October 2007

Nahuel Foronda just posted a cool example of a button skin that uses states in order to create a color animation on mouse over. The skin is written almost entirely in pure MXML, with a little bit of AS just to attach the filters to the button label. This really shows the power of using declarative states to implement a skin instead of having to write a bunch of procedural code, and as Nahuel points out, when we add graphics tags to the framework it will become even more powerful.

One modification that might be interesting would be to see if he could use an MXML transition to create the color animation instead of using Darron Schall’s AnimateColor component. I bet that would work, but haven’t tried it myself yet.

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“Well,” you may be saying, “Thermo looks great and all, but what do I do in the meantime?” The good news is that we have some nice improvements coming in Flex Builder 3 that help automate the visual design workflow, and you can try them out in the Flex Builder 3 beta that we posted to Adobe Labs last week.

In Flex 2, if you wanted to style components using CSS, you could use the Flex Style Explorer to experiment with the styles, then cut and paste the CSS into a Flex app. If you wanted to skin components with custom graphics, you could use my Developer Center article on creating skins using the Creative Suite tools, but you would likely still need to edit some of the CSS by hand.

The new design features in Flex Builder 3 help automate both of these workflows. Here’s a quick summary:

Flex Skin Design Extensions for CS3. These actually aren’t a feature of Flex Builder 3 itself, but rather a set of extensions for Photoshop, Illustrator, Fireworks, and Flash that make it easy to create skins for Flex components. Essentially, we’ve taken the templates from my Developer Center article and integrated them into the CS products through a “New Flex Skin” menu command in each tool, adding the ability to create individual component skins as well as a whole template, and to create multiple variations on a single component. We’ve also created a one-step “Export Flex Skin” command for PS/AI/FW that automates the manual export steps from the article.

You can download beta versions of the skin design extensions from Adobe Labs. Thanks to Juan Sanchez of ScaleNine for building out the new templates for us!

Flex Component Kit for Flash. For Flash, we’ve gone one step further, and redone the skin template entirely to use multi-state symbols using the Flex Component Kit for Flash. If you’re not familiar with the Kit, it allows you to build components and skins in Flash that can be used in Flex applications–participating in layout, sending and receiving events, building states and transitions on the timeline, and more. In the case of skins, this means you can build animations between the different states of a component–for example, between the up and over states of a button–using the Flash timeline.

Import Skin Artwork. In my dev center article for Flex 2, we provided a pre-built CSS file that worked in conjunction with the skin templates to glue the template artwork into your Flex application. If you wanted to create multiple variations of a component, you had to do this by hand, and if you wanted to only skin certain components, you’d need to edit the CSS file manually.

In Flex Builder 3, we’ve automated this process with File > Import Skin Artwork. Now you can just point at a folder of bitmaps or a SWC exported by the CS3 skin design extensions, and Import Skin Artwork will automatically write all the CSS code to glue those skins into your app. You can even create multiple styles for a given component using the CS3 “New Flex Skin” commands, then import them as separate CSS class styles. And if you have fully custom components that expose their own skin properties, you can build skin templates for those components that can be imported using Import Skin Artwork by following a simple naming convention.

CSS Design View. This is really the heart of the new design features in Flex Builder 3, and it works with both the skinning and styling workflows:

  • If you’re following the skinning workflow from the previous features, then the CSS Design View will let you visually customize things like font styles and scale-9 grids for the imported skins. Previously, you had to do this by hand in the CSS.
  • If you’re doing pure styling, you can use the CSS Design View like a beefed up version of the Flex Style Explorer, to create global, component, or class styles, preview them directly in Flex Builder, and write the code directly into your Flex application.

Accessing the CSS Design View is simple–just open any CSS file, then click the “Design” button to switch to Design View.

If you want to see some demos of these features, here are some resources:

  • We showed off a number of these features at Flex Camp in SF a couple of months ago; you can watch the videos of CS integration and skinning workflow (boy, I hate the sound of my voice in this video!) and CSS Design View and other FB3 features. (Update: forgot to put in a link to the second part of this originally.)
  • The Flex Builder team put up writeups and video of Import Skin Artwork and the CSS Design View (but not the CS3 extensions or the Flex Component Kit for Flash).
  • Peter Flynn also gave an excellent talk on this topic at MAX, but there’s no video of that up yet–I’ll post a link when it becomes available.

Download the Flex Builder 3 beta, give the new features a try, and let us know what you think!

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Well, Thermo caused quite a buzz at MAX, and needless to say, we’re very excited about all the reaction. If you weren’t at MAX, you can see Aral Balkan’s video of the Thermo demo up on YouTube: part 1, part 2, part 3.

