LayUp: A New App for iPad

Last year, Scott Belsky, co-founder of Behance and VP at Adobe, reached out to me for a chat about Creative Cloud. The perception at that time was that a CC subscription was merely a scheme to allow Adobe to charge repeatedly for software that previously users could buy just once. That’s what he wanted to discuss.

Scott told me that Adobe wanted to upend that notion by launching a new breed of more lightweight, more varied apps that could all live on top of Creative Cloud and benefit from the uniquely connected workflow that a more robust version of the service would allow. The new apps would be free or low cost, would all tap into shared resources stored in the cloud, and perhaps one day would even come from third-party software publishers. The goal was to shift the perceived center of a CC subscription’s value away from the company’s marquee apps—Photoshop, Illustrator, Premier, etc.—and move it to the CC ecosystem itself.

We started to see the fruits of that strategy in earnest yesterday, when the company released a cavalcade of new and updated mobile products, as well as its Creative Profile, a new centerpiece for the service that gives users almost universal access to their design assets. My friendship with Scott aside, I’m shocked by how fully Adobe has executed on this cloud- and mobile-centric strategy. Adobe has rarely been thought of as a particularly light-on-its-feet company, but in less than two years they have moved almost their entire ecosystem and workflow into the cloud.

In that conversation, Scott also asked me if I had any ideas for apps that could live on top of this new phase of Creative Cloud. I told him that, after Mixel, I still had lots of ideas about the still untapped potential of the iPad. We’ve seen that device hit some “speed bumps” in its previously stratospheric growth this year, and I believe the reason is because we still haven’t fully unlocked its power.

The use case for consuming things on the iPad has always been clear, but the use case for productivity on the iPad has generally been fuzzy. My thinking was that, for visual designers, the iPad could be an ideal platform for a new kind of creative work, one that capitalizes on the device’s unique combination of power and comfort. It’s unlikely that you’d ever want to do production-level design work on an iPad, even if you could. But given the right app, the device’s multitouch environment could make for an ideal playground for generating design ideas as smoothly and easily as drawing on paper. I had a vision in my head for something that could be a lot like sketching thumbnails, but richer and more immediate.

Project LayUp User Interface
A preview of the user interface for LayUp.

It was maybe a passable idea on its own, but I knew that without Adobe’s participation it would only ever amount to a pipe dream. One of the keys to turning it into a viable product would be fitting it into the way designers actually work. Earlier this year I wrote at length about how important it is to design for existing habits, and that notion was at the center of my concept: the app would need to work seamlessly with the software tools that designers already use. Given the fact that Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign are often immovably established in most designers’ workflows, it seemed obvious to me that this would be the kind of product that only Adobe could build.

So that’s what I proposed to Scott: a new iPad app that would turbo-charge the brainstorming phase of the design process, and that would play nicely with Adobe’s marquee apps. I called it “LayUp.” To my surprise, he took me up on the idea, and assigned a team at Adobe to start developing it. So for the better part of this year, I’ve been working with that team to bring LayUp to life.

In the course of that collaboration, I’ve been incredibly impressed by the smarts and alacrity that Adobe’s designers and engineers have brought to bear on this project. We began by building a very rough prototype that merely hinted at some of the deep technology and unique UX paradigms that would need to be cooked up, including gesture-based input for creating objects, an “unlimited” history cache, and seamless file format export—it would be a tall order. After we put that prototype in front of some users and validated that there was something promising there, the team got to work. And, though it’s still in development, they’ve basically delivered on all of it, designing and building some truly impressive features. There’s still tons to be done, but I’m very, very excited by its current state.

Yesterday, I debuted “Project LayUp” to the thousands of attendees at Adobe’s MAX conference in L.A. The video of that segment is available here, but for a closer look, I also made the screencast at the top of this post, with basically the same content as my onstage presentation. It shows the principal features of the app working live on a beta version of the app running on my iPad. We don’t have a release date for it yet, but you’ll know as soon as I do when that changes. Have a look, and let me know what you think.


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