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Adobe Express Review – PCMag

Creativity for everyone, with drag-and-drop, template-based design
Geared for non-designers, Adobe Express is a capable and welcoming template-based tool for creating attractive online content quickly. If you’re already a Creative Cloud user, the interface and operations may feel a bit alien at first.
“Digital is the new default. Everything happens on a screen,” Adobe proclaimed at its 2022 Max conference. Perhaps not everything, but with sharp tools like Adobe Express, even non-designers can create screen-based, multimedia and social graphics faster and, most importantly, better. The graphic design software company’s new web-based, template driven app will meet the needs of many who either want to try their own hand at design or can’t afford bespoke professional design services.
As a seasoned design professional, I don’t believe that more and faster are necessarily viable partners with extraordinary and inventive when it comes to design results. That said, most folks won’t be creating profoundly innovative graphics with Express—and that’s the point. Express isn’t as much about creating great design as it is about making easy, ephemeral communications with trendy graphics, cool photos and illustrations, and expressive type styles.
Adobe Express (which recently dropped the “Creative Cloud” from its moniker) replaces the company’s Adobe Spark product (though the Spark Video and Spark Web apps remain). It competes with other simplified, template-based tools such as Canva. A key benefit of Express is having access to your Creative Cloud libraries and the suite’s collaboration and sharing features.
Adobe Express uses a freemium model. You can use the product for free, but you get more features and content when you pay, in this case $9.99 per month for a subscription.
If you love the free version, it’s probably worth it to upgrade to the paid subscription because of all the added benefits. They include access to premium features in the Photoshop Express mobile app (iOS and Android); Adobe Spark Video (iOS) for video slideshows; Adobe Spark Page (iOS) for quick web publishing; and Adobe Premiere Rush, the mobile and desktop app for shooting, editing, and sharing videos. In addition, you get access to Creative Cloud Libraries, 100GB of online storage, all premium templates, stock photos (160 million), fonts, and branding tools.
By design, it’s supposed to be easy to get going in Adobe Express. All you need are an internet connection and a web browser either on a desktop PC or mobile device. To access the app, you create or sign in to an Adobe account. You can do everything in the web browser, but there are also apps available on the Apple App Store, Google Play, and the Microsoft Store for Windows apps, all of which simply replicate the web version.
I decided that my first project would be to create a mock Instagram story for the Mary Todd SPCA. I have my cute photo of my cat, Mary Todd, and my message ready to go. f
Jumping on to the welcoming Adobe Express site, I’m reminded of its earlier incarnation, Adobe Spark. The site cheers me on with a personalized message to “create confidently, share fearlessly,” and then shows me a number of template categories. You can select a format preset for an Instagram story or post, Facebook post, poster, logo, flyer, collage, book cover, album cover, résumé, invitation, and more. You can also create your own templates.
Toward the bottom of the screen are quick editing actions you can use rather than starting with a template. They’re commonly desired editing, formatting, or file conversion functions, such as Remove Background, Resize Video, and Convert to PDF. At the very bottom is a thumbnail inventory of recent Express projects if you have any (or Spark projects, in my case). Along the left you see a similar interface to other Adobe apps’ home screens, including a lightbulb-shaped Learn button in case you want some tutelage.
After selecting the Instagram story format, my options are to use a predesigned template or start from scratch. I select a template. I want to swap the template’s photo for one of my own, but I run into trouble when I select what looks like the photo of the woman and click Edit. What I’d really selected was the heart frame, but now the Undo arrow is grayed out and the undo keyboard shortcut (Cmd-Z or Ctrl-Z) has no effect. I press X to cancel and begin again. This time the window has an editing panel.
When I click replace, it displays more stock images and doesn’t offer me the option of uploading my own. To do that, I need to go to the Photos button where I see the desired Upload photo option—but when I upload my picture it becomes the background and not the central image. You need to be precise with selections. Once I get it right, my replacement photo uploads, but it doesn’t replace the template image in the heart. Sigh.
This time I see the expanded layers thumbnail in the lower right which was condensed when I started. Now I can double-click on the layer with the photo I want to replace, ungroup it, and re-upload. Success! I’m feeling encouraged, so I change the color of the frame and choose a new typeface for my message. In the first release, a glitch on the site somehow made my S key unrecognized, so I figured out a copy-and-paste workaround.
At last, I have my template edited and customized, and after having overcome some pitfalls, I know that my next encounter with Express will be faster and more efficient.
You certainly don’t have to work from a template if you find it too limiting, as I did. Sometimes it’s faster to start from scratch rather than spend time changing and undoing a bunch of content that’s already there. In addition to the template categories mentioned above, Express has no shortage of assets for you to play with. Here are the category buttons at the left of the browser and some items in each selection:
Under the Text button are text styles that are perfect for social posts, logos, seasonal stylings, body copy, signs, labels, and quotes. You can also add your own.
Next is Photos, which is divided into sections inspired by wellness, seasons, people, backgrounds, travel, and pets. Free images are included.
Upon clicking the Icon button, you need to enter a word in the search field. I entered “bee” and found hundreds of great black and white images.
Clicking Design assets provides you with even more goodies, including categories for effect groups, illustrations, brushes, frames. Each category has several subcategories which are great for further inspiration. In fact, I was compelled to have another try, this time from scratch—I even animated the text.
