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Leaving a Trace with an iPad

A new mobile device app digitizes a tool long cherished by architects and designers.

By Michael Leighton Beaman
October 19, 2012
Morpholio Project
The Morpholio Trace app allows users to sketch on layers of tracing “paper.”

Mobile devices have seen unprecedented growth recently. Apple alone has sold over 84 million iPads in the last two years. It is clear these devices have changed the culture of digital-media consumption, but have they changed the way designers work?

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The Morpholio Project, a digital-media company started by practitioners and academics in the design professions, enters the currently limited field of design-oriented mobile-device apps with the goal of expanding productivity beyond the studio and desktop computer. In October the Morpholio Project released Morpholio Trace for iPad, a supplement to its core Morpholio portfolio app.

Launched in late 2011, Morpholio allows members to store, share, and critique design work with other members. Trace, along with Morpholio, is available free from iTunes. The new Morpholio offering is a “sketching” app that performs much like tracing paper, transforming a mobile device into a palette for quick iterative design. The app works by overlaying a blank page, images (JPEGs only), or one of many grids, storyboards, or figure templates (99 cents per set) to start a sketch.

To create a drawing or annotate one, layers of successive sheets of trace can be added to build up dense, although somewhat limited, images. For this purpose, Morpholio Trace works quite well. The app is responsive and lines are rendered smoothly, but using a stylus improves consistency and accuracy. Morpholio Trace is what Mark Collins, one of the app’s creators, called “productively constrained”—offering only three options for pen thicknesses and either red or black pens. In just a few minutes of use, one becomes accustomed to the location of different line weights and colors, so the drawing process feels intuitive. Erase, undo, save, and e-mail functions are all accessed from the single toolbar, making the app easy to learn.

For more complex, nuanced drawings, there are apps with more functionality, such as Autodesk Sketchbook—one of the more popular drawing tools for mobile devices among designers. In contrast, what Trace offers beyond sketching is its connectivity to Morpholio. Although the apps are separate, there are plans to combine the two in the coming year and allow Morpholio members to share visual, not just textual, feedback.

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