I’ve always been jealous of graphic designers. Their ability to transform a few photos and some text into a visually-compelling communication is both an art and a skill. There are plenty of applications around that provide the technical tools needed for great graphic design — starting with Adobe’s own Illustrator — but they are not only painful to learn, but they don’t help if you don’t have the talent to use them correctly. With the explosion of social media, effective visual communication is more important than ever. Today Adobe has unveiled Spark — one of the best attempts yet to allow people of all skill levels, and on all platforms, to create sophisticated graphic designs with only a few minutes of work.
Spark is in part a rebranding of Adobe’s current Slate and Voice apps. Their capability to create page-based and animated video experience has been extended and complemented by the ability to create social media posts. The market for Spark is (at least initially) small businesses without access to professional graphics talent, bloggers, students, and non-profits that lack the budget (which I’m sure won’t thrill the pro community that Adobe relies on to make a living, but that’s the nature of things these days).
Spark allows the creation of three different types of content: Posts — for sharing on social media, Pages — for sharing as web experiences, and Videos — essentially animated slideshows. Of the three, the Post module seems to be the most full-featured so far. You can not only create content in a variety of sizes — including those optimized for popular sharing services like Facebook and Instagram — but add additional text boxes and images. Once you’ve added them you have full control over how and where they appear, but you can also let your creation be guided by the theme you’ve chosen, which will provide a generic but well-composed starting point. One nice feature is the ability to specify the focal point of a photo, so that if your post needs to be resized, it will keep the focal point in view.
The Pages module is a little more restrictive, with a limited number of layout options (at least in the current version). The result is a fairly-typical vertically-oriented page, but with limited support for further-enhancing each element. The pages look great, and are in keeping with the visual look and feel of currently-trendy web site designs, but they are all fairly simple in structure. Ironically, the Video module doesn’t actually work with video. Instead, it is a user-friendly way to create a narrated slideshow. If you prefer, you can use music (or some other pre-recorded soundtrack) instead of narrating.
Templates for designs are not new, but typically they are static. If you need to change output format or layout, you’re on your own. Spark features very flexible “themes” that support a wide variety of output sizes and shapes for your creation. Of course, if all Spark offered was flexible templates, content created with it would all start to look pretty similar. Fortunately, you can tweak each theme to your heart’s content. In addition to obvious customizations like adding more text items or changing the background, you can click through a variety of color palettes, and change fonts. One especially cool feature of Spark themes is that as you manipulate the outline of a text box, it dynamically changes the layout of the text and which words are emphasized. So you can quickly drag a corner of a text box around until you get the effect you want. Adobe calls this feature, appropriately enough, Magic Text.
It’s not that hard to search the web for free-to-use photos, but Spark makes it even easier. You can simply click on find photo, type in your search term, and it will retrieve images you can use under the Creative Commons license. Given that Adobe Stock is a growing portion of Adobe’s business, I’d also expect to see it add a connection to its stock portfolio fairly soon.
Startup Canva has been offering many of the features of Spark (and lots that Spark doesn’t have) for several years now. I’ve used Canva for Facebook posts and ads, and been pleased with the quality of its output. What I didn’t like was that, unless you go out of your way to avoid it, the actual graphic is hosted on its site and linked, rather than feeling like it was truly “mine.” Adobe Spark is a little-bit better on this, but both companies are clearly hoping to leverage their free offerings into a business — which means they want to host and control traffic and audiences over time.
The most straightforward way to use Spark is to allow Adobe to host your creations, and simply share links to them as needed. Personally, I’m skeptical of using that approach, as over the years these services come and go, so your content may disappear — and in any case, if you have a web presence you’re better off generating traffic to it than having people link out to Adobe. Fortunately, for Posts and Videos, Adobe offers a simple way to download the output, so that you can post it directly, either to your own blog or website, or to social media. Pages are an integrated experience (much like Microsoft’s Sway) and need to be hosted by Adobe. Canva creations can be downloaded in a similar fashion.
Once your creation is on your computer (typically as a JPEG), you can then upload and share it the way you would any other content. Spark supports downloading its Post format (as a JPEG) and Videos (as a video), but not Pages. Those need to be hosted on Adobe’s site — similar to the way Microsoft Office’s Sway tool works.
As it has with most of its mobile products, Adobe has released Spark in the app store for iOS, with only a hand wave about Android. Fortunately, a very-robust web interface is also available, so Android users with access to Chrome or some other desktop OS (or who are willing to brave a complex web UI on their smartphone) can still take advantage of Spark. For pre-release evaluation, we only had access to the web UI, so I can’t report directly on the iOS app yet.
The good news is that Spark is free and only takes a couple minutes to try. You can login with your Facebook, Google, or Adobe ID (even without a Creative Cloud subscription), and experiment. I recommend starting with a Post or two. Now that the press embargo is lifted and we can actually post our Posts, I’ll be doing some of the same. Simply head to spark.adobe.com to get started.