Mac vs. PC, a designer’s take
April 13, 2011
The only reason the myth of Macs (yes, it’s a myth) being better at “design things” exists is because as we all know, the Apple corporation was the first to make real headway in the personal computing market. They were the first to introduce a GUI that anyone recognized (though technically the Xerox Alto was the first to have a GUI, but the “Macintosh” introduced in 1984 was the first real commercial success), and programs/software that actually looked somewhat nice. That is to say, it was not monochromatic green text on a black screen. Back then (we’re talking like circa the early 80’s), if you wanted to compute and make things, you pretty much had basic drawing applications, and lame attempts at “desktop publishing” on Apple computers (see also: MacPaint), and essentially number computing and mathematical calculating on PC’s.
Though to be truthful “PC” means personal computer, so technically pretty much any computer you can buy (IBM PC or Mac) is a PC. But whatever, I’ll just call the one Mac and the other PC to avoid confusion.
In The Beginning…
Anyway, due to this initial distinction between PC’s as data-number-financial-etc machines, and Mac’s as pretty-functional-fun-designerly-etc machines, it was assumed that Mac’s were for fun, creative people making pretty things like design and art, and PC’s were for stodgy accountants that needed to compile sales figures. It is that distinction, made in the 1980’s mind you, that makes up essentially the entire basis of the “Macs are better at design than PCs” argument that we hear so often today. Just look at the recent Mac ads: Cool young guy who says “Dude” a lot represents Mac, old accountant-looking guy with nasal voice represents an PC. Wow, brilliant marketing. In actuality, it doesn’t really matter what you use to design, since it’s the designer that makes the design, not the computer. All you really need to do is pick whichever you work on best, and most efficiently.
But beyond that, let me go on as to just why it’s such an inaccurate statement. With the introduction of Windows in 1985, the Macintosh was no longer the only “pretty” looking computer. Naturally more software cropped up, and both machines had the capabilities to do the same things; and so the race to dominate the market began. Ultimately Microsoft and Windows won out, as is known by their much larger market share both then and now, but let’s get to how this affects design.
The Tools Of The Trade
Back then, you had things like MacPaint (Mac) and MSPaint (PC); the clear distinction being that the program you were drawing stuff in was created by the maker of the operating system. If you preferred MacPaint you probably liked Macs and if you liked MSPaint you probably liked PCs, that’s a no-brainer. But today, you’re not using Microsoft Photoshop, or Apple Photoshop; you’re using Adobe Photoshop, for Mac or for PC. Point being, the people writing the code for the programs is Adobe, not Microsoft and not Apple; therefore the means of your creation of design-related things is created by one fundamental party: Adobe. So obviously, no machine, Mac or PC can claim they do design better, because they’re both using the same code. There are not Mac-specific filters in Photoshop that aren’t on PCs, and likewise there aren’t PC-specific functions that aren’t on Macs. Of course there are differentiations in plug-ins and scripts for either OS, but that’s not addressing the point, because when people talk about “Macs being better than PCs at design” they’re definitely not saying that because they have a script for a Mac version of Photoshop that PC users don’t have.
The main bias most people have when it comes to designing things is not actually about the design itself, but rather the package it comes in. Macs are notorious for sleek graphical interfaces with big bubbly icons, striped progress indicators, rounded buttons, and every other bell and whistle you can add to an OS; while PC’s and Windows (though this really isn’t the case anymore) were more functional looking with their neutral grays and somewhat boring looking interface. But those distinctions are courtesy of the Mac and Windows OS design teams, not the computers themselves.
That said, it’s like saying that because something comes in a cooler looking box that it’s automatically better. Say I gave you the choice of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a ziplock, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a gold-plated box. Obviously you’d take the gold-plated box, but would the sandwich taste any better? No, it wouldn’t. So, by saying that Macs do design-things better, you’re essentially saying that because the dialog button that tells you your file is copying looks better on a Mac (which is subjective), you’re saying that anything done on a Mac looks better than anything done on an PC. Sorry, that’s just faulty logic. Not to mention that, again, the thing that makes good design is not the software you use, or the machine you’re running, it’s the designer designing it.
