The iPad gets a bad rap as a device designed specifically for consumption. After all, its main purpose is to keep you connected to the world. Despite that, the iPad has risen up as a creativity tool and serves as an integral part in many people’s toolkit. To get an idea of when these devices are being used, we talked with a cadre of creative types to find out not just how they’re using iPads to make things, but why.
Despite early claims that the iPad was primarily a consumption device, app developers have been developing a good amount of creativity software out to users. Subsequently, we’ve seen a New Yorker cover created with an iPhone, studio albums created with just an iPad, and an animated music video made with just a drawing app.
Once the novelty of creating with a tablet wears off, though, can they still be useful? We wanted to see how the iPad is getting used out in real world so we talked with Steve Bowler, gameplay designer at Phosphor Games, Jim Guthrie, musician and composer of the soundtrack for the iOS game Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, and Chase Andrews, owner and producer at Remedy Films.
The First Spark That Made the iPad Feel Like It Could Be Useful
When the iTunes App Store was first introduced it didn’t take long for drawing, writing, music, and other similar apps to populate the store. At first they were used by a niche group, but over time the apps got better and people started using them daily. I was curious to see where the turning point was for everyone because for myself it was forced out when my laptop battery died and my iPad was my only portable tool.
In Bowler’s case, the turning point came almost immediately after he got his first iPad. In the first few weeks he spent his iPad time like most of us do, checking email, browsing the web, and noodling about. But one day a real-world application changed his usage:
Once we shipped [the iOS game] Dark Meadow I started design on a new project and at one point I needed to sketch something out for our Art Lead. I initially said that I’d just draw it that night on my Wacom at home and it hit me: just download Sketchbook Pro and use that. Then I attached the sketch to an email, sent it immediately, and I began to realize just how useful this thing could be at making my life a little easier.
Our Lead Level Designer, Robb, discovered almost the same thing right around the same time. Now level design meetings are done around one of the designer’s iPads more frequently than around a whiteboard because you can’t copy and paste sections of your drawing on a whiteboard.
In Guthrie’s case, it was more about waiting for the right feature set to come along so he could feasibly work an iPad into his music arsenal (you can get a glimpse at part of Guthrie’s setup in the video above):
Core MIDI was a big one for me along with a wave of great synths and sampler apps that have come out in the last year (if you need a refresher on MIDI and iPad’s, we’ve talked about a few easy ways to use them before). It’s nowhere near replacing anything already in my arsenal and I don’t think it ever will. It’s more about having options and getting creative. It’s almost more work to try and find a way to make these devices work in a live rig but once you do it’s pretty exciting.
However, for Andrews, the appeal was immediate out of the box.
Honestly, as soon as we bought our first iPads we started using them. At first it was just for note taking, budgeting, and looking up stuff online for quick answers. Now we are using the iPad on set in certain circumstances for client monitors, with Canon C300s [cameras], as cheap teleprompters, and more.
That point where it makes sense to use an iPad or iPhone in certain circumstances is the first step to integrating them into a larger setup. The next step is finding ways to actually replace their desktop peers.
When Mobile Devices Are Better than Laptops and Desktops
Once you integrate an iPad into your workflow, benefits (and weaknesses, but we’ll get to that in the next section) start becoming apparent. It’s no secret an iPad is a slick little device, but is it possible it’s actually better than its desktop counterparts at certain things?
The clearest benefit is the fact you can take a tablet with you everywhere. It’s lighter, easier to manage, and has a better battery life than a laptop. It’s also a convenient way to jot down ideas quickly. Bowler explains:
The first thing that comes to mind is the portability. I can take this into a meeting, around the office, home for the evening, and then back into the office again the next day. I don’t even have to worry about using thumb drives or cloud saves. I have a lot of what I need to do on the creative and documentation sides of design with me at all times. “Oh, you need a quick sketch of that level or mechanic? Let me bust out the iPad here.” I don’t even have to wait until I get back to my desk to send it to you. I can just share it to an email, jot down some notes, and send it right from wherever inspiration strikes.
