What Apple Pencil Means for Designers

Ben Moss By Ben Moss  |  Sep. 10, 2015

Yesterday’s Apple keynote introduced changes to a range of Apple devices, but only one new product was announced: the Apple Pencil, a stylus designed for use with the iPad Pro.

Much has been made of the fact that Steve Jobs dismissed styluses back in 2007: “Who wants a stylus? You have to get em’, put em’ away. You lose them. Yeuch.” However, Jobs was speaking at the launch of the original iPhone, a 3.5″ device that wouldn’t have benefitted from a stylus at all. Yesterday’s announcement went hand-in-glove with the announcement of the 12.9″ iPad Pro, a touch screen large enough to enable real creative work.

What we’re used to seeing in Apple keynote presentations are games, what we saw yesterday were dual announcements by large software manufacturers who target businesses: Microsoft demoed new versions of Office, designed for iOS9; Adobe demoed their latest mobile CC offshoot, Photoshop Fix. Neither the Apple Pencil, nor the iPad Pro, are aimed at the domestic market; both products are intended as professional tools.

The Apple Pencil detects pressure, and the angle at which it’s applied, as well as its position on screen to within a single pixel. It’s a great step forward for creating on a mobile device. As convenient as fingers are, a stylus acts like a lever, allowing you to make the kind of gestures that are impossible to achieve with a single digit. Compare finger painting with Jackson Pollock.

Of course, the Apple Pencil isn’t particularly innovative. Adobe already have a solution, as do Wacom, and Sensu, and a number of others. So to an extent Apple is playing catch-up. But Apple don’t innovate, they never have. Apple are rarely first to market, but their products are usually well refined solutions. Apple is a great barometer of change in the industry — they usually jump on the right bandwagon at the right time.

Apple Pencil, and all styluses, have an uphill battle against far more refined tools. Craft Design Technology’s Brush Pen for example, makes marks that no stylus I’ve tested has come close to matching. The challenge for stylus makers over the next few years will be to match quality to convenience. No one will get it 100% right, so the answer for designers (budget permitting) is probably to purchase a range of styluses in order to have as much flexibility available as possible.

We’ll have to wait until November to try out the Apple Pencil, but its arrival may herald more expressive, more diverse design trends in the coming years.