So I’ll move on; surely there must be things that one machine can do better than the other can, or even things one can do that other can’t even attempt, right? Sorry, wrong again. If you’re designing things professionally, you’re using Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, Flash, or Dreamweaver, all a family of now Adobe products (see above about both machines using the same programs). Anyone who says their company uses Paint Shop Pro or Freehand to professionally run a business is kidding themselves. So, that in mind, it again boils down to the person making the designs, not the machine they’re using. If you’re using CS3 on a PC or on a Mac, you’re still using CS3. Does a PDF exported from InDesign on a Mac open faster, look better, or out perform a PDF from a PC in any way? Nope. Hence why you can open an InDesign file on a PC or on a Mac (given the software versions are the same), and get the same product.
Ultimately then, it comes down to productivity. If you have the same designer doing the same project on a Mac or on a PC, you’re going to get the same result. Only difference being how they went about making it. That said, I’ll explore the differences I’ve noticed between working on either OS, as I’ve worked on both PC’s and Mac’s for many years (both doing design mind you).
In My Experience: File Browsing
On a Mac, say you’re browsing for a file (in OSX), you have to use that weird side-by-side paneled browsing system in Finder if you want to have any idea of where you’re at in your file structure (the other options being the mode where folders just float where they were placed, and can overlap and be off-screen (horrible idea), or the structure where you only see the contents of the folder and its info, like date modified and size, you’re in at a time (and can easily get lost within a tree of subfolders). So, in using that side-by-side paneled thing, going even remotely deep into a file system organized by clients or projects (which designers do all the time), you find yourself constantly expanding the little columns, only to find you’ve run out of screen space, so you have to move the window over off the left side of the screen to see deeper into folders. Then, once you’ve found your file, if you click on it to open, it doesn’t just open, it attempts to preview it in yet another panel to the right, which is a nightmare for progressively scanning a file upwards of 60 Mb, which is common, before it opens, because it takes forever. Then once you’re done with the window you have to slide it back over to close it, as the close buttons are in the upper left of the window (which you moved off-screen to get more space). And for the gentleman who sounded off in the comments that cmd-2 fixes all of these issues, it does not. It does open a tree view, however all of the folders and files are still inline and stacked (regardless of folder or file), and the side panel for forced previewing is still present. Also, everything is incredibly slow to refresh based on system animations. Point still goes to Windows for speed.
All that versus Windows, where you can simply set the view mode to “details” where you can see all the sub-folders in a standardized tree with “+” signs next to them to expand if you want to see more, all the file’s details (date modified, size, etc) in the same screen, and it doesn’t attempt to preview it and chug for an hour unless you ask it to. Needless to say, anyone who knows how to fundamentally work on either OS, and can go search for a file will have substantially less trouble doing so on Windows.
Another thing of note is all those ._ files that Macs generate for every file on the system. Sure, they don’t show up on Macs, like Windows system files don’t show up on Windows (unless you unhide them), but copy a bunch of files from a Mac to a PC, and you get all these grayed out 1k or 0k ._ files that clutter everything up. Quite annoying. I’ve also heard the complaint from many people that PC’s always mess up fonts when you send your Mac-exported files (like a packaged InDesign document) files to a printer who opens them on a PC. The problem is actually caused by Macs not PCs, and can be attributed to that same ._ file I just mentioned. Those ._ files are called “resource forks” and usually contain pointless extra data to help your Mac do things faster, like what application last opened a file, or file attributes, things like that. So, in 99% of cases, they’re effectively useless, you can delete them and nothing will happen to your core file. However, in the case of Fonts, the Mac system breaks the content of the font into the resource fork, and the actual core file becomes 0k. Go have a look at a Mac font folder from a PC via a network — you’ll see the problem.