Andrews echoes the mobility as the biggest appeal:
The fact that you generally already have your iPhone or iPad with you makes it a great tool for video production. The high quality cameras on both devices are great for scouting locations and on the same device you can take notes, budget for the production, do test shots, and more. With certain cameras and camera codecs you can actually review the footage you shoot while on set. With some of the new cameras like the Canon C300 you can actually use the iPad on set working directly with the camera. This is just the beginning of these devices being used on high end productions.
In Guthrie’s case, the limitations often serve as a strength because it forces you to to think differently about a problem.
If the apps are up to snuff (and even if they’re not) it can be incredibly convenient to make something out of nothing anytime, anywhere. It’s a blank canvas with seemingly endless software possibilities. It allows for new ways to approach the same old problems and because of this you might stumble across an idea that you wouldn’t have on a desktop computer. We’re not all the way there yet, but the software is getting better all the time alongside the more capable hardware coming each iteration of the devices.
Overcoming those limitations is exhilarating, but just because an iPad works in certain circumstances doesn’t mean it’s good for everything.
Where They Fail and How to Overcome Their Biggest Weaknesses
An iPad has a good number of weaknesses. It’s a closed system so programmers can’t tool about in it, the touch screen means it’s hard to get precise with certain things, and the fact it only has two ports, a headphone jack and the dock, means it’s tough to integrate it with other hardware. In some cases these weaknesses are solved by new software, as it was in Bowler’s case, although he’s still looking for a few new features:
I wanted a better drawing app than Sketchbook Pro, and got it when Paper shipped last week. It’s a pipe dream, but I’d love to edit Kismet in Unreal on an iPad, or even do full development for iOS within an iPad. That might be a ways off yet due to hardware and interface restrictions. [However] if anyone wants to make me a better capacitive pen that has more of a marker-like tip to it so I wouldn’t have to use this mushy glob tipped pen to draw with, I’d really appreciate it.
For Guthrie the biggest problem has been creating a usable interface for music because an iPad simply doesn’t have enough ports. Solutions do exist to counter this, but they’re still not quite where they could be. Guthrie explains:
The biggest problem has been getting the signal in and out of the comparatively-neutered OS that runs on iDevices. It’s makes it very frustrating to export or mix music down on these devices. There have been creative work arounds and it’s getting better, but it’s not good enough yet.
I bought a couple of different guitar interfaces that were ok for my iPad but then I finally just got an Alesis IO Dock. It has MIDI I/O, line and XLR ins, and phantom power. It’s pretty light and works great the few times I’ve used it. For example, if I want to record a little sound in the bathroom with decent mics for the acoustics then I’ll use Garageband for iOS and the IO Dock because it’s super portable, faster, and more convenient than setting up my laptop. Afterwards I’ll open up that same session in the Mac version of Garageband and continue working. That sort of workflow is very liberating and convenient.
Andrews had few complaints, noting that working outside of the intended purpose is what makes it interesting:
We have embraced the new tech—iPads and iPhones—by trying to find how they could potentially be used versus others telling us how to use them. I feel we are still yet to discover various ways to make use of this new tech but I am excited for what’s to come.
Working Your Mobile Device Into Your Own Creative Work
The above sections are filled with plenty of great ideas for integrating a tablet into your own creative workflow, but it’s not an end-all list of possibilities. A writer, for instance, can benefit from using a tablet because it provides a nearly distraction-free environment. Our own Adam Pash talked about using Simplenote for a syncing plain-text writing system that works great for longform writing. In my case, I use iA Writer as a means to the same ends. It doesn’t work for everything, but if I just need to sit down and write without internet access the iPad is a key component in my toolkit.
The common thread with the comments above isn’t the Apple mantra of “it just works.” Turning an iPad into a creative tool requires workarounds and using it in ways that might not be immediately apparent when you first hold one in your hands. Certain restrictions keep the iPad from being the lone item of a creative toolkit, but forcing yourself to come up with a way to work with it is a creative task in itself.
The overarching point is that while tablets and smartphones were initially used primarily for consumption they’ve slowly grown more useful for creative people in different ways. The above examples highlight the iPad, but any tablet or smartphone can stand-in for the same duties. The iPad doesn’t replace a computer. It’s a piece of an ever-expanding toolkit for creation. Have you found yourself using your tablet or smartphone as more than just a consumption device? Share your own tips or favorite apps in the comments.