is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
For the past two days I’ve been telling everyone I know about the hands-on demo that I was lucky enough to get of the Slate, a new device from French startup ISKN. The Slate is a screen-less writing surface about a quarter of an inch thick, with a battery and several magnets embedded beneath the surface. You connect it over Bluetooth with your iPad so that it can communicate with ISKN’s Imagink app, available free from the App Store.
Once the link is established, you place your favorite kind of drawing paper on the Slate and draw with the included ISKN pen; the magnets pick up every mark and stroke in real-time and replicate them in the app with almost flawless accuracy. You can’t quite get the kind of pressure sensitivity that you’ll soon be able to get with the Apple Pencil, but Imagink will record thinner strokes when you move the pen more quickly and thicker strokes when you move it more slowly. When you’re finished with your notes or drawing, you can export the finished page from the Imagink app in a number of standard file formats, including even SVG, which allows you to manipulate it with nearly infinite resolution.
All of that in and of itself is a kind of magic, but products that bridge pen-and-paper and digital are not exactly new. Livescribe has a catalog of smartpens and specialized paper that work together to do something similar, and Evernote offers a Document Camera app that can capture images of your paper and make it instantly searchable.
There are two things that distinguish the Slate from those methods. First, you’re not restricted to using single sheets of paper. In fact, the magnets can track your marks even if you’re using a notebook that’s as thick as three-quarters of an inch. And second, you’re not restricted to using ISKN’s pen, either. The Slate ships with magnetic rings that can be fitted around any pen or pencil.
Taken together, these two features mean that you don’t have to compromise on your tools in order to digitize your work—you can actually use your favorite pen or pencil and your favorite paper or sketchbook. When I divulge this detail to people, their eyes immediately light up with enthusiasm and they ask me how they can try one out immediately. These reactions demonstrate why analog note-taking and drawing are still so powerful; we form very particular habits around our very particular preferences for what we’re writing or drawing with and on. Put another way, this product complements the way you work rather than requiring that you adopt new behaviors like using only compatible pens or notebooks, or taking photos of finished pages. That’s smart design.
Still, the Slate is not a perfect product, and it’s very much a version 1.0. It feels not particularly substantial when held, and the plastic backing seems like it could be easily broken or cracked. A bigger challenge may be that any paper or notebook that you draw on cannot be misaligned as you make your marks, otherwise what gets captured in the app will become jumbled. ISKN mentioned that they may ship clips that will secure your writing surface to the device, but I imagine in the meantime a couple of binder clips will do just as well. In usage, I didn’t have a particularly hard time with this problem except when I decided to move to a different location in the middle of working on a page.
Early imperfections aside, ISKN’s ability to allow you to use your preferred analog tools seems like a meaningful innovation. This is true especially given that one of the big takeaways from my Design Tools Survey was how well basic pencil and paper fared as an everyday staple of the way designers work, even in our digital age. Nearly two thirds of participants cited pencil and paper as their preferred tools for brainstorming, beating all software alternatives by a mile. This is actually in line with what ISKN sees in the market; they told me that when they shipped their first batch of devices (to backers of their original Kickstarter campaign) what they saw was that creatives—illustrators, artists, designers—responded more enthusiastically even than people who use notebooks for general note-taking.+