Do I Need a Multi Screen Display?

October 22, 2012
7 min read
7 min read

Whilst I was recently redecorating the Hunting Town offices I spent a bit (ok, a lot) of time trawling through sites like Flickr and Pinterest to see what other design offices looked like. To me, a design studio needs to balance on that fine line between fun and professional, veer too much to either side and clients will mistake you for being either amateurish, or worse still uncreative! Anyway, that’s a whole topic for another blog. The reason I brought it up was that whilst on my travels I noticed a repeating pattern amongst the design offices that I looked at. The vast majority of designers seemed to use (at least) two screens for their work. Now this got me thinking a bit, do designers now need a second or even a third display to be truly efficient? Is forcing a designer to work on a single screen like asking an artist to only use a pencil?

Benefits of having multiple screens

For my personal set-up at Hunting Town I use two 24″ monitors. Now this wasn’t really based on an active decision to buy a second monitor because ‘I needed it for my design work’, a friend just offered me their spare monitor one day and I thought, “hey – free monitor”. At the time I was only using one 24″ monitor and it was working out fine. If I’m totally honest, as far as I remember I never struggled with work and things didn’t seem too cramped or anything. Now this new monitor was really tiny, like 14″ or something like that so I figured it may be ok just to hold my music playlist or something whilst I worked, but I honestly couldn’t see how it would be majorly beneficial.

As soon as I turned on my computer with the new screen I started seeing new ways of using it

I was totally wrong. As soon as I turned on my computer with the new screen I started seeing new ways of using it. Within a week I had somehow integrated it in with almost all of my daily computer related activities. Here are just a few of the ways I began to use this new second screen to improve my productivity at work.

In Photoshop I was able to throw all of my tools onto the spare screen. Normally I’d have had the layers window perminantly open and everything else minimised to be opened only when I needed it. But now I was able to have my whole screen just for the image I was working on. The layers window was open on the new second display, along with all my other tools. Instantly I was able to see exactly what brush set-up I had selected and what my font and paragraph layout was, I even took to having the navigation window open so I could keep an eye on the whole of my project whilst I was zoomed right in working on the details. I think from a design perspective, this has been the absolute most beneficial aspect of working with two monitors and would certainly be the thing that would miss the most if I ever had to switch back to just using one monitor again.

Before I spent a lot of my time Alt+Tabing between Photoshop and reference images

Another perk related to Photoshop is that when I’m drawing something digitally on my Wacom tablet, I can have all my reference images open on the second screen which is incredibly helpful. Before I spend a lot of my time either Alt+Tabing between Photoshop and reference images which was irritating, or having to print out the reference pics and cellotape them up to my desk light!

When editing copy from clients or writing articles like this one it’s actually pretty handy to have the second screen there simply to cut and paste from without switching windows. It’s only a little thing but it’s very handy, especially since Photoshop has no spell-checking option, it really helps to have the clients (exact) words right there, to double check everything.

Recently I’ve started developing websites and man, that second screen has been a lifesaver! For simple stuff like typing up a wordpress article you can have a second browser up checking that everything is formatting correctly and grabbing links to other articles that you need. For more complex stuff you can have you’re main browser window open on the second screen whilst you edit the CSS code in your main window (this is a cool feature of Google Chrome whereby you can right-click and then ‘Inspect Element’ to be able to edit any page that you’re viewing live). Having the extra room for code and being able to see changes as you make them is absolutely invaluable and I have no idea how web developers get by with only single screens!

I was polishing up a few pages from my last comic project just yesterday whilst I half-watched Rambo

One last, but not really vital thing I use my second monitor for is to have a film playing whilst I do something simple like laying down a first set of flat colours to an image that seems to happen without a huge deal of concentration. I was polishing up a few pages from my last comic project just yesterday whilst I half-watched Rambo!

Benefits of the single screen

Now I know I’ve kinda plugged having multiple screens pretty heavily so far, but that doesn’t mean to say that having a set-up like mine doesn’t have it’s drawbacks. The main reason a lot of graphic designers work from a single screen is that they use laptops, and a lot of time I really envy that. Often is the time I find myself sat on a train trying to edit an article on my iPhone or download an image from my DropBox to forward to a client. Now, things like that are totally possible from my phone, but it’s a bit fiddly and not really ideal, whereas if I had a laptop I’d be running on full steam wherever I was. I often tell myself that it’s a good thing that I can’t work easily from anywhere but the office, as it means I can easily separate my work life and my home life, but it can be a real irritation when your under the weather and your only option is to drag yourself to work for a few hours before you collapse.

The smaller screen size of laptops is becoming less of an issue now too with the development of the Mac Book Pro’s new Retina display. Where as most desktop monitors out there brag at being able to handle HD resolutions like 1920×1080 on a 24″ screen, the new Mac Book Pro has managed to cram a resolution of  2880×1800 onto a screen of just 15″ (which is technically even bigger than a 27″ iMac!). Now granted, this means that if every application used the same pixel count as it does on a standard screen then they would quite simply be way too small to use, but for designers, photographers, artists and general creatives alike that doesn’t really matter because we’ll be zooming right the way in on our images and will be getting every last bit of use out of those extra pixels.

But I can’t help but wonder if some designers out there just don’t want to spoil ‘the look‘ of their desk

One other thing I’ve noticed is that when designers have iMacs they seem quite content with just the one screen. Now this could be to do with the epic 27 inches of screen size you get on an iMac (and the hefty 2560×1440 resolution that comes with it), but I can’t help but wonder if some designers out there just don’t want to spoil ‘the look‘ of their desk. Whilst splashing out on an iMac is a measured expense for a designer, opting to have a second display from Apple too is just plain frivolous. But with that said, having a second monitor that isn’t finished in brushed aluminium is just too much for some hipster designers to bear (I can say this because I’d totally be lost adrift in a sea of pretentiousness concerning a second monitor should I even join the iMac gang, and I’m not even cool!). I mean, after all, as graphic designers it’s our job to make sure things ‘look right‘ isn’t it?

In reality the small, underpowered laptop argument doesn’t hold up any more, as most laptops on the market are proving to be more than equal in ability to their desktop counterparts and virtually all of them have the necessary ports and connections available to attach an additional screen if needs be. If I’m totally honest, with all things considered this may well be the direction I move toward in the future; having a powerful laptop as my main base of operations and a large screen living at the office that I can hook up to whenever I’m there.

So what’s your deal? Do you use one, two, three monitors for your design work? Do you think designers need multiple screens? Are you in the iMac gang and if so, do you only use one monitor? I totally bet you do.

Photo Credit to adamjackson1984

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is owner of Hunting Town Design, a small design house based in Manchester UK specialising in Graphic Design and Illustration. Alex is also the founder and editor of The Design Range. Find out more about Alex on his website or follow him on twitter.
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