For many years since the iPad first came out, I didn’t see how it could be a useful device for my workflow. I’ve always been a fan of single-purpose devices that do one job very well, and tablets seemed to fall into a middle ground, doing lots of things decently well, but not really any particular thing better than a laptop, smartphone, or eReader.
But a few months ago, I returned to an illustration side project I started several years ago. My process up to that point had been to find reference images on the Internet, print them out, trace them on a portable light table to get the proportions generally correct (I am not particularly good at freehand sketching), and then making my own alterations. Once I was happy with the design, I would then trace over my rough sketches to create the final illustration.
While this was a fun excuse to play around with Prismacolor markers, it became pretty tedious. Any time I made a mistake, I would have to start the illustration over from scratch. It also made me reliant on having a printer, and I sold my last printer before moving to NYC.
At the same time, I started getting involved in illustration work for my job at Glitch, and while I’m decently proficient at creating simple illustrations in Sketch, I was still curious about how much faster it might be to sketch directly by hand rather than use a traditional mouse.
So I waited until the new iPad Pros were announced and placed an order for the 2018 iPad Pro to supplement my work laptop. Here are my impressions of the iPad after about a months worth of use.
I pre-ordered the iPad Pro back in late October, but even after the iPad Pro models were rolled out in stores, mine still took 2 weeks to arrive since it was slightly back ordered and then shipped all the way from China. It was frustrating to know that I could walk into any local Apple store to purchase the iPad, but since I pre-ordered it, I had to wait until it was ready to ship. In retrospect, I would not recommend pre-ordering and just wait to get new Apple devices in stores.
I initially purchased the smaller 10.5” model because I thought I would prefer the more portable version, and I heard that with many drawing applications, where the UI is typically placed on the left and right edges of the screen, having to reach over constantly to do things like drop a color in Procreate becomes slightly more difficult to do on a larger screen.
While I was waiting for my iPad to arrive from China, I went to the store to check out both sizes in person, and I was shocked by how light the larger 12.9” iPad is. If you hold each in one hand, you can tell the difference, but in absolute terms, it really isn’t that much heavier, yet the additional screen real-estate is substantial.
After two weeks of using the 10.5” iPad, I decided that it was a bit too small for two reasons.
First, in drawing applications, once the UI is expanded, you’re left with little drawing room. I kept finding myself worried I would run out of space in apps with menu-heavy UI.
The second reason I returned the smaller iPad Pro is that I like working with two text editors side-by-side, and it felt very cramped to work this way on the smaller iPad.
That being said, the smaller screen is nice for everything else (browsing the web, reading articles, etc.). However, I’m still a big laptop user, so I prefer to use my laptop for most web browsing and writing.
For whatever reason, Apple Stores don’t have Procreate on their demo iPads (at least up to the last time I checked in early December), which made it hard to judge if I should switch to the larger model. I ended up requesting to try out an older iPad Pro with Procreate (which wasn’t available on the floor — they had to grab an instructor’s model), and after 15 minutes of sketching on the larger iPad in store, I knew it was the better option for me.
Since exchanging for the larger iPad (which was free to do and luckily I could do in person), I have no regrets. The larger screen makes multi-tasking much easier, especially for things like having two text editors open (which I commonly do for working on Glitch):
I considered getting the Apple iPad case with a built-in keyboard, but I found the price tag of $180 (for the smaller iPad, $200 for the larger) to be ludicrous. And after trying the keyboard in store, I didn’t like how flat it felt (I figured it would be really bad for my wrists after extended use), and the feedback from the keys felt off because it’s a soft keyboard.
I’m glad I didn’t get the keyboard case because I find that I’m usually using the iPad without a keyboard when I’m sketching. I also find that I place the keyboard off to the side when I do need it, which wouldn’t be possible if I had the keyboard integrated with the case.
Finally, the most important reason I don’t recommend using the case with built-in keyboard (or any Apple keyboard for that matter) is that forward delete doesn’t work in the same way it does on OS X (with fn+delete), so forward delete is not possible unless you have a dedicated delete button (not the backspace labelled as delete on the Apple wireless keyboards). It’s a fundamental feature that the Apple bluetooth keyboards lack, and I find trying to write with them to be unnecessarily cumbersome as a result, so I bought a Logitech K380 wireless keyboard, which I generally like but wish it were as light as the Apple Magic Keyboard (it’s just a tad heavier).
Split screen has made using the larger iPad super worthwhile for me. I usually have a window over a full-screen app, or I have two screens side by side. But it does get frustrating when certain apps don’t support split-view (I’m looking at you, Spotify).
The slide-over window does enable some interesting interactions, like hiding a window quickly, which I used to create a simple Pictionary “game” combining a web-based word generator along with Apple Notes:
The last iPhone I had still had a fingerprint sensor, so this iPad is the first Apple device I’ve owned that uses Face ID. For some reason, it only works about 50% of the time. I think this is because I usually have the iPad flat or at an angle, so the camera isn’t able to see my face fully unless I tilt the device parallel. Personally, I’ve been finding it difficult to use.
Since getting the iPad, I’ve tested a bunch of different sketching apps along with the Apple Pencil:
- Procreate (bitmap)
- Adobe Illustrator Draw (bitmap)
- Vectornator (vector)
- Concepts (vector)
- Paper (bitmap)
- Autodesk Sketchbook (bitmap)
- Affinity Designer (vector + bitmap)
I quickly found out a few things about iPad drawing apps:
- Most sketching apps are optimized for bitmap images, rather than vector. Since I need to create SVGs for work, I found I couldn’t actually use many of the more popular apps like Procreate, which only enable bitmap exporting.
