An Open Letter to Adobe: 3D for Designers


Dear Adobe,

We have been watching the Dimension community forum and the (vitriolic, for the most part) YouTube comments from long-term Substance users on the recent launch of Substance 3D. Howls of protest are par for the course whenever there is a major UI change, and the noise from the 3D authors will die down. For designers, it’s a different matter.

Project Felix was announced at MAX 2016 as a new tool “built specifically for graphic designers.” Felix promised a brand-new workflow for designers to preview and present their work in a 3-Dimensional, photo-realistic context—cutting turnaround time for design approvals, simplifying the design process for packaging and display, and opening new opportunities for product presentation. Project Felix was to be a tool for designers who were not 3D artists or experts.

After a rocky start, Dimension began delivering on that promise. As it matured it became faster, more practical, and easier to use. We could forgive frailties and missing features, knowing they were under active development.

Then, with Adobe’s acquisition of Substance, development on Dimension abruptly stopped, with no reason given at the time.

The Substance 3D launch made clear that it is for 3D digital artists: existing Substance users who are now Adobe customers. The intro video for Substance Stager, the app that Dimension should have become, begins with the words, “Creating 3D art is all about producing stunning visuals.” There was no ready-for-press production artwork anywhere in sight—not a fold, not a die line, not a spot varnish layer. There was no trace of the original Project Felix promise: “Built specifically for graphic designers.”

Designers may occasionally iterate a flat design by going back and forth between Illustrator and a 3D representation, but most of the time the process starts and ends in a 2D app, with exact dimensions and placement of artwork. Visualization in 3D comes later: client presentations, ad concepts, point-of-purchase or in-store displays. Zorana Gee recognized this in her 2016 presentation: “Let’s face it, working with 3D is really challenging … but we’re committed, and today we’re introducing a tool that balances power and ease of use for all designers, and this is Project Felix.”

This is an important distinction. 3D artists and 3D modelers create objects and scenes that are an end in themselves: the digital creation is the product. Designers create layouts and production-ready artwork destined for physical output, to be seen in real life, in store windows or exhibition halls. The only Substance tool of considerable use to a designer is Stager, which realizes the promise of Project Felix without the limitations that continue to frustrate Dimension users. Stager is what Dimension should have become.

The Substance 3D announcement included a blatant hand-wave: designers on Creative Cloud can continue to use Dimension. We are expected to believe that Adobe will finance the maintenance and development of two products with a heavy degree of overlap and very different underlying engines, using the same engineering team. Adobe has promised to keep Dimension around indefinitely, but currently the app installer is hidden from view for new users unless they turn on “Show Older Apps” in the Creative Cloud desktop app.

Dimension, then, is defunct. No amount of public relations spin can disguise the fact that it is now a zombie app. Its fragilities and important limitations will not now be addressed, ever. The promised upgrades went to Stager instead, and Stager is unavailable within Creative Cloud.

Stager is a far better tool for designers than Dimension. Its performance is superior, it has the features that were once on the Dimension roadmap, and even in pre-release form it was more robust. That only makes the decision to exclude Stager from a CC subscription even more baffling (or offensive, depending on point of view).

Designers now face the choice that confronted photographers when the original Creative Cloud subscription service launched: pay for a full suite to use a single point product or be stuck without upgrades forever. They do not wish to pay a premium subscription for multiple apps they don’t want, don’t need, and won’t use.

Adding insult to injury, there is a lower-priced Substance plan for users of Painter/Sampler/Designer (3D artists who don’t need Stager) but not one for designers wanting to realize the original promise of Felix who only need Stager. Dimension shows up in the CC apps under “Design” but not under “3D.” How condescending.

We don’t believe this is good for Adobe. From the customer viewpoint it is a broken promise and a betrayal of trust. For Adobe it throws away a potential upgrade market: happy Stager users might consider expanding into 3D authoring and subscribe to Substance 3D; ticked-off Dimension users, abandoned by Adobe, are more likely to dig in their heels.

The simplest and best good-faith move at this point is to drop the pretense that Dimension is a supported product and make Stager a dual-suite product operable under either a CC or a Substance 3D license.

