Creativity Unplugged

iPadDo a quick magazine layout on the train? Illustrate a client logo in the restroom? Drew Turney finds out whether a world of designers using tablets is on the way…

If you’ve been in the digital graphic design or art field since the desktop publishing revolution of the 1980s you’ve probably spent your career shackled to a desktop (or laptop) system on a table, the notion of designing or working anywhere else quite alien.

We’ve all seen the tablet take over the consumer world, but is there a chance it might infiltrate the design community to the extent where it can be used to produce professional work? We’ve all seen the slickly-produced promotional videos of doctors, miners and salespeople smiling as they work on mobile devices, and some people think our market’s next.

Just one is Adobe, who last year released its Touch Apps suite of tools for sketching, concepting, colour theme generation and more, including Photoshop Touch which covers the basics of the desktop version.

“We consider these to be companion apps [to the desktop Creative Suite applications],” says Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen. But while chief technology officer Kevin Lynch says designers working on tablets on bread and butter projects is still in the future, it’s coming closer and it’s something Adobe is betting big on.

“In times of change you need to be a little bit predictive,” he says. “Most creatives aren’t using touch right now, they’re using a mouse and keyboard or a Wacom tablets with a pen when for illustration in particular, so there’s a little of that direct relation on a screen but not so much yet. But we’re shooting ahead a bit of where people are right now.”

The question is whether designers will arrive in the position developers like Adobe hopes. As consumers, we’ve certainly been as hungry for tablets as the rest of society. In fact, many creative pros might have been even more receptive to tablets because the most successful model is from a hardware maker many of us have been devoted to since the desktop publishing era.

“I tend to buy anything that’s shiny and new and the iPad is no different,” says designer Ashley Morris. “I lined up day one to grab one. At first I was at odds with its purpose and how it differed from my iPhone, but over time it’s proved its worth.”

Morris’s love of his tablet is definitely moving him down the road towards it being his prime creative tool, which seems to prime him for being the kind of designer Adobe envisages. “It’s slowly replacing my notebook and journal. Notes, creative outbursts and thumbnails often get jotted down on the screen rather than on paper. As a presentation tool it also shines.”

Creative director Dari Israelstam isn’t a tablet owner, but he can see the appeal in the informal nature that’s already won Morris over. “I could see a touch-enabled tablet being a fantastic tool for collaborative design workshops and for when we work on projects in teams,” he says. “In time tablets could become the digital replacement of post-it notes, which are ubiquitous in our creative process.”

Israelstam also understands the importance of connection to the medium the computer system has interrupted to some extent, one tablets have the potential to reestablish. “It’s the uninterrupted pathway from thought to touch to screen – in retouching in particular. Using something more accurate than a finger for illustration on a touch tablet opens a whole world of opportunities.”

Of course, being able to work anywhere doesn’t mean we actually want to work anywhere. While Morris agrees about the upsides, it’s less about mobility per se. “Accessibility is a big draw for touch screen devices, but I respond much more effectively in an office environment. Not necessarily because it’s in front of a desktop system, but because that environment means ‘work’ so my brain knows to act accordingly.”

If designing on tablet catches on, there’ll certainly be a ready market. Adobe’s Kevin Lynch reported last October that 16 percent of the company’s customers have tablets (certain to be more by now), and of those, he says 92 percent responded to a survey that ‘they want to do an extended creative activity on a tablet’. “There’s a lot of interest pent up here,” is how he describes it.

It’s also very true that today’s tablets are powered where PCs were five years ago, and with the explosive growth in R&D as well as purchasing in the tablet market, your mobile device might simply be a better choice for professional productivity one day soon.

But here’s the real kicker – the flow of influence between desktops and tablets is a two-way street. The Adobe Touch apps are quite different from the programs you’re used to in Creative Suite – even Photoshop Touch behaves differently and has different uses than the desktop version – so if designers take to touch-driven creative apps on tablets, they might in turn change the way we look at creative software for your computer – especially since desktop hardware is evolving too.

“We’re starting to see large monitors that are touch enabled so that creative power is also going to come from the desktop,” says Adobe’s Narayen. “We fully intend to bring that back in the next version of creative suite to touch-enable our desktop applications.”