I draw a perfectly straight line on my iPad. Then I bisect it at a true 90 degrees. I draw triangles and circles and squares until the screen is cacophony of pristine shapes.
I’m using Adobe’s new hardware—a stylus called Ink and a ruler called Slide, which are available as a pair for $200 today. Born from an unfunded, skunkworks project within Adobe’s walls, the company teamed with Ammunition—the same design firm behind Beats—to craft this aluminum hardware that teases the future of the company and how all of us will create digital media tomorrow.
"Our interaction methods are pretty long in the tooth. The mouse and keyboard are growing ancient. A lot of things we did were innovations 20 years ago. Now they’re habituations," admits Michael Gough, vice president of Experience Design, Adobe. "We’re used to using that control key. Was that the best way we could expose that experience? Probably not."
The metal hardware looks heavy, but in reality, Ink and Slide are extremely lightweight, and glide across the iPad’s glass screen with ease. Each works through capacitive touch technology—the same premise that allows your fingers to activate the iPad’s screen. To enhance functionality, the pen and ruler also connect to your iPad via Bluetooth.
This connectivity makes the pen more than just a finger replacement; it makes the pen an extension of your identity. Because when you log into Adobe’s Creative Cloud, a click of the pen’s only button will pull up a radial menu of your preferences—filled with things like color palettes and pen tips—that you may have saved on your PC. Theoretically, as you use Ink and Slide across apps, Adobe could follow you from one to another.
Adobe Sketch is essentially Adobe’s version of Paper. And for the most part, I’ll admit to liking it less, having grown accustomed to Paper’s unparalleled line smoothing, color mixing, and supple feel. Adobe Line, however, is completely different. It’s a drafting tool, designed for use with the Slide ruler. And while it probably won't go deep enough with angles and measurements to replace CAD tools, it's an impressive interface for building perfect geometrical figures quickly.
The first thing I realized using Slide was that it works like no ruler I know. Instead of running the pen along its aluminum body, the screen actually projects a virtual ruler edge about an inch away. And by running the pen along it—or pretty much anywhere on the screen—you trace the edge perfectly.
"The [ruler] projection was there from the initial concept," Gough tells me. "The motivation was this idea that, you’re going to get this benefit from physical objects, but you also have to get the intended digital benefit. If all you did was draw your pen along the ruler, you wouldn’t get the advantage of what digital could do."
But the UI doesn’t stop at a virtual ruler edge. You can also trace all sorts of extra geometries the software calculates on the fly, like right angles. And by clicking the single button on the ruler itself, you can cycle through various shapes which also automatically generate all sorts of related, traceable line options to what you’ve drawn so far. It’s like using some advanced version of Grid paper. Bisecting a triangle or lining up concentric circles is a cinch.
Interestingly enough, you can use the Line app without the Slide ruler. You simply use two fingers to mimic the ruler’s two points of contact on the screen. For whatever reason—maybe just that I tried it first—I vastly preferred the experience with the ruler.
"We’ve had that as an internal debate for quite some time. Is the benefit really there?" says Gough. "Our instincts are, there still is a benefit. Like a lot of things, some people are going to prefer actually having the device, some people are going to prefer doing it digitally."
The only catch with Adobe Line is that you can’t have the ruler on the screen and free draw with the pen at the same time. Your pen will just begin auto-tracing the ruler’s lines, no matter where your pen’s point touches on the screen. I imagine cases where you want to draft something and color at the same time, this could grow frustrating. It also just pulls you out of the creative process in general, to go from drawing god to, "WTF, I didn’t mean to, undo undo undo!"
On the other hand, rulering then sketching in Adobe Sketch works perfectly! It’s smart enough to decipher if you’re rulering or sketching.
Even though Adobe has built separate apps here, I believe it’s important that some core rules—their basic physics within the software—remain constant. And right now, they don’t. Blank paper doesn’t have different rules depending on the pen you use, and neither should Adobe’s apps.
Inside Adobe, most of the company is organized by product. The Photoshop team is a division. The Illustrator team is a division. And their UIs have become what you’d expect, buried underneath legacy controls that the product designers and third party professionals already know.
"Products get narrow. You have to ship the next version of your product and religiously follow the needs of your customers," Gough explains. "You become so segmented and siloed, it’s hard to see across all of your offerings."
Gough’s 100+ person experience design team isn’t affiliated with any single product, though, which he says allows them to see the "gaps" and "opportunities." And so when, three years ago, Gough heard that Adobe would stop shipping their famous white boxed software and move services to the cloud, his team began thinking how Adobe could have a physical anchor to their ephemeral product.
"We believe a lot of things were lost when we went from analog to digital," Gough says. "Ink is about bringing that back."
But while Gough rallied his own troops, he couldn’t woo Adobe’s core product teams to build out new iPad apps to work with the hardware (well, yet, at least). So as they developed Ink and Slide, his team had constructed test software that, now, has been packaged for market: A Paper-like app called Adobe Sketch and a piece of drafting software called Adobe Line. Both are free.
Truth be told, while Gough is excited about the version 1.0 hardware and software his team has created, he knows that it’s early-stage stuff. It’s simply not integrated enough with Adobe’s core technologies to change the way everyone will create yet. And the iPad, he adds, isn’t necessarily the end game, either. Adobe wants to be on every screen, big and small, low-fi and powerful, providing their Creative Cloud tools with the accessibility of pen and paper.
At the same time, Gough is a bit obsessed with the concept of a creative flow state—that metal pocket where minutes melt into hours while the artist is doing fantastic, focused work. Early prototypes were a "provocation" to get Adobe thinking about new modes of interaction with their software, to do what companies like FiftyThree have built entire businesses on, making the feeling of working on tablets as good as paper.
And to hear Gough explain that vision, I’ll admit, is creatively intoxicating.
"We all want to be in that flow state. And it’s really really hard to get there if you’re hunting through menus and picking different tools. Over time, this hardware allows you to use other senses to do it," he says. "When a musician plays, if they have to constantly look through dropdown menus to find the next chord, the music would not be very good. It’s farfetched and maybe not possible, but we’d love for, some day, artists to play Photoshop, to stay in flow, to be expressive without interruption."