2014 could be the year web browsers replace Photoshop

What if this looked even better on-screen?
What if this looked even better on-screen?
Image: Reuters/Andrew Winning
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The language that controls the web’s style—CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets—could be getting a new set of features that will make it the new gold standard for graphic design. These features, collectively known as blending modes, are currently under consideration by the World Wide Web Consortium, the group with the largest influence over standardizing features in your browser. If approved, blending modes will let web developers tinker with colors, tones and textures on the web in the same way they can with graphics and image files on programs like Photoshop.

Blending modes control nuances like brightness, hue, contrast and transparency. This might seem of interest only to design wonks, but blending modes are the secret sauce behind the mood of digital photography and film, and would have a big impact on how everyone experiences the web.

For developers, the problem with desktop graphic design programs like Adobe Photoshop is that their images have to be converted from a feature-rich proprietary format to something flatter, with less colors (like a JPEG) that the web can host. This slows developers down and limits what they can create on the web. 

By contrast, web-native blending would work with the rest of the web’s bells and whistles. Applied to a web page, blending modes affect the overall mood and feel, similar to how Instagram filters (which are preset combinations of blending modes) can brighten up your selfie or add gravitas to your group photo. This gallery shows extreme examples of what blending modes can do, but most designers use them to create more subtle effects.

Since the web pages are more like collages than seamless images, web designers would be able to fine tune the color blends of individual features (like text, photos, or data visualizations). What’s more, blending modes could control your browsing experience in real time, with subtle or dramatic mood shifts depending on where you scroll, point your mouse, or otherwise interact with the page. This would enhance digital storytelling, beyond what the New York Times has shown with their new experiments in long form (that don’t use blending modes. Yet).

Hardcore developers will point out that blending modes already exist on the internet in the form of the HTML canvas tag. But the inner workings of the canvas tag are clunky, and ill-suited for interactivity.

Blending modes are still under review by the W3C’s working group in charge of CSS standards. But their potential is so powerful that even Photoshop’s publisher, Adobe, wants them added to the web. Moving its business from the desktop to the cloud could be lucrative, as mapping company ESRI proved with its shift to web-native programs.

The only downside is that graphic designers who use Photoshop for designing in print will have to learn some basic coding if they want to follow their profession’s migration to the web. However, this shouldn’t be overly daunting to anyone who has mastered Adobe’s baffling array of tools and menus.