Nowadays, designers have lots of flexibility when it comes to their work setup. I am an icon designer myself, and I personally find a duet of MacBook Pro with an attached graphic tablet as most convenient setup for my work. However, as many other designers, I often need to work away from my office. In such cases I prefer to go solo with my fully charged laptop. Unfortunately, due to the absence of my graphic tablet, my productivity tends to go drastically low.
But hey, now that we have iPad Pro, which both feels super light and supports powerful editors, I finally might be able to break free from my tight working space. Thus, in this article I would like to take a closer look into what’s on the market when it comes to vector apps for iPad Pro, and hopefully find my new favorite tool.
I will try out three different apps that seem to have most potential, especially when it comes to icon design. These are Graphic 3.2.5, BEZ 1.0.2, and ProtoSketch 1.3.4. I will focus mainly on features such as interface, drawing tools, and saving options, as these are the essentials, and then discuss whether the app is good enough for designing icons.
The judgment of the apps will be solely based on my personal experience and opinion, thus I highly encourage you to contribute in the comments. Let me know if you have discovered your perfect vector editor for iPad.
Now let’s dig in, and see if I can pick a favorite. This will be a pretty long read, so if you are only interested in the verdict, I suggest you to jump directly to the end of the post.
Graphic is a software suite by Autodesk, who are known for their wide variety of 3D softwares like 3ds Max, Maya and AutoCAD. Autodesk Graphic is currently priced at $8.99. It supports iPad keyboard and Apple Pencil along with palm rejection and pressure sensitivity.
When you open the document, you are in a dark, simplistic, well-designed, and clean interface. It might remind you of the Procreate painting app. The icons on the interface look sharp and smooth with monochrome gradients and shadows. Buttons are big enough for touching or selecting them with the finger or the Apple pencil, respectively. Basically, the interface is pretty intuitive and lets you guess everything quite fast, without much confusion.
The application supports a shift lock option, allowing you to create shapes with the same height and width.
The pen tool works really well. When you touch the tool, you can see the pen, add and subtract, and scissor options on the bottom left corner. You can switch to add or subtract by pressing the plus or minus buttons from the keyboard, respectively. This allows fast pen tool usage. However, the shift lock does not work along with the pen tool. I personally need this option a lot when drawing icons. Normally, shift lock is very efficient when drawing 45 or 90 degree curves. Choosing multiple anchor points is possible, but you cannot use the shift button for choosing anchor points at different locations.
Stroke options are found under the effects and appearance panel. You can select the appropriate stroke color, stroke thickness, line cap, line join, and line alignment. You can also apply brush style, thickness, arrows, dash, shadow, opacity or add an image as a clipping mask to the shape.
The color palette looks minimalistic and well-designed. The color swatch is at the bottom of the tool window together with the color picker. However, you might prefer it on the toolbar for easier reach. When you look at the shortcuts, when pressing the command key (universal help popup for iPad), there is copy style option without, however, activating the color picker for copying styles.
There is also a pressure and tilt sensitive brush tool. When you touch the brush tool, you have available the width and the smoothing sliders on the left corner and the brush settings button on the right corner of the screen. The brush settings window is really nice. You can create a brush shape by a scatter plot graphic and save it as a new brush. There are also the roundness, angle, and min width options.
In the layer panel you can lock, hide, delete, add, rename a shape or layer. By selecting a layer, you cannot edit shapes on other layers, making it very useful.
The position tool is very simplistic. You can edit the X, Y position and alter the size of the shapes. The options for aspect rotate, ratio lock, object lock, flip horizontal, vertical are also available here. The position tool works only with shapes and groups, and not with the anchor points of a line. This might be a very critical issue for icon designers to whom precision is very important.
The geometry panel features three tabs. In the arrange tab you can align shapes or anchor points. From the combine tab you can apply union, subtract, intersect, exclude, or divide shapes. There is also the compound path option where you can make a compound or separate a compound path. The path tab lets you edit your anchor points. More precisely, you can join, connect disconnect, open, reverse direction or outline a stroke.
