Can This Gadget Revive the Lost Art of Doodling?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
June 26 2014 10:59 AM

The Lost Art of Doodling

A new stylus that promises to make sketching on an iPad better—and more fun.

Adobe Ink and Slide.
The Adobe Ink and Slide expand the creative possibilities of your iPad.

Product shot via Adobe

When the Apple iPad debuted, many observers fretted that it was better suited for consumption than creation. The Awl dismissed the device as “post-literate” and declared it was “designed to encourage you not to create at all.” Toshiba’s CEO agreed. I personally recall hashing out this notion as a guest on the Slate Culture Gabfest in 2010, when we unboxed the brand new product on-air. Without any keyboard or mouse or USB ports, went the critique, the iPad would turn us into passive gobblers of commercial content. We’d read stuff, watch stuff, and listen to stuff that was spoon-fed to us. But we’d never make any stuff of our own.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

I can now attest that these concerns were ill-founded. I’ve used iPads to record original songs, to edit my own photos, and yes, to write Slate articles. But if there’s one creative medium that tablets seem an ideal match for, it’s drawing. The newer, lighter tablets fit comfortably into your hand like a sketchpad. Their capacitive, touch-sensing screens can register your every contour line and crosshatch. Their software offers countless choices of color palettes, textures, and templates. And—no small matter—you can undo an errant unsightly mistake with the press of a button, as though it never happened.

Painters and illustrators have worked with iPads for years. Jorge Colombo and David Hockney have both drawn New Yorker covers using the device. Hockney told the New Yorker he finds it “especially good for luminous subjects.”

When I attended an exhibit of Hockney’s iPad drawings at Denmark’s Louisiana museum a few years ago, I loved the way the technology let museumgoers watch animations retracing Hockney’s sequence of strokes, so we could observe the way they coalesced into a finished work. Try that with oil and canvas.

But while the iPad functions as a superb sketchpad, it has mostly lacked the companionship of equally superb drawing implements. This is due in part to the surprising anti-stylus fervor of calligraphy enthusiast Steve Jobs. “Who wants a stylus?” Jobs once asked rhetorically. “You have to get ‘em, put ‘em away. You lose ‘em. Yuck.” Jobs preferred “the best pointing device in the world”: the fingertip.  

While fingertips are great for clicking hyperlinks and scrolling through text, they are not so great for drawing. I remember the legendary Draw Something craze of 2012, when I suddenly found myself attempting to sketch recognizable portraits of cows, spaceships, and the occasional abstract, idiomatic phrase. My sausage-y index finger was far too fat for any sort of fine detail. I found it frustrating. In retrospect, I should have employed a stylus. But Steve Jobs had brainwashed me. The iPad didn’t come packaged with a stylus, and it never occurred to me to buy one.

Now comes a new product from Adobe that aspires to make the stylus a vital accessory for any iPad owner. The Adobe Ink was released last week, along with its partner, a ruler-like device called the Adobe Slide. I’ve been playing around with them for the past several days. They’ve convinced me that Steve Jobs was wrong. (Take that, Jobs. Though he wasn’t wrong about Adobe’s Flash—sorry Adobe, he’s still got you there.) They’ve also rekindled my childhood enthusiasm for doodling. I’d forgotten how delightful it is to draw.

These are the first hardware products from Adobe, maker of major software stalwarts like Photoshop and Acrobat. The Ink stylus is light in your hand, and it’s shaped like a pencil that’s been fitted with one of those rubbery, triangular grips that they give to elementary school kids with subpar motor skills. The Slide is a rectangle about the length of a finger. They’re both meant to work with two new apps from Adobe—a simple drawing app called Sketch and a more complicated one called Line—but the stylus will work with any iOS app.

