What Software Did You Use?

“I like your website. What software did you use?”

I get questions like this occasionally. Sometimes they’re about a website, a video or some other webby thing I had a hand in creating. Oddly, nobody asked that question about our book or the play I wrote a couple of years ago: “I liked that comedy you wrote. What software did you use?” And I rarely hear anybody remark to a city employee, “hey, that’s a nice ditch you dug. What shovel did you use?”

I’d imagine that people who spend all their time being creative with new tools–web designers, animators and so forth–get asked this question all the time. I’m guilty of doing it myself. I remember, for example, asking Rob about his process in creating his Noise to Signal comics.

I was just curious more than anything. A lot of times, I think people are asking the “what software did you use?” question so that they can replicate your efforts. It may be subconscious, but they think “if I had that software, I could do that too”. And maybe they could.

In creative enterprises–from a pencil sketch to a feature film–the tool is the thing that matters least. What matters is that weird combination of skill, clever decisions, intuition, good fortune and the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s blessing that makes for a successful creative project. For example, Jorge Colombo drew this week’s New Yorker cover using Brushes, an iPhone app.

In thinking about this topic, I’m reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”. Most of us don’t understand the in’s and out’s of how you create a website or a digitally-animated short. As such, we tend to ascribe the ‘magic’ of the creation to the tool, as opposed to the creators.

What do you think? Do you ever get asked this question?


  1. I get that a lot: Do you use Dreamweaver? I tell them no, everything is hand-coded because that is the best way to make sure you get ‘clean-code’. Of course when you build on top of a CMS like WordPress or Drupal you are working with code that was written for you by others, but you are trusting that that is good code as well.

    I also use a very good code editor called Coda, it is absolutely the best tool for coding websites.

  2. Having interviewed a bit in the recent past, I actually get asked “what’s your favourite marketing tool” quite often.

    My response is generally that their question doesn’t have one correct answer, because the tool that is used depends on the goal, process, budget and mojo of the team/product/campaign.

    It’s actually a great filter from the interviewee side to determine whether a company has any sort of understanding of marketing as a discipline, or whether they prefer to keep trying out different “tools” until they find the magic (which eventually stops working, and the hunt for a new person with a new tool starts again).

  3. Very good point, a graphics designer I worked with in the past wholeheartedly believed that the computer was merely a tool to achieve an end, and the boss (still to this day) doesn’t understand the true creative process behind everything we produced.

    It’s a little insulting to the creative genius behind the keyboard, when people think that all they need is the same “software” to create things.

  4. Even in endeavors considered less creative (like software development), people get stuck on tools. My first introduction to a new customer often starts with a question like “which database do you think we should use?”

    To which I often reply: Would you ask an author which word-processor he/she uses?

  5. I don’t believe it’s as simple as “if I had the same tools I could produce the same output”.

    It’s absolutely about having the idea and translating it to a result (see South Park gnomes sketch) the tools are merely there to facilitate that transformation in the hands of a skilled user. When I personally ask the “what tools did you use?” question it’s because I admire the developer/author and it’s clear to me that they’re seriously committed to good results. If they’re committed to good results then they’re going to be using tools that work and tools that don’t interfere with their creative process. I’d also like to use tools that do that.

    1. Agreed, that’s why I said “a lot of times”. There are plenty of other reasons to ask about tools.

  6. In my past experience it’s a lot more along the lines of ‘I like your website. Can you fix my computer?’ (see linked graphic for better explanation)

  7. Actually, I was happy you’d asked. I love talking about tools and the more mechanical side of the process.

    I like Jon’s reasons for talking about tools. And maybe there’s an added attraction: it’s easier and less scary to talk about the tangible qualities of tools and gadgets than about the mysteries of the creative process (which, as any artist knows, COULD FAIL US AT ANY MINUTE, especially if we think about it – DAMMIT! there it goes).

    Then there’s just the sheer love of craft, as opposed to art: looking at the varied line this pen makes compared to that pen, or the particular way one chisel bites into the wood compared to another. And apart from craft, thinking like that can get you out of your head and into the medium, freeing your subconscious to burble away with new and interesting ideas.

    By the way, I recently switched to dipped pens, but I use the Pigma Micron 03 for detail work and touchup. Thought you’d like to know. 🙂

  8. I think this happens in many fields. Sometimes, for instance, people ask me what camera or lens I used for a particular photograph. Sometimes I can’t remember and have to look it up in the Flickr image data — while the lens can make a lot of difference, the camera body usually doesn’t, especially in comparison to someone’s ability to compose and expose a good image.

    Check out Lisa Bettany’s beautiful photos taken with the crappy iPhone camera and lens, for example. Or Elizabeth Sarobhasa’s shots, taken with everything from a digital SLR to a plastic toy camera, but all showing her distinctive style.

    Similarly with music. You can’t listen to a song and figure out whether someone recorded it with GarageBand, Reason, Pro Tools, Sonar, or an analogue tape deck. (Well, if you’re a recording geek and know what to listen for, sometimes you can spot a sample from the included GarageBand loop library…) But when enthusiasts nerd out, they’ll rave about the “smooth sound of the SSL mixing board’s master bus compressor.”

    Sometimes the abilities of our tools (or the limitations of those tools) influence what we make with them, but ultimately it’s the desires and talent of the artist that make the difference. Give Eddie Van Halen the cheapest guitar and amp that will stay in tune (or not) and he’ll make it sound amazing. Give me Eddie Van Halen’s complete guitar rig, and I’ll still sound like a hack.

  9. Of course. And I get Scott’s Dreamweaver question sometimes too. (I just scoff.) My client is hoping the software (is a CMS software?) I’ll be using for his new website will make an impact on his Google ranking… I’m not convinced it will… and he asks me what software is behind his existing site I made him (none whatsoever; they barely existed at the time). I think we all agree it’s about what you do with it and the skills you have. I think we also expect technology to be perfect, so when it doesn’t work right it’s some god awful thing — but who made technology? We did. And we are not perfect as much as we’d like to think so.

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