Let’s take Arial for example. On a Mac you’d have the Arial file, and the ._Arial file. The problem being all the actual font data is being stored in the ._Arial file you can’t see unless you’re on a PC looking through a network, and the normal Arial file is 0k. Sure, the font works swimmingly when you’re on your Mac, but if you package your file (even to send it to a different Mac, not just to a PC), you’re sending all your fonts as 0k shell files, leaving the resource forks behind. The end result? Your font doesn’t load, acts corrupt, or any other term you want to use for “is broken.” Whereas any font file from a PC (usually .ttf or .otf) load and transfer fine, because it’s not being manipulated by the operating system.
Some might bark that all designers should be using Post Script or Type 1 fonts only, in order for them to print correctly, and that TrueType or OpenType (.ttf, .otf respectively) font formats are inferior. Chances are if you’re making that claim, you haven’t been in a professional printing house in a very long time, and probably hand-draw your fonts in roughs. Fact is, any modern printing house, and the machines they use all open, read, and print .ttf and .otf perfectly fine, and have for many years. A single font file that houses all the metrics with the character data are infinitely simpler than other formats.
In My Experience: Window Functionality in General
On a Mac, one of the staples of the OS is that all the windows for applications sort of float around on their own, and can be seen through each other’s empty spots. So say you have Photoshop open with a design you’re working on, and your mail open too. In the area between your Photoshop document and the layers palette, you can see mail running behind it. Sure you can achieve the same effect in Windows by not maximizing your applications and lining them up next to each other, but 1.) that’s not a good use of desktop real estate, 2.) it’s cluttered, and 3.) you have a bar at the bottom that tells you what program you’re in, you needn’t cram everything you do onto one screen.
Working on a Mac (unless you meticulously minimize and re-open your applications every time you switch between them) means you’re going to be seeing more than you need to all the time. It’s like when you see an athlete shooting free-throws go up to the line, and the people in the seats behind the backboard wave those white rubber things all over to distract him. It’s annoying. Sure you can try to block it out mentally, but why the extra effort? Computers are supposed to be helping you do things efficiently, not confuse you by having you accidentally read a client’s email response when trying to edit copy in InDesign. So once again, I’d have to say the neutral gray behind all my Windows versions of Photoshop and Illustrator, though somewhat drab, keep things a lot easier to organize when messing in multiple applications, which designers do all the time. Not to mention accidentally clicking out of Photoshop, into an Illustrator document behind it (which really only happens on a Mac) is not only frustrating, but can lead to a rather long waiting period where your computer chugs to switch between applications.
In My Experience: Keyboard Shortcuts
These are the key (no pun intended) to being a productive designer, and admittedly, a lot of the key commands for a Mac are similar to those for a PC, but frequently require you to either be triple-jointed, or have 8 fingers and an extra hand to pull off, by not having the keys you want/need to press anywhere near each other. “Was it option, or alt. or the apple key, or wait, aren’t two of those the same key? Option, shift, apple key, plus N. aw screw it, just use the menus.” Again, hardly productive.
There are of course other specific things that can help or hinder you in either OS, but I’ll stop there, as handling files, looking at your files, and interacting with your files pretty much covers what you’ll be doing as a designer. So there you have it. Does working on a Mac make your product any more visually stunning? Of course not. Does working on a Mac mean you’re a better designer than your peers? Of course not. And does working on a Mac mean you have access to better features than a PC? Again, a resounding no.
A machine running a program to do things is just that, machine running a program. The quality of the design is dependent on the designer doing it, not what he uses. So the whole “Macs are better at designing things than PCs” thing is rubbish. Both machines, especially running modern software, do the same thing, give you the same prompts, and give you the same output. There is no trade-off in quality.
So though this review may seem biased, because anything written by a human can’t be objective, I hope I provided enough clear examples of just why I’m biased; it has reason. As someone who uses common sense, logic, and does design for a living (I’ve been a graphic designer and artist for years), it’s kind of a slap in the face to say something as unsubstantiated as “Macs are better at design stuff,” because frankly, that’s obviously not true.
We’re all equal here, buddy. We’re all equal.