Most stylus tips are bulky, making you feel as though you’re drawing with a blunt-ended marker. The reason for this, according to Michael Gough, Adobe’s vice president of experience design, is that the iPad’s screen has been optimized for use with a fingertip and thus only recognizes objects with a fingertip-like width of around five millimeters. The screen ignores most pointy things as accidental touching. Gough says the Ink “creates a field” that tricks the iPad into thinking its tip is wider, while it actually has a narrow nib like that of a fine-point pen. The difference between finger painting and using a precision tool like this is startling when you’re attempting to draw intricate, spidery lines.

Because it links to the iPad via Bluetooth, the Ink has another advantage over most styluses, which are just dumb, unconnected objects. The Ink itself can tell how hard its tip is being pressed down and then feed this information to the iPad, which means you get pressure sensitivity while you’re sketching. When I bore down more firmly, my lines were thicker; when I eased off, my lines were wispier. After I taught the Ink that I’m left-handed and that I draw by clutching pens in a crab-claw grip, the Adobe apps could anticipate where my palm would be and didn’t register stray marks even when I rested the whole edge of my hand on the iPad’s screen.

When you touch the ruler-like Slide to the screen while using the new Adobe apps, it brings up a pair of straight, parallel lines that can be easily traced. The Slide also offers traceable templates for circles, triangles, squares, French curves, and various other shapes. You can effortlessly slide these shapes around the screen, enlarging or shrinking them, before committing them to “paper.” The Slide’s simple operation and high-tech sheen are a pleasing combination for anyone accustomed to drafting with the assistance of a humble T-square.

At $199 for the pair, the Ink and Slide are anything but cheap. There are many budget-friendlier options if you’re willing to sacrifice features and delicacy. You could even, according to Gough, slightly modify a chopstick and end up with a working, rudimentary stylus. The truth is, these Adobe products are designed for pros. Their capabilities—and those of the more advanced Line app, which includes aids to help you achieve accurate, vanishing-point perspective in your drawings—are often wasted on me as I draw happy little cartoon sailboats and bicycles. Adobe is marketing the Ink and Slide to people who design for a living. The kind of people who already use Illustrator, and share and collaborate on Adobe’s Creative Cloud.

Gough says these sorts of folks often like to refresh their creative juices by stepping away from their desktop computers to draw with an actual pencil on a regular old pad of paper. “You just think differently when you’re drawing with analog tools,” claims Gough. “It’s more natural—you seem to use a part of your brain that isn’t triggered when you’re on a mouse.” But a sketch made on an iPad with Adobe’s apps is more useful than a sketch made on dead plant matter. The iPad sketch can be instantly transferred into other Adobe programs, and edited there. It can be integrated into more complicated projects.  (Slate’s own creative pro—design director Vivian Selbo—was intrigued by the Ink and Slide when I asked her to try them out. But she felt the Ink’s triangular shape made it hard to smoothly roll the stylus between her thumb and fingertips, which is a move she’d use with a real pencil to affect the shape of a line.)

Still, you needn’t be a pro to experience the childlike euphoria of drawing. Some of my happier memories of late have included a rousing game of Pictionary (my sister at one point drew a lumpy form that was immediately and—to my shock—correctly identified as a “butter dish”) and a charming afternoon on the High Line during which my date taught me how to make gesture drawings with charcoal pencils. (After about 75 failed attempts to capture a compelling human posture, I completely nailed the attitudinal hip-jut of this one tourist lady who was yelling into a cellphone.)

“Drawing comes before reading and writing,” says Gough. “And then, at some pivotal point in your development, someone doesn’t appreciate your drawing and so you never do it again. It’s like writing an essay in fourth grade and someone says you won’t be Hemingway so you never write anything again. We give up on drawing too easily. People are missing out.”

I’m unlikely to buy a set of pastels or watercolors or colored pencils, and carry them around in a tote with a sketchpad wherever I go. But I almost always have my iPad in my bag, and it’s easy to toss a stylus in there, too. It’s also a breeze to attach a personalized iPad sketch in an email to a friend. The next time you see some Hockney wannabe attempting landscapes in Prospect Park, tablet in hand, it just might be me.

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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