You may be relieved to know that, unlike some web-based apps, the commands buried in your muscle memory because you use them all the time translate seamlessly to this web app. For me, the nudge keys (arrow keys) are as indispensable as the undo keyboard shortcut, and both are present in Express. The delete button and the key command to pan work too. However, some popular keystrokes didn’t at first release; Adobe subsequently has fixed copy and paste shortcut functionality.
Simple text animation features, somewhat resembling those in PowerPoint and Keynote, are really exciting. Under the Animation button to the right of the window are Typewriter, Dynamic, Flicker, Color shuffle, Fade, and Slide. Each option has two or three sub-options.
Also animatable (sort of) are photos. At the bottom of the Animation panel you find Zoom, Pan, Grey, Blur, Color, and Fade. These don’t actually animate your photos in the traditional sense. Rather, they alter or move the whole photo, reminiscent of the famous Ken Burns effect. Sadly, you can use only a single animation effect—there’s no combining them for now.
The Video and Web page options are largely the same as they were under the Spark moniker, though now with the addition of explicit new tools to resize, trim, merge, crop, and change the speed of video and the super-handy convert to MP4 or GIF options.
I had been a fan of Adobe Spark Page, since its 2015 launch. I’d used it professionally for clients who wanted a simple ancillary scrolling web page and who didn’t mind the non-negotiable Adobe URL that came with it. My workaround was to hide the URL under a hyperlinked button for convenient user access. Although typography and animation features are limited, Express’ scrolling glide shows and other dynamic photo effects still allow you to make and tell an evocative story quite easily. With the paid version, you can store, manage, and share multiple brands’ basic assets, like logos, color palettes with hex codes, and typefaces.
I want to underscore that entry-level creatives—yes, everyone has the capacity to be creative—can actually learn a thing or two from Adobe Express because it provides nearly fail-safe guardrails for experimenting with professionally built components. For example, in Express you cannot mangle type by stretching or distorting it disproportionately. So just by dint of that, the novice is way ahead of the game with this tool.
Veteran typophiles may be troubled with the lack of OpenType features or smart punctuation. They need to remember this app was not made for them.
You get some control over typographic finessing, including the ability to make line breaks using a soft return (Shift-Enter), and leading and kerning (letter spacing) parameters you can fuss with. But OpenType features or smart punctuation aren’t part of it. In this case it’s good to know the key configuration for a curled apostrophe—OP-Shift-] on Mac or Alt-0146 on Windows.
We hope the next iteration will have improved animation features, and maybe toss in some business-based templates geared for non-social media visuals like charts, graphs and other infographics. One recent update added the handy ability to schedule multiple social posts in one fell swoop.
Surprisingly robust are the app’s image and photo enhancement features that adjust contrast, brightness, saturation, highlights, shadow, warmth, and sharpness—and other tools and filters that control blur, color, and grayscale. Additionally, you’ll find blending modes (limited to just normal, multiply and screen) and basic masking capabilities. A new Quick Action lets you easily convert an image to SVG format.
Feedback I’ve heard on Express has been positive, so perhaps I was overcomplicating things when I first started with it, or if I was too ready for the interface and operations to work more like Illustrator or Photoshop. Either way, I’m having fun with it now, as many others are.
Express is certainly of high value to those who simply need to get out a visual message quickly and effectively but don’t care about precise control over every aspect of their design. Professional designers who are used to pro apps (Adobe’s Illustrator and InDesign or those from Affinity and Corel), which give you unlimited options for building your vision, will find it lacking and at times frustrating.
Adobe Express nevertheless offers a stunning suite of multimedia content-making and editing tools—as long as deep tweaking isn’t required. You also must be willing to muscle through some unintuitive points of the user experience, like clumsy object-selection and an undo button that isn’t always ready to go. Express will never replace experienced, professional designers (including the experts Adobe hires to conceive and create all those good-looking and strategically flexible templates), but it surely will help others populate our digital world with appealing, more polished-looking content.
Geared for non-designers, Adobe Express is a capable and welcoming template-based tool for creating attractive online content quickly. If you’re already a Creative Cloud user, the interface and operations may feel a bit alien at first.
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Shelby Putnam Tupper is founder and creative director of Shelby Designs Inc., a small-but-mighty, full-service, customer-obsessed design consultancy. She graduated from Trinity College in Connecticut with a BS in biology and a minor in French. She did post-graduate work at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where she received honors in the field of Medical & Scientific Illustration. She grew her entrepreneurial and design legs during her tenure at Harrison Design Group in San Francisco. Since its founding, Shelby Designs has received more than 100 local, national and international awards, has had their work published in books and top trade journals and exhibited in shows at The Palace of Fine Arts, The Masonic Auditorium and The SF Center for the Book. Outside the office, Shelby is a faceted artisan intoxicated by pre-1900s scientific illustration, engraving and typography. She also enjoys fiddling with her golden mean calipers and the number 1.618, and tinkers with computational graphics and Voronoi diagrams. She makes dimensional art from the pressroom’s recycled trimmings and fires up her torches to create jewelry from glass and steel. Shelby was born and raised in Oakland, where she lives with her husband, son and daughter, four cats, a gecko—and a tortoise named Darwin.
Read Shelby’s full bio
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