors. Do you have any new favourite features now that the software has been updated?

I still enjoy the fluid response of panning and zooming around, and the Pen Tool’s thoughtful modifiers and interaction subtlety—that’s the mainstay of my use of the application, and the fact that they’re rewarding and unintrusive means I can just enjoy creating.

Being able to paint texture onto my vectors in the Pixel Persona is another one of my favourite features and will always be a novelty I never tire of.

Affinity Designer’s Pixel Persona

It doesn’t matter how many new tools are added, I think that those core features are the ones that you need to get right and hone over the years—they’re ultimately the reason you’ll stay a user of the software.

How do you go about adding new features? How do you decide which ones to include?

It’s complicated… ;) There’s a list of things I’m dying to do, a list of things that users are asking for, a list of things that don’t work as they should, and some complicated Venn diagram exists in my head somewhere that has an intersection of these things with weightings based on the impact they’re having/going to have on customers and on the codebase.

Is there a feature or other specific part of the app that you feel most proud of?

I’m a fairly self-deprecating kind of person. I feel proud when I finish each new thing, but they’re never really ‘finished’ and there’s always more work to do, so the ‘shine’ kind of goes away a little. Software is always a ‘work in progress’ so it’s easy to see the cracks, especially in my position where I am responsible for the product as a whole, as well as writing the features. I’m still very happy with the quality of our rendering, the flexibility of the rendering engine and the fact that we can zoom to such a high level in such a fluid way.

1 million percent zoom
Are there any ‘hidden gems’ (functionality) within the software that you think some users might not know about, or perhaps any underrated features?

Hopefully they’re not ‘hidden’, but tricks like double-clicking an object in the Move Tool to automatically jump to the appropriate node editing tool and holding down the modifier in the Pen Tool to temporarily move straight into the Node Tool make the application dramatically better from a workflow perspective.

Thanks to the ongoing development of Affinity Designer, does the app now cater to users it didn’t before?

I think that Designer is slowly padding out its features in all directions, making it a more solid choice for different disciplines. I think in the future we’ll see specific pushes into certain markets (UI/UX for example) that we’re currently missing a few crucial things for.

How did developing the iPad version differ from developing the desktop version?

The workflow of Designer on desktop is something that came very naturally; it’s what we’ve all used for years and it’s second nature. The iPad version of Designer was attempting something that had never been done before—delivering a professional level tool with genuine workflow and productivity on a device that typically would not have a keyboard attached. That meant implementing custom multi-finger touch recognizers to enable the user to have the control they need to be able to use the tools in a way similar to the desktop, rather than having many cut-down tools that did subtly different things that they’d need to swap between. We’ve still got a long way to go and a number of the interactions can be improved, but I’m proud of what we came up with.

Affinity Designer for iPad
Since 2015, Affinity Designer has won various awards, including the Apple Design Award and the Application Creator of the Year accolade at the Windows Developer Awards. How does it feel now knowing how successful the apps are and to have all of your (and your team’s) hard work recognised? Have you had any ‘pinch me’ moments?

To be honest, the whole thing has been utterly nuts. We genuinely tried our best to create something we’d want to use ourselves (and I do use it—all the time!) but I don’t think any of us would have dared to imagine the reception we got. I think we’ve been very fortunate to have found a large number of interested users on the forums to guide our progress, and talking directly to creative professionals has similarly thrown light on weaker/stronger areas, but we are also lucky that the team itself actually uses the software they make and that makes a world of difference to the quality of the finished product.

The Apple Design Award was unexpected, but always hoped for! It sits on my bookshelf at home. Hearing that announced is definitely one of those moments that will stay with me…

“The Apple Design Award was unexpected, but always hoped for! It sits on my bookshelf at home. Hearing that announced is definitely one of those moments that will stay with me…”

Where do you see Affinity Designer in the next few years?

I’d really like to see Designer build on its strengths and flesh out a number of weaker areas—faster, smoother, more accurate, more effective; less clicks, less dialogs; new tools to just make a lot of the more labour-intensive tasks go away…

I think we can make a product that everyone will enjoy a whole lot more, without losing any of what makes it a responsive and rewarding application today.