Since we did the demo, I’ve been semi-obsessively searching MXNA for blog posts about Thermo, and among the generally positive responses, people have also posted a number of questions and concerns. I thought I’d address some of these here, to help clarify and amplify what we showed in the demo. (Sorry–no spoilers about release dates or other features here!)

The demo showed Thermo creating a lot of bitmap graphics. Will Thermo applications be large and bitmap-heavy?

The demo happened to have a lot of bitmaps in it, since it was a CD cover browser, but Thermo will work with both vector and bitmap assets. The main difference between graphics in Thermo and in Flex today is that vector artwork in Thermo is expressed through bona-fide MXML tags, rather than opaque SWF symbols. In the demo, for example, Photoshop text layers came over as TextGraphic tags, and rectangle shape layers came over as Rect tags. Naturally, MXML graphics will also support complex Bezier paths, rounded rectangles, and so on, and will support importing from Illustrator and Fireworks as well as Photoshop.

Why is it useful to have graphics tags? Why not just import graphics as SWFs or bitmaps as in earlier versions of Flex?

For static graphics, you could argue it’s about the same. But few graphics in a Flex application are static. Much of the “rich” in RIAs comes from dynamic graphics–graphics that change in response to user gestures or dynamic data.

In Flex as it is today, developers have to create dynamic graphics by writing imperative ActionScript code. With MXML graphics, developers no longer need to recode the designer’s graphics in order to make them dynamic–they can simply modify the graphics at runtime through simple property access, data binding, the transitions/effects engine, and so on. Designers can continue to edit the graphics visually in Thermo without disturbing the developer’s code.

For example, suppose I draw a button skin in Illustrator that’s filled with a blue gradient, and we want to create multiple buttons with the same look but different colors. My developer can just import that as MXML, and then data-bind the gradient color to some style parameter. Voila–instant styleable skin, without writing a line of AS code. I can then edit the shape of the skin visually in Thermo, and the color style will continue to work, without my having to rewrite a bunch of Graphics method calls.

Now let’s say I want to animate that gradient color when I mouse over the button. Again, I can create this through declarative transitions written in MXML, rather than having to build the animation into an opaque SWF symbol. And again, because the transition is in MXML rather than ActionScript code, I can visually design that transition using the Thermo UI.

The text field that was created in the demo seemed to have its skin specified inline. Will Thermo create large single-file applications? Will the code be huge?

Thermo is being created for designers, but of course it won’t be successful unless its output can be easily consumed by developers. Thermo will definitely provide easy ways to factor the resulting code into separate files. For example, skins can be automatically put into separate output files and generalized into CSS rules. (Flex Builder 3 actually already has functionality for extracting inline styles into CSS, and we would certainly have the same functionality in Thermo.)

One example of code factoring that wasn’t obvious from the demo was that when Steven created a list from the individual CD covers, the item renderer for the list was actually created as a separate file. When he then double-clicked on an item in the list to edit it, it felt like it was being edited directly in place in the context of the larger application, but Thermo was actually making edits to the separate item renderer file behind the scenes. This is an example of how we can keep clean code separation without forcing the designer to understand the guts of Flex.

It’s great that you can turn graphics into buttons, scrollbars, etc., but what about custom components? Will Thermo work with components created by developers?

Definitely. Our intention is to make it so that developers can create components that are usable in Thermo the same way the built-in components are. Naturally, they will need to conform to certain rules and/or implement a certain API in order for those components to work well in Thermo, but our intent is to keep those requirements lightweight.

Thermo seems geared towards letting designers build a complete Flex application. Does that mean you expect designers to create business logic as well?

That’s not the goal of Thermo. One way I like to think about the designer/developer dichotomy (woo, alliteration!) was suggested by Rob Adams: developers deal with system logic, and designers deal with user logic. The two are not exactly the same, though they obviously intersect. Our goal is to make it so that designers can use Thermo to design the user logic of the application (along with importing and editing the visual design), and provide a clean way for that user logic to be hooked up to backend data and business logic by a developer.

That’s all for now. Please feel free to comment (or post in your own blogs) if you have more questions about Thermo–naturally, we can’t answer all of them at this point, but we’re really interested to hear your thoughts!

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I ran into Nahuel Foronda of AS Fusion at the MAX party, and he told me about a new site he’s working on, Fill Colors. It’s like the CSS Zen Garden, but for Flex skins. There’s a few interesting skins up there currently, and they’re running a contest to get more. So, if you’ve wanted to make a crazy beautiful Flex skin, now’s your excuse!

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We’ve finally taken the wraps off Thermo–yay! We just showed a demo at the MAX day 2 keynote, and it went great. For those not at MAX, we’ve posted some info and screenshots on Adobe Labs.

I’ll post more thoughts on Thermo soon, but for now I need to grab lunch and go talk to customers at the Flex booth. Stop by if you’re here!

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