Digital vs Analog

Recently, I purchased an iPad with the intention of replacing my sketchbook and paper. I wanted to use a tablet as a way to digitally record my sketches and drawings that would streamline my process. After testing the iPad with both the Wacom Bamboo stylus and the Adonit Jot Flip stylus, I decided that this set of tools does not compare to traditional pen and paper. Watch the video to see them in action and read on for more details on why I came to this conclusion.

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While the iPad/stylus combo is great for a few things like digitally recording drawings and allowing for quick, gestural drawings and concept sketches, I found it to be lacking in terms of speed, accuracy and detail. While zooming in on the image is possible, I found the movement to be cumbersome and time consuming during the creation of the drawing. A slip of the finger would make a mark which would have to be erased or undone, and with a lack of preset buttons on the stylus itself, it means several extra steps of icon tapping. No doubt there is a slight learning curve with all technology, but overall I found the stylus to be clumsy when compared to pen on paper. In general, even the more precise Adonit stylus missed fine point-to-point connections which are crucial to detailed line drawings.


To justify the iPad purchase as a business expense, it needed to perform in specific ways for me. Unfortunately, it fell short and I returned all of the products. I typically make a very rough SketchUp mass model of my house designs and then use tracing paper to add details and come up with ideas of how the exterior of the house will look. I can quickly make drawings in about 10 minutes, and then spend about 30-45 minutes on sketches that have high levels of detail. The iPad could not achieve the same level of detail and took almost twice as long as my hand sketched drawings. To achieve the level of detail I wanted, I had to zoom in. The draw back of zooming in for artists is that you lose your frame of reference as to where you are in relationship to other elements of the drawing and where you are on the page. Several times I zoomed in to achieve detail only to zoom out and find I was going to run off the ‘page’ because I started the drawing too high or low. (Yes, the digital paper stops!) The other drawback when zoomed in was that I would try to draw an element that is parallel in perspective, but upon zooming out, I would see that the line’s angle was slightly off in relationship to the lines around it – meaning I had to start that portion over. For many artists, the ability to see the entire page at once is crucial to avoiding mistakes and keeping a steady pace of execution.

In conclusion, I found paper and pen to be the best solution for detailed line drawings, in terms of both accuracy and speed. The added bonus of sticking with analog is that while the roll of tracing paper can be heavy or cumbersome to carry around, you can overlay it on top of anything your client puts in front of you. You can do quick drawings in front of them using their own materials without having to scan it, photograph it or otherwise load it onto your digital device. I think there is still something to be said for tactile, traditional media, and in the end you’ll save a ton of money. Between the cost of the device ($500+), accessories ($30-100 each for sleeves, keyboards, stylus) and applications ($5+), you can easily spend up to $1000 for a decent set up. Compare that to a roll of tracing paper every few months at $10 each and you could easily go through 100 rolls before reaching the cost of the digital tools. I still love the idea of a digital sketchbook, but until the technology can keep up with me, I’ll stick with pen and paper.

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  • architectrunnerguy

    Nice analysis Brinn. Watched the entire video!!

    I was wondering how the IPad works when the image is viewed upside down. In my design sessions with the client, they are typically sitting across from me. Also, the client sometimes does a fair amount of line creating themselves and I wonder how the pen, while the designer can get used to it, is in the fingers of a one shot layperson.

    Finally, in my design sessions, sometimes there are 100’s of bumwad overlays, tacked up on the wall as well as spread out all over the floor. When I’m¬†looking for that “one” sketch that was created two hours ago, it’s easy to find when I can scan 50 at a glance. I wonder how the IPad is in retrieving one image among 100’s.


    • Thanks for the comment. Viewing images upside down can be a little tricky when the screen rotates along with the device. Some applications allow you to lock the screen orientation, which helps. The obvious disadvantage to the ipad when presenting is the size. Unless you’re hooked up to a projector, an 8″x10″ display is quite small compared to a large roll of endless tracing paper. As you mention, the ease of use of a stylus varies from person to person, not to mention it is a one-at-a-time operation.

      I think a digital sketchbook would be great for personal use, in preparation for client meetings, but unless you’re giving a formal presentation via a projector, the ipad does little to improve the client experience. Even in personal use, it still has a long way to go.

  • Stephen Saffioti

    Hello Brinn ūüôā ¬†Interestingly, we both conducted the exact same experiment with identical results. ¬†My iPad and all of its accessories were returned to Target within the 45-day window.

    In my case, I fell in love with the idea and quality of the iPad. ¬†Then I saw the price (I sprung for the 32GB AT&T model, stylus, accessories) and started searching for ways to justify investing nearly $1000 because I primarily think it’s ‘cool.’ ¬†The answer was that I would use it as a technical resource, sketch pad – a way to stay organized at my new workplace.

    The stylus is everything you described. ¬†It’s rubbery trip drags on the screen, it’s imprecise, and you cannot predict with high enough accuracy where the line you are about to draw will actually appear. ¬†Engineering and Architectural sketches are drawn the same way; this combo might work for the Ross, the PBS Painter (blue shirt, pearl snaps, “Lets put some happy trees over here”) but for technical guys no way.

    Combine that with company policy of not moving documents to personal devices, and no cell service in our building and it was literally a paperweight.  At the end of the day, for us, there is no substitute for a good pen.

    • Thanks for stopping by! I was also trying to justify the cost. I wanted to like it so badly, but I was just frustrated too often to even dream of keeping it. Now if someone gave me one for free…

  • Scott Trimmer

    Hi All, thought I’d chime in as I went through the same exercise and found a pretty good solution.¬† I ended up buying an ASUS EP121 tablet with windows 7.¬† The digitizer screen and WACOM pen are much more accurate than the capacitive screens that ipads and phones use.¬† The tablet is also powerful enough to run Sketchup, Revit, and Max.¬† It’s a little heavy, the battery life is pretty awful, and it’s pretty expensive.¬† However, the screen is just big enough that I don’t find myself zooming in and out all that often while drawing.¬† The screen also responds to pressure, which is nice while sketching.¬† It of course has the usual Windows problems, the touch screen stops working occasionally, and one never knows where the on screen keyboard will show up, or how big it will be, but overall I’m pretty happy with it.¬† I’ve sketched details for contractors at job sites, done as-builts in Revit and done preliminary modeling and massing at the coffee shop.¬† Just have to make sure an outlet is available after about two hours of work.

    • Thanks for the recommendation. I was looking into other tablets and slates once I realized the ipad/stylus combo wouldn’t work for me. I’m not looking into it as seriously at this point, but I’m going to give the office Wacom tools a try first and see if that is a route that would work for me. I would definitely have issues with a 2 hour battery life, however.

  • Brinn,

    Thank you for your detailed and honest appraisal of the tech. I am in love with the concept of throwing away my paper and pen and being able to use the layers of the digital process but like you I am afraid that the technology is simply not there yet. I do hyper-detailed drawings and I thought this might work for me and your analysis and video got straight to the point, or blunt instrument of the matter.


    • I’m glad it was useful. Thanks for stopping by!