F**k the Napkin: SketchBook Mobile for iPhone

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Image Courtesy of Andrew Meehan, industrial designer

Fresh from DEVELOP3D.com’s sister web-site, Mac:Design: Tomorrow (if all goes according to plan), Autodesk will launch it’s first commercial application for Apple’s iPhone platform. Taking its technology based from the SketchBook products that have been Windows and Mac-based for sometime, the system strips things down to the basics and provides a mobile platform for sketching – using iPhone (or iPod Touch) multi-touch interactivity.

I had the pleasure of having this application (which has been in Beta for sometime) on my iPod during my recent travels and it’s compelling indeed. Sketching is perhaps the one thing that connects designers, engineers and civilians – everyone doodles, sketches and draws – it’s just that some are better than others. So let’s take a look at what we’re got to play with.

A quick download from the App Store and an install (the app will cost 2.99 in the US, 1.79 in the UK, 2.39 euro) later you’re ready. Hit the Icon and up it loads. The system gives you a quick walk through of the key functions and shortcuts and interactivity (as well as their being a complete help system embedded in the tool). The interface is pretty transparent. You’re presented with a full screen drawing surface. While the iPhone’s display runs at 480×320 pixel, what you’re actually look at is a 600×400 pixel drawing area. two fingered pinch gives you zoom, dragging those dual digits gives you pan, allowing you to work at the level and in the area you choose. Images can be brought in from the iPhone gallery and used as the basis for a sketch (or as I used it for, for mark up – making it a slick workflow tool) or you can dive in and start drawing.

The tools and options are all accessed through the small icon to the bottom of the screen, tap this once and a marking/radial menu pops up. This gives you the most commonly used commands. From the top and clockwise, you have pencil, airbrush, paint-brush, eraser. You then have the brush control (more on that shortly), layers (the system supports transparent layers – six for the iPhone 3GS but three for other variants – due to lower processor speed), the colour wheel (controlled using swatches or a colour wheel) and perhaps most interestingly for the technical/ID user, Symmetry.

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Symmetry lets you build up both sides of a sketch quickly and easily, then you turn it off to add detail. Image courtesy of me (which is why it’s crap)

Depending on your orientation (portrait or landscape), SketchBook Mobile will take readings from the iPhone sensors and assign symmetry centrally and vertically (if you have it in landscape, it’ll run the axis of symmetry up the centre of the page). In the centre, you have the brush resize control – tapping, holding and dragging left/right will change the size of your brush, with a value readout.

Brush presets and control is first class and something often missing from other iphone drawing apps

In terms of brush options, there’s a veritable feast of options, using the same brush engine as the desktop version of SketchBook Pro – you’ve got full control over size, width, transparency for pencil, brush, airbrush, different stroke type and texturing tools – there’s also, of course, the flood fill command too.

The layers are a tool that’s going to make life much easier, as we’ve already said, there’s 3 available on the Ipod Touch while the 3GS gets 6. Even with 3, that’s pretty usable and the ability to merge layers down gives you added flexibility and control. Multi-touch and multi-tap is used where sensible, the corners of the UI are ‘hot’ – for clearing a layer, fit to view, undo and redo (10 levels of both), while tap hold brings up a colour picker tool.

Alongside preset swatches, the colour wheel gives you full colour control.

All in all, the whole experience is pretty wonderful. There are other drawing applications out there for the iPhone, but this is a professional grade tool, layer control and symmetry bring the tools a design-led user might need and you’re working on an image big enough for real communication, rather than a quick thumbnail.

There’s a video tutorial coming shortly, but in the meantime, take a look at the Flickr page for the beta testers, download the application (come on, it’s only 3 bucks – probably the cheapest Autodesk product out there) and have a bash.

Sketching is still the predominate method of communication all the way through the design process and while the moleskine and pen combo isn’t going to go away and this isn’t going to change the status quo, it is a nice indicator of where things might be headed. As Carl over at Core77.com said in his post on the app, “the tactile feedback that makes paper such an enduring medium is unchallenged here, though they’ve given it a good shot: there’s some very good brush rendering technology that makes pencil strokes look like pencil strokes, and “synthetic touch sensitivity” to simulate the effects of increased pressure, despite the lack of true pressure-sensitivity in the iPhone screen.”

Simple tools are often the best and while SketchBook Mobile has a few things missing (text would be handy, as would a sync app – you currently need to email or post images out), it’s as near a complete set of sketching tools as anyone would need. The best thing is, it’s cheap as chips, so if you’re iPhoned up, then have a bash. And post your results on the Flickr group if you dare.

Just remember, if you do happen to be sketching Stonehenge, remember to put the correct dimensions on it.

Get it from the Apple Store