In the end, customers value integrity in the companies they deal with, and an honest admission with a good-faith remedy goes a long way to repairing damaged customer relationships. Trust is a precious commodity, quickly broken, hard to repair. We don’t see any scenario in which Adobe recoups the lost customer goodwill other than the above approach.

So, Adobe, stay as loyal to your customers as your customers are to you. Keep your promises.

Alan Gilbertson, Designer
Theresa Jackson, Designer, Photographer, Trainer

Mike Rankin, Editor in Chief, CreativePro
Kelly Vaughn, Owner Verity Yacht Publication, Raleigh IDUG Chapter Rep
Steve Laskevitch, Founder, Luminous Works, ACI Ps, Ai, Id, Lr
Monika Gause, ACP, Designer, Tech Writer, Trainer
Ari M. Weinstein, Designer, Author
Steve Caplin, Artist, Author
Sharon Steuer, Artist, Author
Joseph Labrecque, Instructor of Technology, University of Colorado Boulder
Chad Chelius, ACI, ADS

Alan Gilbertson is a designer and creative director living in Los Angeles, California, where he doesn’t miss the weather of his Scottish hometown one bit.
Theresa Jackson is a graphic arts and photography industry leader based in north San Diego county, where she is active in the local photography and digital arts communities. She teaches workshops, speaks at industry conferences, and represents Adobe as an Adobe Community Professional and an Adobe Education Leader. Theresa is also a LinkedIn Learning instructor with courses in Lightroom, Lightroom Classic, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe Dimension. She has two Photoshop Guru awards from Photoshop World in the Artistic Category.
  • Von Glitschka says:

    Well in all honesty Adobe Dimension was half-baked like a lot of new Adobe ventures. I’d rather Adobe stop trying to do everything and just focus on the core software and get that ironclad dependable. Ai (The red-headed step child of Adobe apps) still has a 10+ year old bug they are fully aware of but still haven’t fixed and it’s a core fundamental functionality to vector art related to snapping.

    I tried using Dimension several times and it came out looking amateurish and not very believable. Agencies who want photorealistic mockups use services like because it’s dead-drop simple and looks better.

    Just my two cents.

  • Adam Fox says:

    Thoughtful and well said! After getting into 3D using Photoshop, the announcement of Felix was an exciting one for me. I was an early tester for Felix and later Dimension, and was thankful for its development as a ‘3D lite’ option. Definitely never reached its full potential. Stager looks great but I’ll never pay for a Substance package separately.

    Sadly, Adobe has a track record of building up designer’s hopes and then pulling the rug out after they have developed a dependable workflow with apps. Muse, Brackets, Edge (Animate, Code, Reflow), Fuse, Fireworks, Catalyst, BrowserLab, ImageReady, several mobile apps, the list is growing longer each year. The same happens with inexplicable disappearing program features… the only real motivation they seem to have now is acquiring new users to bolster future earnings reports.

    Designers are mostly locked in with steady numbers, 3D modelers and designers are the real path forward to new revenue.

    • Alan Gilbertson says:

      Adobe has reached out to us asking for input on “What should ‘3D for Designers’ look like?” That says there is at least a willingness to listen. We’re meeting early in the new week, so any thoughts you can contribute would be welcome. What are your use cases for Dimension/Stager, and why does the Substance 3D suite make no sense for you?

      We all know Adobe’s sad catalog of false starts and abandoned apps, but recall that Bridge was once scheduled for demolition because “everyone uses Lightroom now.” The problem was lack of insight, not avarice, and enough of us spoke up that Bridge is very much alive and grows better with each release.

      The solution for Dimension seems almost absurdly simple, but there may be bureaucratic and/or accounting issues to overcome: CC and 3D seem to be separate orgs within Adobe. Bureaucracies are timid; accounting rules are complex and weird. Perhaps the idea of a dual-licensed product sends shivers down corporate spines or gives the accountants nightmares.

      That’s total speculation, but I don’t think this is entirely about revenue and customer acquisition: Substance brought a huge existing base of users with them. Most will weigh the costs and benefits, protest for a bit, shrug, and go with the new subscription, just as most of us did with Creative Cloud. There’s even a special low-price subscription for the large number of 3D artists who don’t need or want this new-fangled (to them) Stager thing!

