Pencil on Paper: Thoughts on Pencil By 53

One of the ways people like to describe the iPad is to say that it becomes whatever you want. It's an incredibly thin and light slab of aluminum and glass that, with the help of so many apps, can morph from, say, a text editor into a mobile game console. It's been said ad nauseam, but is worth repeating here: the iPad is transforming personal computing. There's no doubt about it --- every day, folks from all walks of life are finding new uses for iPad. Yes, it's cliche and yes, it's trite, but it's also reality. The iPad is the tablet, no question.

One of these use cases is for artistry, specifically drawing and doodling. The iPad quite literally becomes a digital easel or sheet of paper, on which you can create simple stick figures or elaborately detailed pieces that would garner the envy of any Renaissance painter. I personally have zero artistic aptitude whatsoever, and I'm perpetually jealous of those who are far more artistically inclined. (Though I suppose it could be argued that writing words is "art" unto itself, but that's another discussion for another day.) My lack of artistic ability notwithstanding, I always enjoy admiring the handiwork of people with far more talent in this realm than I.

* *

The preeminent sketching app is Paper, by the folks at FiftyThree. It earned an Apple Design Award at WWDC 2012, and I've had it installed on my iPads since the day it launched on the App Store. Truth be told, I had Paper more for admiration and potential's sake: as I stated, I can't draw worth shit, and I didn't have a stylus that worked *really well with the app. Hence, Paper sort of languished in neglect, only to be opened during idle moments when I felt like looking through new stuff made by others. A couple of weeks ago, I was having tea with a good friend of mine when he showed me his Pencil, the stylus from FiftyThree made for the express purpose of using with Paper. He has the Graphite edition, and he demoed and let me play with it for a while. After only a few minutes, I was hooked. Pencil is an exquisite piece of hardware. Using a stylus specifically made for Paper made using the app fun. I didn't care that I can't draw --- just going through the process of using Pencil to scribble and to explore brought over me a sense of delight thhat I honestly hadn't experienced since first laying my hands on the original iPad in 2010. In short, my friend was correct in saying that I was "blown away". Pencil is so good. So good, in fact, that I bought one for myself. The Walnut version. I got it about a week or so ago, and I really enjoy it. I keep it in my bag with me at all times, just in case I want to doodle or, like my friend did to me, show it to an unfamiliar-with-Pencil someone. Pencil has fast become one of my favorite gadgets, not only for its utility but also for its beauty and craftmanship. In an industrial design sense, Pencil is very Apple-like in terms of build quality. Both the Graphite and Walnut versions have substance to them, but at the same time are light and easy to manipulate. I chose Walnut over Graphite because (a) I have enough aluminum-clad electronics in my arsenal; and (b) it's beautiful in its own right, and I wanted the magnetic stick-em feature. (What this does, and which only works with the Walnut Pencil, is attach itself to the iPad Smart Cover for safekeeping and travel.) I say you can't go wrong with either choice, but the Walnut seems to me to be "truer" to the pencil-and-paper metaphor that FiftyThree has established. It's playful, whereas the Graphite feels more "serious", for lack of a better term. That isn't to the Graphite version's detriment, just that it's a different feel.

* *
It's rare for me to speak on accessibility it *hardware terms, but I do so on occasion. Pencil affords an interesting take on accessibility because I'm in the unique position to be able to critique it from two angles. First is my ability to write about it from the perspective of a guy with cerebral palsy, obviously. Secondly, given my extensive background in the field of early childhood --- on the floor and in the classroom --- I'm able to assess how accessible Pencil is to young children. I think this is an important detail, considering the prevalence nowadays of iPads being used by children. While there certainly are designed-for-a-demographic, kid-friendly drawing apps conceptually akin to Paper, there's no reason a child couldn't use the real deal Paper. The only question is determining whether or not Pencil in and of itself is the right stylus for the child. (Of course, Paper works with any stylus, as well as fingers, but Pencil, I feel, works best, naturally. It was made for the app.) First, Pencil's accessibility for me. As I mentioned, it took only a few moments to fall in love with Pencil. Part of the reason for this is because Pencil feels so damn good in my hand. Holding it in my hand (I'm a southpaw) feels just as natural as holding a regular pen or pencil. Moreover, as I also mentioned, the heft and bulk of Pencil is such that it's pleasantly heavy but light enough to comfortably manuver. This is an important detail, accessibility-wise, because comfort is a huge consideration for me when holding and using an object. Because of the partial paralysis caused by my cerebral palsy, my body is effectively two separate and disparate parts of my whole being. Where by "separate and disparate", I mean that there are distinct levels of strength and dexterity between the left and right sides of my body. The left side is by far my strongest and most agile side; everything I do is dominated by the left side because it's so stronger and better feeling. Compare and contrast my left side with my right, the latter is far weaker. My muscles are more atrophied on that side, making movements considerably more difficult and painful. (This also makes typing a real bitch too.) Fortunately, being left-handed, using Pencil is not difficult nor painful. It feels completely natural: movements are fluid, and I feel like I'm putting actual ink to actual paper. It's a great feeling, because I'm not thinking about or adjusting for my motor issues. Your mileage may vary, but in my case, Pencil has been terrifically accessible to me. It's great. With regards to young children, the practicality of Pencil boils down to developmental levels. I studied and worked mainly with toddler-and preschool-aged children, and I can say with conviction that Pencil is most appropriate for those children who've mastered the pincer grasp. The size and shape of Pencil requires the correct grip because it's meant to be used, well, like a pencil. The concept of Pencil-on-Paper may be abstract to some children and may need explanation --- particularly the Eraser feature --- but the actual manipulation of Pencil should no problem for children who, again, have learnt the proper form. Conversely, for children who haven't yet mastered the pincer grasp, instead still using the ulnar grasp, I would suggest opting for something like Studio Neat's Cosmonaut stylus, which, incidentally I also own. The Cosmonaut's girth and bigger footprint is more conducive to ulnar gripping children because the bigger size compensates for the child's smaller hands. It makes for better control and precision, which in turn is more comfortable for the child and, more importantly, affords him or her a better, less frustrating experience. (Cf. my aforementioned comment about the process of drawing.) My rationale for offering this early childhood development context is simply to give readers a point of reference in case anyone is wondering about the right stylus for their kid(s). In essence, what I outline above is the same reason fat crayons exist: the bigger ones are more suitable to younger children who have yet to master properly holding a pen or pencil. The time will eventually come when they're able to use the standard smaller and thinner crayons. So, in sum: if you can afford to do so, get both. Your kids will thank you later.
* * *
I've spent close to 1,600 words speaking so effusively of Pencil that I can't say another thing except that it's a fantastic product. I love mine, and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone interested in Paper or just iPad styluses in general. Go buy one right now.