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The Promise of Mobile Design: What Apps Can and Can't Do (For Now)

The Promise of Mobile Design: What Apps Can and Can’t Do (For Now)

From its blotted history to its bright future, let’s explore the constant evolution of mobile design and where we hope it’ll take us.

“An iPod, a phone, an internet mobile communicator . . . these are not three separate devices. This is one device, and we are calling it iPhone! Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.”

When Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, ushering in the advent of the smartphone, we were promised a lot, and we got it. Suddenly, everything looked different. Seemingly overnight, we had the the ability to carry the entirety of human knowledge in our pocket.

Steve wasn’t wrong when he proclaimed his invention to be a “revolutionary product.” Undoubtedly, the smartphone—and its mobile sibling, the tablet—has changed the way we interact, the way we play, and the way we work. Despite this, the road to creating true desktop-equivalent designs on mobile devices has been a long one. Subpar, single-feature applications ruled the roost for the majority of the smartphone’s existence.

Mobile Design Apps Growing to Meet Creators' Needs
Design apps have come a long way, but there’s always room to grow. Image by cosmaa.

As technology continues to improve and the clamor for true desktop-class mobile apps grows, things have started to change. So, we ask: As a graphic designer, what is possible using mobile devices?

A Blotted History

For the longest time, the design community had limited choices when it came to software options. On top of that, the programs that existed were only available for desktop computers. Adobe, the stalwart of the industry, has produced a number of apps for mobile. However, until recently, most of them were fairly unambitious in their abilities and not really usable as tools. It seemed like professionals were going to have to make do with what we had. However, a number of new contenders have changed all that.

First, There Were Rasters

Responding to the artistic potential of the iPad, Savage Interactive released Procreate in 2011. It’s a raster graphics app that, in the beginning, had a fairly limited set of features. However, now it offers hundreds of brushes, multiple layers, blend modes, masks, 4K resolution, and a whole host of other desktop-equivalent features found in apps such as Photoshop. Designers could use it to create truly professional-grade illustrations, paintings, posters, concept art, sketches, and later, even animations.

Procreate Examples
Above are examples of the quality of artwork that can be created using raster-based mobile apps such as Procreate. Images via Procreate.

This newfound mobile ability only grew when styluses made their way to tablets. In terms of raster graphics production, mobile devices are now outstripping the potential of their desktop counterparts. We can draw our designs directly on the device, with tools that are as good, if not better, than their real-world equivalents.

A few years after Procreate’s debut, Serif released Affinity Photo for iPad. Affinity Photo provided graphic designers with an even greater abundance of abilities. The app offered desktop-class photo editing capabilities with tools such as dodging, burning, sponge, blur, sharpen, healing, and access to the full gamut of color profiles.

Mobile raster apps are now so feature-rich that artists such as Jim Lee of DC Comics use them as part of their daily workflow. Designers created posters for shows and movies such as Stranger Things, Blade Runner 2049, and Logan, as well as a number of covers for The New Yorker, entirely in apps such as Procreate.

Affinity Photo Example
Either use your fingers or a stylus, such as Apple Pencil, to create beautiful artwork worthy of any professional design project. Image via Affinity.

It took the better part of a decade and a half for the creative industry to wake up to the potential of mobile design production. However, in terms of raster graphics editing, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single type of design that can’t be produced using mobile devices alone.

Then Came Vectors

With the proof that mobile devices could be used for creative work, it didn’t take long for other forms of design production to come to mobile. Another entrant from Serif, Affinity Designer—this time with a focus more heavily on vector-based design—again furthered the graphic designer’s capabilities on the move.

Affinity Designer can create concept art, logos, icons, UI design, mock-ups, branding, print materials, and more. The app boasts a comprehensive vector-based toolset, including pen and anchor point, pencils and brushes, Booleans, and non-destructive design. It also offers users art boards, symbols, auto-alignment tools, column, page, and isometric grids, and pixel snapping. Introduced in 2018, it has become integral to the workflow of illustrators, brand designers, web designers, game developers, and more.

Affinity Designer Example
With rich sets of features, as deep as anything available in Adobe Illustrator, Affinity’s suite of iPad apps are a powerhouse of graphic design. Image via Affinity.

Again, vector-based mobile apps are beginning to outstrip their desktop counterparts. Vector production can be difficult to master. Artists must learn a plethora of tools, keyboard shortcuts, and mouse gymnastics. Armed simply with a tablet capable of advanced touch gestures and a stylus, that entire dance has been reduced to intuitive, clarified controls. This significantly reduced the barrier to entry and, in turn, made graphic design accessible to a much wider audience.

But It’s Not All Rainbows and Unicorns

Fitting Mobile Design Apps into Your Workflow
Depending on your workflow or project, your mobile device may not have the horsepower you need…yet. Image by karnoff.

While raster and vector production covers vast swathes of a graphic designer’s toolkit, they are by no means the only areas in which they work. Unfortunately, when you start reaching any further, the story is less convincing.

One particular area with limitations is desktop publishing. Presently, there is no equivalent of Adobe InDesign for mobile. Designers can harness apps such as Affinity Designer to start a desktop publishing project. However, the logistics of porting that to a desktop app that could then fill in the gaps would be long-winded and rarely ever worth your time.

Serif, the creators of the Affinity suite of apps, claims that they have a mobile equivalent of their desktop publishing app—Affinity Publisher—in the works. If they do as good a job as they have porting their other desktop apps to mobile, then things are looking good. For now, however, for this particular aspect of design, we must return to our desks. (When it happens, will “desktop publishing” become simply “publishing?” That’s a problem for tomorrow.)

Other areas of note include animation and UI (user interface) development. Although possible on desktop, apps for mobile are yet to surface. Procreate does have animation abilities baked in, but its vector capabilities are limited. Many of the apps we’ve mentioned can work for developing UI, but they face the same fate as desktop publishing. At some point, the designer will have to end up on desktop to finish the job.

That Said, the Future Is Bright

Creating More with Mobile Design Apps
Developments and new features promise a bright future for mobile designing. Image by Dragon Images.

The journey towards true desktop-caliber mobile apps for creative professionals has been a long one. Fortunately, it’s one that’s not yet complete. Designers now have a huge range of capabilities simply with a tablet and stylus. Entire production workflows now take place through a single mobile device.

It’s true that there are significant gaps. However, major developers are already creating apps in a number of areas. What’s more, with the rate at which these apps reach feature parity with their desktop siblings, it’s not inconceivable to believe that graphic designers of every skillset will have mobile apps catering to them. Plus, with the unique capabilities of mobile devices, we could see major improvements to processes and workflows, which will herald a whole new way of working.

The arc of mobile design apps may be long, but it bends towards a very bright future indeed.

Learn more about designing and illustrating with mobile apps:

Cover image via PODIS.

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