Designing for creativity

I finally downloaded the iPad Paper App by FiftyThree studios tonight. It is a sketchbook tool that (by all accounts) was originally created as part of a tablet concept, Courier, for Microsoft and when that project was shelved, the team members eventually left and created Paper for the iPad.

I’m really impressed. The quality of the brushes are just superb and behave much more naturally than I’ve experienced in other apps. Speaking as someone who doesn’t draw very often, the app had that Instagram quality adding extra aesthetic flair to quick sketches, like what Instagram’s filters do for your quick photo snaps.

For me, three key learnings stand out from the Paper app that inform upon designing digital user experiences in general…

1. The negative space of interactions.

We talk about simplicity a lot in designing great user experiences and we know that simplicity isn’t easy, in fact most of the time it’s actually the hardest thing to achieve. What’s worth noting about the drawing experience in Paper is that you can’t do much with the brushes. You have five brushes and a muted color palette of 9 colors. There is no ability to change the size of these brushes, or to put garish color combinations together. This simplicity (or constraint) let’s the drawer focus on the drawing, rather than fidgeting with the tools (sharpening his pencils) and let’s him devise creative ways to work with his constraints.

The lack of choice creates a noticeable negative space of interactions, where what is lacking is as prominent as what has been chosen to stay. In thinking about new digital interactions, can we incorporate this negative space in a more substantial way, so that we consider both aspects as shaping the final experience? What if we put a line down the middle of a page and put our potential list of features either under key interactions or negative space of interactions in order to make the design choice a more conscious one?


2. It’s about digital as a craft material.

The second thing that strikes me about this app is that its success and beauty comes down to the quality of the brushes. We have seen plenty of iPad drawing apps, some also fantastic, some not so much, and the superb crafting of the digital brush set has made this app experience superior. It really does showcase digital experience as a craft material and that digital experiences are not simply defined by the idea itself, the quality of it has to be crafted, in this case with code. Like a chair designer whose chair design can only be judged once he has crafted it out of wood.

3. Easy aesthetics.

I’ve been listening to this Clay Shirkey podcast about cognitive surplus and creativity. Towards the end he talks about creativity as a spectrum, from the low-brow creative acts of LOLcats to other, perhaps more high-culture and worthwhile, creative endeavours. And as a spectrum, they are all creative acts. The key being to help people make that leap from passive consumption to active creation. This is where Instagram does such a great job at helping people make that leap, by overcoming the hurdle of aesthetics. It does a few other things well around simplifying the user experience, but what really gets me is that it raises the minimum level of aesthetics on what would normally be really mundane snapshots. It gives me easy aesthetics, which makes my stuff to presentable with minimum effort.

For me the Paper app does a similar thing of making everyday sketches look presentable. That is a quality that is harder to quantify and to design for. How do you give anyone a blank canvas and design a platform where what they make turns out… beautiful?

As designers of social interactions in particular, we are all just creating frames and asking others to come and paint in the canvas. In order to facilitate the creativity of others, the frames have to be designed with care and subtlety. It’s about what you leave out as much as what you put in; it’s about crafting the details of the interactions to speak to the higher level strategy and it’s about easy aesthetics so that people want to share what they’ve made.


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