Doing Real Design Work on an iPad

iPad Pro

If nothing else, the recent release of Apple’s iPad Pro has successfully reignited the discussion around the iPad as a platform for real work. It seems to have come along at the right time, too. All year long I’ve noticed a rising tide of users declaring that they’ve left their iMacs and MacBooks behind and moved to the iPad, and that it lets them get the vast majority—if not the entirety—of their day-to-day work done.

In February, Federico Viticci of MacStories wrote an excellent, lengthy account of how he came to use his iPad as his primary device. In April Lifehacker wrote extensively about how to make the switch to iPad and received tons of comments. Productivity guru Michael Sliwinksi has been writing all year about going iPad only. Web developer Thaddeus Hunt wrote a great short series of articles about his experiences using nothing but an iPad Air 2 to do real work for clients while hiking the Camino de Santiago trail in Spain for seven weeks this fall.

iPad Air 2 with Belkin Qode Keyboard

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as well. While I’ve been considering an upgrade to an iPad Pro, for the past two months or so I’ve been trying to use my iPad Air 2 as much as I can and my MacBook as little as I can. What I’ve found is that there’s a lot that you can get done on the iPad, so much so that I feel comfortable traveling with it as my sole “work” device. Of course, you have to be organized and you have to be crafty to do this effectively, as some things that come easily on OS X require jumping through hoops on iOS.

Why Bother with iPad?

Some folks may have little tolerance for hoop jumping at all when OS X is so powerful and precise, and many people I talk to find my desire to go all iPad all the time to be somewhat pointless. But it’s more than an academic exercise to me; I genuinely enjoy using my iPad more than my MacBook. It’s lightness and portability is a joy, and its nimbleness—I can use it in portrait or landscape, with or without a Bluetooth keyboard, seated, standing or even walking—makes it right for almost every usage scenario. I also like its ability to run iOS apps because that’s what I’m thinking about in my day-to-day work more than anything; it’s invaluable to me to be embedded in the native environment and mostly free from accessing desktop apps.

Moreover, what I’ve come to realize is that the iPad is a much more elegant system than my Mac. This isn’t to say that I have no use for my desktop (more on that in a moment), but that by and large iOS software is considerably more thoughtful, more carefully considered, and more visually polished than desktop software. If you think of your operating system as a workspace, and if you believe that the nature of your workspace—its affordances, its orderliness, its conduciveness to focus, its nimbleness—influences the work that you do, then you might agree with me that in order to produce your best work you would want the most elegant workspace out there. For me, that’s the iPad.

The Road to Truly Viable Design Workflows

All that said, it would be disingenuous of me to claim that I can get all of my work done on an iPad. There are many things that, in late 2015, a Mac still does better. In particular, it’s still difficult to do production-grade design work on an iPad, in spite of all the work that my employer, Adobe, has invested into turning that situation around. To be sure, there’s a lot that you can do on an iPad, particularly if you reject the false either-or dichotomy and allow that you can use an iPad and a Mac in conjunction. If you’ll excuse a little shameless self-promotion, it’s worth noting that a lot of what has been built into Adobe Comp CC, a powerful layout app uniquely design for touchscreens that I collaborated with Adobe on long before joining, demonstrates this very ably. It’s free at in the App Store.

Apple, too, now seems to be re-energized in thinking of the iPad as a work platform. The improvements that they’ve brought to bear this year alone, including split screen multi-tasking, more robust support for hardware keyboards and, maybe most significantly, Apple Pencil, have markedly improved the device’s viability as a design tool.

Still, I keep a running list of features that I wish would come to the iPad. Some of them are the kind of “glue and grease” services and utilities that have underpinned truly robust design workflows on the Mac for years if not decades, and their absence on iOS can be deeply felt. Others are improvements to the way iOS works that would result in worthwhile impact for designers. Here are a few of the ones I think about most.

  • The ability to bring your own fonts. Not being able to install specific typefaces from virtually any type foundry is by far the biggest impediment to any designer’s workflow on iOS. At Adobe, we’ve partially solved this problem with, again, Comp CC, which gives you the ability to install any of hundreds of fonts from Typekit on the fly; it’s a good start but it’s still not a complete one for most designers.
  • Enhanced browsing of file storage. iOS has done a masterful job of shielding users from the file hierarchy, to the great benefit of millions of its users. But as much as I believe that navigating file directories is an antiquated interaction model, the fact remains that doing so is still unavoidable for most designers. Apple’s recently added support for browsing cloud-based storage like iCloud and Dropbox is a start, but still too rudimentary for most designers and needs to be augmented for faster, nimbler usage.
  • An alternative to the iOS camera roll. To get image assets or many kinds of work content from one iOS app into another, users typically have no choice but to save it to the camera roll—if the content is even in a format compatible with iOS’s Photos app. Once there it commingles awkwardly with your personal photos; I personally find it annoying to see screenshots and logos appear in my Photostream unless I’ve remembered to manually delete them. This is one area where iOS’s initial focus on consumer usage really results in professional pain; there should be some method of segregating work assets from personal assets.
  • Robust clipboard. The Mac’s clipboard is still relatively simple—it holds one thing at a time and allows you to paste it in any app that supports its current contents—but iOS’s clipboard isn’t even as capable as that. It would be a boon in itself to have more pervasive support for that simple level of copy and paste throughout the app ecosystem, but I would argue that iOS’s far more constrained interaction model should sport an even more advanced clipboard than the Mac’s. You should be able to save multiple clipboard items of multiple media types; each app that supports the clipboard should allow you to paste the most recently copied compatible item. That would significantly reduce the friction inherent on iOS in pulling together content from multiple sources.
  • Color management controls. There’s currently no way to verify, adjust or meaningfully alter the way color is rendered on an iPad screen, and there really should be. This is a critical detail for many designers, and not just those working in print.
  • Robust support for legacy file formats. This is a tricky one, especially for Adobe. Today, our mobile apps have limited support for even our own proprietary file types, e.g., PSD, AI, INDD, etc. This is due in part to the company’s strategic decision to focus on developing small, purpose-built apps that are truly native to the way that users interact with mobile devices—not replicating marquee desktop software like Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. But it’s also true that to do real design work that users need to be able to access the many files they’ve created with those apps. That’s not a particularly difficult problem to solve from an engineering standpoint, but the bigger question is whether it’s practical or even useful to open up a PSD with dozens if not hundreds of layers on your iPad.

That last point is a critical one. If you consider what it would take to provide full support for PSD layers, one logical, perhaps inevitable conclusion would be a fully-fledged port of Photoshop to the iPad—which would be a convoluted path, to put it mildly. Answering the question of how much to emulate desktop apps will likely take some time to sort out, but for me, it‘s self evident that the way we want to work on an iPad—even on a theoretical, professionally augmented iPad—is clearly not the same as the way we want to work on a Mac. Rather than providing full access to the work done on a desktop, especially when it can be as complicated as what desktop design apps produce, what’s needed is to give the user the most meaningful access, the subset that will yield the most productivity for designers working on the iPad, without all of the baggage of the desktop. What will get us to truly viable workflows on iPad is not replicating what came before, but rather newer, better, more elegant ways of working that are truly native to the platform. We’re not quite there yet today, but we’re on our way.