      • Stefan Kraft says:

        I completely agree with everything that is mentioned in this article. I am a designer and retoucher. And Dimension – and by that extent Stager – are perfect for me. I tried some 3D applications, but never had time or the need to model anything. I usually got away with fake 3D, and a lot of source images for comping. Dimension offered a great way to stage 3D elements – quickly, and without much prior knowledge. Perfect for 3D text. Great as illustration reference. In many cases I resulted to setting up various 3D models to fit a certain angle for retouching, rather than hunt for the stock-shot-needle-in-a-haystack. The prospect of better light controls and object-collision, discussed in the Dimension forums was great, and exactly what is needed from such an application. It was an emotional roller coaster when Stager was announced, and I realised, it would now cost yet another subscription fee… so much for All-apps-plan. Adobe’s argument that not everyone is a 3D designer (see their forum pages) is a very weak argument. Not everyone is a video-editor or animator either, yet AE and Premier are included in All-Apps. (And good that they are, because sometimes you might need them).

        What does 3D look like for designers? Pretty much exactly like Stager does. A quick, staging application to create 3D scenes to integrate into other designs. Even Substance Painter has a space in a normal Designer’s toolkit. I might not create materials. But setting up pre-built models, maybe painting some of them, and then rendering them, sounds like the best virtual photo studio possible.

        I have been using Adobe products for nearly 25 years.
        After their assassination of Freehand, the new 3D subscription is probably Adobe’s second lowest point for me.

      • Theresa Jackson says:

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts Stefan. Like you I think of 3D as just a tool for my 2D work. Sometimes that means a virtual space to visualize my 2D designs. Other times it means creating something simple with 3D to place into a 2D design. I love your reference to “stock-shot-needle-in-a-haystack”. That’s a perfect description of the rabbit hole we have all gone down. 3D can often be a better alternative.

      • Adam Fox says:

        Apologies for not catching your reply sooner, must have missed the notification. Curious to know how the conversation with Adobe went.

        Just learned today they’re also removing the 3D features from Photoshop with no intention of them returning. They blame Open GL but seems like a very heavy handed tactic to force yet more folks to pony up for the Substance license to me. For my team we can’t justify the added cost of Substance subscription for how infrequently we would use it. Our core work is with the Holy Trinity of CC apps (PS, Ai, ID) with weekly or monthly ventures into video, 3D, XD, Animate, etc. Our work will go back to faking it in 2D I suppose, unless Adobe decides to reverse course and not alienate even more loyal customers.

        Stager would be a nice olive branch to add into the CC apps, as the combination of PS 3D and Dimension accomplished most of what we needed to do and could be (mostly) replaced by Stager. Very disappointed with Adobe’s choices lately.

  • Bret Perry says:

    And now they have removed 3D from Photoshop, no more 3D and no more lighting effects. Bah! Does Affinity do 3D?

  • Stefan Kraft says:

    Was there any further feedback from Adobe on this?

  • Michael Barreto says:

    Like they’ve done in the past, they’ll do in the future. Quest for a piece of a certain market’s pie, and conquer and pillage another developer’s codebase without any vision towards interoperability. I could see when it was new that Dimension had great promise for a small portion of the presentation needs of designers, but also that it was extremely shallow.

    Substance is light-years beyond the capabilities of Dimension, but in terms of its ability to play well with the CC apps, the tea leaves say no. And that’s typical Adobe. As a designer who has had to add Captivate as a tool, I’m constantly fighting with its lack of CC-like functions and features. And they rebuilt its codebase from scratch in 2010. So many missed opportunities, which I attribute to a management team with either a lack of vision, or, more likely, a slave of the accounting department.

  • I’m not a 3D artist by any stretch of the imagination. But I must say that I’m more than interested in tinkering with anything that’s easy to learn.

    Unfortunately, I’ve found all of Adobe’s 3D offerings to have way too steep of a learning curve for print designers who have a casual interest in 3D—even for simple mockups.

    I also learned long ago that Adobe is second only to Google when it comes to throwing apps/services out there and then giving up on them or flat-out killing them off in short order—so I’m loathe to invest any real time in trying to learn any new apps from them, no matter how easy they are to use.

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