Canvas settings, grid & rulers and interface preferences could be found by clicking the settings icon. The options for grid spacing include snap to grid, snap to points, and smart guides.
The application lets you save the design as pdf, svg, psd, png and jpeg. Furthermore, you can share your images through iTunes, email, photos and Dropbox.
Is it good for designing icons?
Graphic is a serious vector editor created by a trusted brand. It also comes with a desktop version, allowing you to continue editing your design on a desktop device. It features a very pleasant interface compared to other apps. Although keyboard shortcuts are supported, you cannot do everything using the shortcuts but it is quite similar to a desktop vector editor in terms of its look and functions.
However, as an icon designer you might need a little more. You have to be able to alter the coordinates of an anchor point since this is very critical when designing pixel perfect icons. The absence of a shift lock on the panel is also an issue along with the absence of a round corner option. You may prefer drawing an icon with sharp edges and define round corners when you are finished.
The application is quite close to what you might need but before it is there it needs a couple of improvements.
Let’s look at our second option. Bez is an application by Juicy Bits who offer many image editor apps on their website. You can download Bez for free, but you need to pay 7,99 USD to unlock the full feature set. The application also has in-app purchases. Bez also supports the iPad keyboard and Apple Pencil and allows palm rejection.
When you open the editor, you find a dark, very clean, and minimal interface. Bez is also using a Procreate-like interface with line icons. The button sizes are big enough for easy touch. The toolbar is aligned to the left side but with no available option to place it to the right. This might be a drawback for left handed designers but if you get accustomed to the application this should not be an issue anymore.
When you create a new document, the tool prompts you to choose a size from the menu. There are template resolutions available and also a custom screen resolution option. Adding a template is also available where you set a custom template from a pop-up menu. This is a nice feature for icon designers since you can set a custom size and create the whole icon set in the same size.
A wonderful feature of Bez is the corner curve tool. If you draw an icon with sharp edges, you can create curves at the corners. The only drawback of this feature is that you cannot choose all the corners at once for defining a curve. Also, the applied curves are not perfectly rounded corners, when it comes to low angles.
The pen tool works great. After you have drawn a line, if you choose the select tool (A from the keyboard), you can edit the path with scissors or play with the anchor points. You can press the delete for deleting an anchor point or choose the anchor point tool for adding a new one. A con is that you are not allowed to move an anchor point from the keyboard, but only the whole shape itself.
Stroke (style) options are on the right side of the modifier bar. When you select a saved stroke style, you can change its color, thickness, line cap, line join, miter limit, alignment and dash options.
The color palette is also under the style option. You can choose a saved fill style and change its color using the sliders or through the rgb and hsb options. Hex rgb is not supported. There are also gradient and swatch tabs for defining color which might feel different but make perfect sense.
The toolbar does not include a brush tool. This might be an issue for designers who like creating organic shapes. However, for an icon designer this might not be that big of an issue. If you focus on illustrative capabilities, other vector editors that centralize on organic drawings are widely available. In such way, this might be a plus for people who prefer a simpler interface for speed and minimalism.
When you touch the transform, the interface shows a cross on the screen. You can apply free transform as usual, but if you want to lock width and height, you need to swipe your finger with the cross. Alternatively, you can apply transform with the arrange menu.
The layers panel is very clean, where the groups and paths are shown. When you touch a path, you can alter blend mode, opacity and mask type. Locking or setting as invisible is possible from the buttons near the paths.
The arrange menu options are straightforward and easy. You can also order shapes, group, ungroup, transform from the same tab. By clicking on the arrange tab, a new tab is opened where you can find translate X, translate Y, lock scale, scale X, scale Y, and rotate options. From align, distribute and transform tabs you can move, resize and align shapes but you can’t align or change the coordinates of anchor points. This is a very critical issue I also noticed in Autodesk Graphic.
