Let’s start with an obvious statement: Photoshop is an incredibly popular application. I don’t think that really comes as a surprise to anyone. Many people would probably even point to it as the single most popular image editing application on the planet. There are dozens of sites dedicated strictly to teaching the various intricacies of how to use Photoshop, and thousands more that publish Photoshop tutorials on a regular basis.
As popular as it is though, Photoshop is not free from significant criticisms. It can certainly be a real drain on your system resources, and is famous for crashing suddenly – invariably when you’re right in the middle of something really important. This recent installment of Brad Colbow’s The Brads captures this perfectly:
I also posted the question “what drives you nuts about Photoshop?” to Twitter and got some interesting answers from my followers:
- when my cursor gets stuck on the hand symbol, for no apparent reason (via @wjwinoz)
- re: Photoshop – the price. (via @ptamaro)
- no right click for cutting and pasting (via @biotwist)
- Hate that despite its bloat, Photoshop is still the best thing out there. I wish there was something leaner and meaner. (via @keysthatclick)
- Nothing. I use FW! =P (via @iamhenrym)
- that it crashes all the time #PSsucks (via @amberweinberg)
- the track pad gestures being automatically on in cs4 once your canvas is askew its really hard to line it back up (shortcut?) (via @willistyling)
- The price. I’ve purchased at least 12 times over the years (via @ptamaro)
- The price! (via @gregmcmillan)
The Unexplored Reason
Clearly, people have some issues with Adobe’s premier product. Still, it remains at the top in terms of popularity – far, far ahead of applications like GIMP, Pixelmator or Corel’s Photo-Paint (which I personally started learning on). In discussing why this might be, we could talk about development and innovation, and how Photoshop always seems to be introducing new features (the new content aware fill looks incredible). We could talk about the integration with the rest of the extensive Creative Suite, which while not perfect, is still pretty good. We could even talk about marketing and the way Adobe builds the hype around each new offering.
These are all very valid points and worthy of discussion, but there is one interesting fact that I think often gets overlooked in this whole discussion, and it has to do with language itself. The name Photoshop has literally evolved beyond itself.
It has become a verb.
I don’t think you will find it in any official dictionaries (yet), but there is an entry in the Wiktionary. The fact remains, however, that the once proper noun “Photoshop” has been absorbed into the vernacular and transformed (in spite of Adobe’s apparent protest) into a verb having to do with the digital modification of an image, seemingly regardless of what actual software may have been used. To quote that vast body of knowledge that is Wikipedia:
photoshop is widely used as a verb, both colloquially and academically, to refer to retouching, compositing (or splicing), and color balancing carried out in the course of graphic design, commercial publishing, and image editing
How many people remember the Dove Evolution video, which uses some simple time lapse technology to demonstrate the evolution of an attractive though somewhat ordinary woman into a full blown glamour model? Much of the process is achieved through makeup, but some significant changes are also achieved by means of digital manipulation. The final product is, admittedly, quite stunning but that’s hardly the point.
The point is that if we saw that in a magazine or on a billboard and turned to someone – even someone who is in no way involved in design – and said “that is so photoshopped,” we would be under the assumption that the other person will understand that what we actually mean is that we think that the image has been digitally modified to remove any “imperfections”. By simply looking at the finished image, we have no real way of knowing if the touch ups were done in Photoshop or one of its competitors, yet we use the word without so much as a second thought.
The Genericized Trademark
Of course, this is hardly an isolated phenomenon, and some other contemporary technologies have also seen similar occurrences with their own names. Google is probably the best example. Today, only the absolutely most isolated or technologically unsavy people fail to understand when you say you’re going to “Google” something.
I am also finding that the same thing is happening with Facebook, though to a lesser extend. Instead of saying “I’ll send you a message through Facebook” or “I’ll write on your wall” (which has always struck me as a strangely vandalistic terminology), people are beginning to adapt the phrase “I’ll Facebook you”, simply meaning that they will engage in some form of communication through that particular social network.
This process is can ultimately lead to something called the genericized trademark, and is a really interesting linguistic development. Again, Wikipedia has a short list of “trademarks that have lost their legal protection in the US”. Some of these brand names that have become so synonymous with a particular product or commodity that you might not even know that they are a brand name.
Thermos? Zipper? Escalator? Before researching this, I seriously had no idea that these were originally brand names.
I also found a blog post entitled brand names that have become everyday nouns, which lists some similar products that, while likely still protected, do still tend to be used in a very generalized way.
How Photoshop Benefits
So how can this help Photoshop maintain its market share? I think it’s simply a matter or prevalence. The applications’ name has developed into a verb because it is so widely used and known. Designers use it. Artists use it. Photographers us it. Its fame has become so widespread that it has actually trickled out of these circles and into the public discourse in a way that none of Adobe’s other offerings have.
How many of your non designer friends would know what Illustrator is? InDesign? Flash might be a bit more well known, but probably more as a product that is experienced on the internet rather than an application for building rich, dynamic and interactive content.
Given all this, I would argue that Photoshop has found itself in a rather interesting position. One of the key elements of successful branding is always mindshare. When people think about a particular type of product, what brand do they think of first? Everyone wants to be right at the top of that list, and companies go to great lengths to compete with each other in order to grab that spot, which is probably coveted as much – if not more – than the number one spot on a particular Google search.
What better way to achieve this level of mindshare than to have your product name actively being used to represent an entire field of work? After years of hearing people talk about Photoshopping this or Photoshopping that, when a budding designer, artist or photographer is looking to get into the industry, what software do you think they’re going to turn to first?
This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to actually purchase Photoshop and use it as their application of choice. There are many other factors involved in this decesion – not the least of which has to be price. Still, I would maintain that Photoshop is probably the first place that many beginners will turn to, simply because it is a name that has gained so much mindshare, through everything we have already talked about.
A Fine Balance
Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that this genericized trademark stuff is the sole reason that Photoshop sits tall and proud as the king of the digital imaging arena. There are certainly many other reasons, many of which have probably contributed directly to Photoshop becoming so popular in the first place. It’s an interesting concept, though, and one that I have not seen discussed all that much in the design community.
I am also not suggesting that Adobe’s premier offering will never be toppled from its place of prominence. The whole process of genericized trademarks can actually be very dangerous for companies. If a particular trademark becomes too generic, the ability to maintain legal protection can be lost and the name becomes a part of the public domain. The moment that happens, it is available for anyone to use, and you would see dozens of different “photoshops” popping up all over the place.
Obviously, Adobe doesn’t want that to happen, and I’m sure that they are monitoring the situation very closely. If it ever appears the use of Photoshop as a verb ever starts to move into dangerous territory, you can be sure that Adobe will take steps to stop it and protect itself.
In the meantime, however, Adobe continues to offer minor protests against the use of Photoshop as a verb. Personally, however, I have a sneaking (and completely unsubstantiated) suspicion that they are actually secretly enjoying this phenomenon, and the mindshare it helps them maintain.