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Do Mobile Devices and Apps Really Have a Place in the Creative Workflow?

I’ve carried a smartphone since the first iPhone was released in 2007. When people started developing apps for the App Store, I thought that it would only be a matter of time before I would need to start using apps in my work as a photographer and a designer. Then, when tablets started making their way to the mainstream in 2010, once again, I thought it would only be a matter of time until a tablet computer would find a permanent place in my workflow. That time still hasn’t come.

I still haven’t bought an iPad and I don’t think I’m missing out at all. To this day, I don’t use a single app on my phone that helps me get any real creative work done. I use the Calendar app to schedule my tasks and I use an email app.

Everything else is a game or news app or a photo editing app that I downloaded to see if I could actually put it to use in my work as a photographer. I’ve spent countless hours just downloading apps, paying for apps, and testing apps to see if I can incorporate them into my workflow. I’ve downloaded or bought almost every “must-have” note taking app, photo app, sketching app, or editing app.

Most are gathering dust in an app folder appropriately — albeit, ironically — named “Productivity.” Therefore, not having a tablet in my life is not because of a lack of trying. Don’t get me wrong. There are some apps truly worthy of your time and money. However, when it comes to getting any “real” work done (i.e.

work I would submit to a client) using a tablet just won’t cut it. Maybe there are apps that you can use on the weekends when you want to do some sketches on your tablet or edit photos to share on Instagram, but during work hours, during the time you need to get work done? I don’t see that happening.

At least not yet. That’s why when Apple releases ads about how people are using the iPad or their iPhones to create things, I’m always a little skeptical. Not in a “I call bull****!” sort of way — but rather, I’m skeptical in a “that’s surprising” sort of way.

Am I looking at apps the wrong way? Are people actually shooting movies on an iPad? Are people actually using their phones to create Grammy-worthy pieces of music?

Are people really using these devices to create things? Or is it all just marketing? Are people just more willing to spend $700+ on a toy when they believe (or are given hope) that it will enable them make something great?

We Work on Computers

All I know is that when the personal computer made its way into our homes 3 decades ago, one of the first things that captured people’s imaginations was the ability to manipulate text to create stylized typography and the ability create graphics right on the screen. The results were definitely crude by today’s standards but it was a revelation. Nothing like it has ever existed.

It showed that the computer could be used for more than just for computations and spreadsheets and stuffy business offices. It was a tool that would allow us to express our creativity and it changed the way we got things done. Today, most of us can’t even imagine getting our work done without a computer.

Photographers, illustrators, graphic designers, videographers, web designers, art directors, writers, etc. all use computers to create things. When you think of a creative professional, more often than not, you’ll picture them hunched over a computer desk, mouse (or stylus) in one hand and a worn out keyboard under the other.

However, wasn’t there a time when a photographer spent most of his or her time in a darkroom surrounded by drying photos and the stench of chemicals? And It wasn’t long ago when graphic designers’ tools were nothing more than a pencil, a ruler, and box of markers. The computer changed that.

Working with Apps

Now that we’re in the age of mobile devices, no longer necessarily tethered to our desks with keyboards and mice, it isn’t a stretch to presume that tablets and phones and apps would take their rightful place in many creative professionals’ workflows much like how the computer transformed the professional lives of many creatives in the past. And yet, when I picture what a creative professional does when he or she is doing their job, I don’t see them with a tablet or a phone in their hands manipulating some app. I still picture them at their desks with their faces softly lit by the glow of their monitor.

The fact is, I’ve yet to meet a creative professional who honestly prefers working on a tablet more than working on their computer. The tablet computer and the many mobile apps that extend its capabilities have yet to capture our imaginations the way the computer did in the 80’s. It might be because we’re more technologically sophisticated and thus are desensitized to the miracles of which these mobile devices are indeed capable.

Or it could be that there’s a more profound obstacle standing in the way of getting creatives to use apps and tablets in their creative work: That is, that the tablet computer, no matter what apps you have installed in it, doesn’t do anything that our personal computers can’t do better.

Old Man Syndrome aka “Get-off-my-lawn-itis”

Then again, maybe it’s just the grumpy old man in me that thinks these “kids” with their new-fangled contraptions have no place in the “real world” (which is something I find myself saying about a lot of things these days). Maybe I’m just being an old stick-in-the-mud and people actually do use their tablets and phones to get “real” work done.

If that’s the case, then please show me the light and let me bask in the glory that is the tablet computer, bringer of our salvation and the destroyer of our boring creative workflows. But I don’t think that is the case. At least not yet.

A few things still need to happen to make me a true believer:

  1. Someone will have to create a piece of work on their tablet or phone that doesn’t garner the response: “That’s amazing considering you used your tablet to make it.”
  2. The tablet must be able do something (even if it’s something small) that a personal computer can’t do.
  3. You have to stop asking yourself if you REALLY need one.

I know it’s only a matter of time before these things actually happen but I don’t think that time is right now. It could be tomorrow though. Maybe you’ll make it happen.

Of course, if you’re an app developer this article probably won’t apply to you. Share your thoughts with me in the comments section below.

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