The select same style option from the edit menu is a very good feature since you can choose shapes of the same color, fill, or path options, without much effort.
The options menu features the path and the combine tabs. Inside the path tab you can reverse, fill rule (non-zero, even-odd), clean, round to nearest pixel, reflect horizontally, reflect, vertically, make a symbol, and convert text to path. The combine tab allows you to combine, subtract from, intersect, exclude, make compound, and release compound.
The style editor button features the style, text and art board tabs. You can also change path options like thickness fill, line cap, alignment and dash. The fill options are also available under the same tab where you change the colors or add the colors to the swatch tab.
Under the settings button of the menu bar you can see two tabs. In the general tab, options such as show outlines, magnifier, show rulers, show hud, smart guides, show tips, and show grid toggles are found. Grid spacing, major tick every modifiers and reset setting is also available. In the Editing panel, options such as snap to objects, snap to grid, snap to nearest, pencil shape recognition, auto convert smart shapes, keep combined shapes, and offset duplicates are available.
The application lets you save the document as svg, png and jpeg. It also features trim options for exporting. The selected “only toggle” lets you export only the selected shape from the editor. You can share your images through iCloud drive, Dropbox, Email and Photos.
When you have your document open, the application constantly saves your project, ensuring that you will not lose your work.
From the file organizer, you can rename, delete, and duplicate files. The application doesn’t have a folder option, thus you cannot group files.
Is it good for designing icons?
Bez has a list of drawbacks, pushing it away from the perfect vector editor title. You can’t align or change the coordinates of anchor points by typing the x and y coordinates and you can’t select more than one anchor points at the same time. There is also a lack in shift lock option. The corner curve option comes with non-perfect round corners and limited size.
However, when it comes to icon design Bez is still a pretty good vector editor. While there might be a lot of missing features, most of them are not of the key importance for icon designers.
ProtoSketch comes from Codemotion who are also developing a Mac version. It costs 8,99 USD with the application supporting both iPad keyboard and Apple Pencil. It has palm rejection and pressure sensitivity.
Before you start, you should notice that this is a multi-gestural vector editor which means that you are able to use shortcuts or modifiers by gestures. ProtoSketch is the only app from the three we are reviewing that displays all the features and shortcuts on the menu, which can be considered as a big plus.
ProtoSketch layout looks fresh and new with a white interface. However, white color interfaces entail certain disadvantages for the users. More precisely, if you are a user with visual epilepsy, working many hours in a white interface might have a negative effect. Furthermore, Apple is now switching to OLED screens meaning that black colors consume less energy than white ones.
The interface feels very minimal and everything seems to make sense. The toolbar is on the bottom and aligned to the middle for both left handed and right handed designers. Of course, you can still customize the interface from the settings bar.
The radical thing about this interface is that all the tools are on a close reach. For example, the position and size options are under the layers tab, making it really great since these are the most important options.
The menu bar includes the layers button, library, export, setting, coaching tips and hide the interface button. The coaching tips button is marvelous. If you press it, the application initiates pop-ups to help you understand and get familiar with the interface.
The toolbar contains the select, pencil, brush, pen, eraser, text, shape (rectangle, star, poly, spiral, line) options and on the right side you can see the necessary modifiers when navigating through the different tools. The modifiers change options by swiping the buttons. The eye dropper tool is hidden but you can use it through the ‘i’ button shortcut. You are also able to copy color, and the stroke options are very fast when using the keyboard.
The application uses keyboard shortcuts to its limits. The Shift Lock option is available for pen, shape and transform tools.
The brush tool is very precise and smooth, giving a pleasant feeling and the pressure sensitivity works perfect. There are no brush tip options, but only a round brush.
Pen tool performs very nicely. When you start drawing a line you see the draw, add, and remove anchor point options on the modifiers menu. You can also use add and remove using keyboard’s plus and minus. Afterwards, you can choose select path tool to choose multiple anchor points with shift, and also move them.
