Figma is scary

Jun 30, 2024

Config 2024 recently wrapped so Figma is top of mind for me and many other designers out there. It’s no secret that many designers are critical of some of the announcements made at the conference. I wanted to take some time to jot down some thoughts on Figma and how I’m thinking about this crucial piece of software going into the future — and to be honest, it kind of scares me.

Artificially intelligent

AI, the elephant in the room — not only at Figma, but in the world of creatives as a whole. Generative AI has come with a deluge of criticism from artists and makers. And rightfully so! It is a monumental leap on how the industry works and brings about both moral and legal questions on the technology’s impact.

This topic has been discussed and debated by many already, but I wanted to take Figma as a specific lens. Figma is primarily a tool for digital interface designers and our jobs to be done can be quite different from what our more art driven counterparts require. That said, a lot of these issues likely still apply to any creative medium that AI is being applied to. Figma’s movement into AI in the form of generating designs may be a bit telling on how the company views their value-add.

Figma is following the hype and industry trend of incorporating AI into its products. This is perhaps a naïve take, but Figma is making a bet and they’re not sure where AI will turn up. They have to make that bet because of the potential for enormous outsized returns. Typically, when there is a shift like this, missing the boat can have drastic implications for a product’s future.

Figma views AI as truly a way to enhance their existing user base’s potential and productivity. This is the current take that companies like Adobe has where creatives are meant to see generative AI as a partner rather than a competitor. I can see this as a very real outcome, but not necessarily to the point that Figma and Adobe have taken it. I don’t think that the “blank canvas” problem is a prevalent issue for digital designers. More often than not, we are enhancing an existing screen or designing with existing building blocks in mind where we already have a good mental picture of what we’re about to create. I do, however, see value in leveraging AI to aid with more mundane tasks like layer organization, copy linting, dummy data generation, and translation. But these are also things that you’d don’t necessarily need AI for either and you could even argue that using AI for these things is a waste of compute.

Figma wants to expand its user base outside of professional designers. Lowering the bar for non-designers to do designer things is potentially a great way to introduce people to Figma and also to grow the business. However, you run the risk of isolating your power user audience both in terms of the features you’re prioritizing and the vision of the product. This debate is similar to the what has been seen around AI supposedly lowering the bar with code generation, but so far there hasn’t been much material effect on software engineering jobs. I wouldn’t say that engineering tooling roadmaps haven’t been affected though.

Business vs. users

A lot of the points that I touched on regarding AI stem from one thing: the needs of the business vs. the needs of the users. As a product designer, this is a never-ending game of tug of war that we’re forced to play. So to say the least, I completely understand why Figma is doing the things it is doing, but at the same time, as a user, I can be critical of the practices all the same.

Around the time when FigJam came out in 2021 was when I felt that Figma had the best value to cost ratio. FigJam hit a pretty big need at the right time and didn’t gate off any features that core Figma had. It was purely additive and you and your team could choose to adopt it or not without having to give up feature functionality that you had used in Figma since.

Dev Mode was quite the opposite of that. Seemingly under the guise of an improved hand-off experience came the removal of core features that had been in Figma for a long time. For many, this was a turning point in trust for Figma.

Now announced at Config, there is Figma Slides. Like Dev Mode, it’s already been stated that this will be a paid addon to your Figma subscription. I don’t create many formal presentations anymore, but when I do, I typically use Figma. While Figma Slides seems like it would be helpful on the front, I don’t see anything that would really be a must-have for me. What I am seeing is the potential for Figma to once again gate off some presentation functionality that has been a part of core Figma. Call it a slippery slope, but we’ve already seen this happen before.

Software at your service

Figma’s business model is selling its software as a service. You pay for the the right to use the service for a certain amount of time. It’s kind of like renting (but more limited). At the same time, Figma is also cloud software. Sure, some of it runs on your machine; they’ve done some really great things with OpenGL and WASM. But the thing is that Figma owns their platform end to end. They control both the product and your data in the product. And that’s really scary.

In the past, you might go and create some design in Adobe Photoshop. Save it and be on your way. Maybe some time later, you might come back to it to use as a reference or maybe to add to your portfolio. You could pretty much guarantee that you could open and edit that file as long as you could run the version of Photoshop that it was created with or any version of Photoshop that supported files from back then. And that was a truth you could depend on.

If Figma ever goes away or decides that your money isn’t worth it to them anymore, your work is as good as gone. Poof. Your “files” are in their cloud and on their platform. There are some benefits that you get for giving up this flexibility though. Cloud saves, multiplayer, commenting, etc. Maybe all of these features are worth it. Time will tell and it’s worth saying that this is a trade-off with all SaaS products.

I once spoke with someone who worked at Figma during the pending Adobe aquisition. I asked them how they felt about Adobe and what might become of Figma. They said that they were optimistic and that Adobe was out to become more like Figma.

I’m still using Figma and will likely continue to use it for the foreseeable future. At the same time, I’m looking forward to what competitors will pop up and what existing alternatives will evolve into. To be honest, I’m hoping for design software to return to it’s native, offline, non-SaaS days.