This is actually an old version of For the latest and greatest, check out the new site.

Flash Course 3: Actionscript

When I decided to write this article, I concluded that I wouldn’t try to teach Flash through this articles. Instead, I’ll try to show you that Flash hasn't completely succumb to the stigma imposed on it. Sure, it's been abused in the past, but it's still a very useful tool. Don't let the title mislead you: there will be no learning of Actionscript here. There are lots of other sites that are better suited for that, like Flash Kit or However, I think that what I have to offer is equally as valuable. I’ll attempt to explain why understanding the concept of Actionscript can make you a dangerous designer or developer, especially if you understand and practice the separation of content, presentation, and behavior.

The Two-Minute Drill

Assuming you know nothing about Actionscript, here's my shot at explaining it in one paragraph. Actionscript is a full-fledged programming language native to Flash. It’s an essential part of what makes Flash so powerful. Since it’s inception, it has grown tremendously from a simple behavioral mechanism to a complete, object-oriented programming language.

Ok… What does that really mean?

Basically, Actionscript can control your whole Flash movie, and as little or as many elements in the movie as you tell it to. Before I learned Actionscript, I foolishly believed that I could do everything I needed to with the timeline. That idea served me well for a time, until I came up against a project where I had to create constrained drag-n-drop functionality. After racking my brain, I realized that it wasn't feasible to anticipate every scenario and animate it on the timeline. Certain things were out of my control and dependent on the user, which is where Actionscript comes in. Actionscript allows you to store settings and perform certain tasks, whenever you specify. It provides the opportunity for different scenarios in different situations. It gives you options.

What does this mean to me as a designer?

You’re not bound by “the static”. With Actionscript, you can move, scale, rotate, and change elements whenever you please as you see fit. You have the liberty of giving the user control of anything and everything, or you can ensure that they don't mess up a thing.

What does this mean to me as a developer?

As Flash progresses, Actionscript gets closer and closer to a regulated version of ECMAScript, a standardized programming language. Developers used to OOP languages such as C++ or Java will find it very easy to make the jump into building interfaces or applications with Flash.

What does this mean to me if I'm not a developer, but I know enough code to just be considered a designer?

This one is near and dear to my heart, as this is what I consider myself. Flash has great functionality for creating stimulating visual designs, as well as a way to interact with that design. Because of that versatility, it is sometimes a great solution to a design challenge, especially on the web. Like many other tools, its strength is augmented when combined with other powerful tools. Macromedia, as well as others, are making great strides in the communication between Actionscript and Javascript, which will be the topic of the next Flash Course, so stick around.

How can I learn more about this Actionscript stuff?

As with most things, experimenting is key. Open up Flash and try playing around with it. The built-in Actionscript reference is one of the best resources out there. It’s usually my one stop shop when I run into any problems. If you still need some inspiration, check out these books:


michael said:

Nice description of what Actionscript is. If it can really help to separate presentation and content that sounds hopeful.

I've been one of those who looked down his nose at Flash but I'll take another look.

If Actionscript is based on Ecmascript then hopefully my JavaScript background should help?

Posted on May 3, 2006 01:28 AM

Valentina said:

ehmm...the statement: "What does this mean to me if I'm not a developer, but I know enough code to just be considered a designer?" sounds as if being a designer is pretty less complicated than being a developer and has nothing to do with the visual part of the matter, but jus with the capability to make things move all around... Ask a real designer what the output of such a person will be considered! Anyway thanks for the hints...

Posted on May 18, 2006 04:43 AM

Dan Mall said:

@Michael: A JavaScript backgound will definitely help in learning Actionscript. I actually started the other way, with Actionscript first, and it has made learning Javascript so much easier, so much so that I often find myself writing Javascript in Flash and Actionscript for the browser on occasion!

@Valentina: I certainly didn't mean to suggest that a designer has an easier job than a developer, but there is a distinction in specialization. I can code well enough to solve problems, which I see as the true skillset—dare I say requirement—of a designer, but I definitely don't consider myself a developer.

The point I meant to emphasize that many designers are intimidated by Actionscript because of the stigma that it's only a job for developers. However, that is a pretty large misconception, and one that I encourage anyone that works in web production, especially designers, to challenge.

Posted on May 19, 2006 12:54 AM

alejabdro said:

Designers are rare, because great ones, even good ones are hard to come by. You can always learn how to code and script, but to teach someone design, true design, not to just learn how to copy and regurgitate other's design is a challege and takes a very long time to learn and understand it.

Posted on October 20, 2006 05:29 PM

Luis Escorial said:

I feel you. I started my career as an interactive designer mostly using flash, but as the technology and the application developed and grew I started to fall behind and feel I could not keep up with it; until I've almost drop it altogether (sad and estrange considering I got some good award with some of my work with flash).

I’ve tried numerous times to pick up a book on action scripting and finally learn, but every time I do it, well… it ends up being quite discouraging.

I will try some of the books you mentioned and see if I can finally go back.

I wonder (worry) if the application has become so complicated where now you can only specialize on it as either a designer or a programmer (rare occasions you can find a person that is a good designer and good “action scipter” at the same time).

Any way, I would still love to find a way to learn.

My two cents.

Posted on November 15, 2006 12:39 PM

Sorry: comments are closed.