After drawing a line, if you choose select tool (A from the keyboard) you can edit the path with add or remove anchor point buttons. Alternatively, you can edit the anchor points from the plus and minus keyboard shortcuts. By pressing delete, you delete an anchor point or you can choose the anchor point tool to add a new one.
When you have selected a shape and press the stroke button, you can change the stroke color, thickness, the line cap, the line join, and the line alignment. You can also set the opacity, blending mode and shadow from the modifiers menu under the fx button.
When you select an object and hold it, besides other functions, you can quickly outline a stroke or reverse the path direction. If you select and hold two objects you can mask or align them.
Also, when you select one or more objects a command (Apple) keyboard icon appears under the shapes. If you press the button, you can access the align, boolean (union exclusion, intersection, subtraction intersection), eyedrop or duplicate options. However, this menu is not available when you press the command button from the keyboard.
The color palette is very minimal and user friendly. It features a color wheel and slider options. You can enter a hex color code from the menu or choose the color picker to copy a color code. There are also opacity, swatches and gradient tabs.
The layers panel is minimal too. One drawback is that you cannot see the shapes inside a layer, meaning that you cannot distribute shapes from this panel. You can distribute them by pressing and holding a symbol together with “bring to front” button.
From the settings menu, you can access the snap to grids, snap to edges, snap to grid, smart guides, grid, rulers, canvas size & units, usability, user guide and video tutorial options.
The app lets you save your document in a pdf, svg, png, jpeg or ProtoSketch format. You can share your designs by email, Dropbox, iCloud, photos, Twitter, and Facebook.
Is it good for designing icons?
ProtoSketch is a powerful tool with a well-developed interface. It features very useful shortcuts and multi gesture options for editing. Everything is simplified without lacking in important options. The shift lock option works pretty good.
ProtoSketch is the only suite that lets you choose multiple anchor points and symbols using shift. The application is very promising and is constantly updated. A desktop version will empower the application in the future.
However, for an icon designer, distributing shapes is very important. Without shapes on the layers panel this becomes really difficult. Furthermore, one more drawback is the missing round corner option.
The application is really close to being perfect but still requires some improvements and extra features.
No clear winner
Although all three applications look powerful, they are still not complete. I am hesitant to choose the most appropriate one for investing my time as an icon designer.
Autodesk Graphic is the most powerful one with well-designed interface and is very similar to a desktop vector editor. However, it lacks a lot of important features. More precisely, it doesn’t support the coordinate option for anchor points. You are limited with select tool’s dashed square and you cannot choose different anchor points with shift. Lastly, there is no curve tool available. The last update was performed on 30 November 2016.
Bez looks like a great option since it keeps everything minimal, it features a curve tool and you are able to save everything as a preset. However, it lacks many features too. There is no outline paths option and you cannot choose more than one anchor point at a time. There is no coordinate option for anchor points. Although there is palm rejection, sometimes the interface suddenly zooms in and everything goes gray. The last application’s update was committed on 24 May 2016.
ProtoSketch is a very powerful alternative. It includes all the necessary features. All the controls are on a close reach, and the app has a very good potential by keeping everything minimal with gestures and with its interface focused on the screen use. It also features a great panel alignment. But there is no curve tool available.
The common issue for all three applications is that they crash quite often under different conditions and sometimes keyboard shortcuts become unresponsive.
How the perfect app would work
To summarize, my perfect vector editor app would be a combination of:
- The coordinates transform menu and the layout of ProtoSketch;
- The minimal structure and corner curve tool of Bez;
- The interface design, stability and keyboard shortcuts of the Autodesk Graphic.
I hope the creators of these apps, or another company, can create a stable vector editor focused primarily on graphic design. In my personal opinion, vector editors should be divided into three available categories for the tablet use. They have to be focused on either layout design, graphic design or illustration. Keeping everything in one application creates bugs and issues of missing features.