- Gestures can make or break an app. When you are undoing and redoing constantly, any special gestures difficult to pick up quickly become a burden.
- Because gestures are so important, I would often be frustrated by applications that didn’t make it transparent what the gestures shortcuts were. I think it’s a failure of the app when you need to search for third-party content to help you learn the most fundamental parts of an app efficiently.
Beyond testing the apps out myself, I’ve also found watching YouTube videos of people’s process to be very helpful. In particular, Brad Colbrow’s channel is super useful for learning about different design software and what each one is particularly good for.
Here’s my quick take on the various apps.
Procreate seems to be the most popular sketching app on the iPad, and after using it, it’s no surprise to me why. It does a great job of hiding much of the UI when you’re working, while still making all the controls easy to reach. I love how quickly you can lock, duplicate, and name layers in the app.
The most powerful feature that I use all the time is the magic shapes feature, which converts your rough sketches into perfect shapes (lines, circles, ellipses, squares, or rectangles when you hold down your pen after sketching it). While the shapes are not editable after initial placement, I think this is still an incredibly smart feature, and I love that it executes while you’re sketching, rather than having to go into an explicit menu to add a particular shape. It really improves the flow of using the app. However, since Procreate can’t be used to create vector images, I only use it for my side projects and not for work.
I was disappointed to find that Adobe Draw, while known as the “Illustrator” of iPad apps, doesn’t create easily-editable paths when importing a design into Illustrator. Instead, it creates closed filled contours, which I found to be a really strange decision and basically made the app useless to me.
However, I do like how quick it is to fill in a shape by creating a closed path and then holding down with your pencil to fill.
Vectornator is a vector-based drawing application for the iPad that I was really hopeful about when I first found it. While its feature set seems ideal (for example, Boolean operations, infinite layers, etc.), I found that since every function is nested within a sub-menu, basic operations like changing color require one too many steps. And with the 10.5” screen, it was hard to have enough space to draw with the sub menus expanded.
Concepts is an app that seems geared towards industrial design and architecture sketches and rendering.
There were three dealbreakers for me with Concepts. The first is that there aren’t any shapes per-se; instead, you can drag out “guides” which kind of act like stencils you have to then actively draw over.
While I can see the flexibility of working in this way, sometimes I just want to be able to precisely create a shape quickly, without having to sketch it after placing down a guide.
The second is that there is no paint bucket feature; instead, you need to fill in an outline by hand, just as you would with regular pen and paper. Color fills are essential for me, so the lack of this feature meant I wouldn’t be using this app regularly.
Finally, the eraser tool works as a mask, which was unexpected. I kept triggering transforms on the mask accidentally, and while I can see why an editable mask might be a powerful feature for some, it was more of a nuisance for me.
This app has one of the cleanest UIs, but its functionality is pretty limited and is thus only useful for small sketches. I wouldn’t ever use it for any shareable work, only quick mockups.
This app seems like it could be very powerful if I invested the time to learn its UI, but after using double and triple tap to undo/redo in Procreate and Affinity Designer, any gestures that require more than that feel tedious. In Sketchbook, you use a two-finger drag to the left or right to undo and redo, which is harder and slower to do in practice because you loose your grip on the pencil.
I didn’t know that Affinity Designer existed until I got an iPad, but they have desktop applications as well as mobile ones. While the learning curve for Affinity Designer is a bit steep (just like it is for Illustrator or Photoshop, both of which I am probably aware of only 10% of their features), this app quickly became my favorite for vector graphics.
Here are some awesome things about Affinity Designer:
Personas: You can quickly switch between bitmap and vector tools using “personas.” I predominantly work in the vector mode, but if I want to do quick rough sketches, I do it in the bitmap mode and then create a vector layer to draw over it.
Layers: They work exactly like you would expect and have some great gesture-based shortcuts, like pinch to group and two-finger expand to ungroup.
Time-saving gestures: This is the first vector-based app I’ve tried that truly feels built for the iPad. Little tricks like swiping up to switch between fill and no-fill on a shape end up saving me lots of time.
Precision: On a lot of iPad apps, it feels like you lose precision compared to using keyboard + mouse controls, but with Affinity Designer, you can easily transform items precisely by either dragging your finger over the controls or entering in exact values.
This quick tips video tutorial was incredibly helpful for me to learn how to use the app.
Overall, I really like Affinity Designer and am looking forward to learning how to use some of its more advanced features.
For more precise geometric illustrations that benefit from quick patterning, I still prefer to use a keyboard and mouse in Sketch, but when I want to start by drawing or tracing by hand, I use Affinity Designer on my iPad Pro before exporting an SVG and transferring over to Sketch on desktop for final tweaks.
Overall, having the iPad Pro has expanded the ways I can work as a UX designer. Not only have I been able to learn how to use sketching apps like Affinity Designer, but using the iPad more generally has also introduced me to touch-based interactions that can be useful for designing any modern applications.
That being said, I definitely do not see the iPad as a laptop replacement but rather a helpful supplementary device when it would be faster or more precise to hand sketch than use a mouse.
In general, if you’re interested in using an iPad Pro for design work, I definitely recommend the larger screen and an external keyboard with a dedicated delete button. As far as drawing apps go, Procreate and Affinity Designer have been the best for getting as close as possible to polished, final design work. I’m still learning about good apps for quick wireframes, so if you have any suggestions, let me know!