Sketching wireframes with the Apple Pencil

How I improved my wireframing process by going digital.

I’ve spent years experimenting with pens and pencils, trying to amass the perfect arsenal of tools to sketch with. So, when the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil were announced I was curious to see how going digital could speed up my wireframing process, and better translate the ideas in my head. 7 months later, with the novelty worn off, I can safely say the Apple Pencil has found its place in my daily routine as a product designer.

In this post I’ll show you how I evolve my ideas on paper, turn them into wireframes with the Apple Pencil, and gather feedback along the way.


The A3 Brain Dump

This is all about getting ideas out of my head; old school, pencil on paper.

A3 Paper — A single sheet of A3 paper is about right to cover one part of a flow in a user journey. I keep my sketches small by moving my wrist instead of my arm, allowing me to cram more ideas onto a single sheet.

0.7mm mechanical pencil — At this early stage in the process I want my ideas to flow freely and my lines to be non-committal. I’ve found the Rotring 0.7mm Mechanical Pencil is the perfect tool for the job. You won’t need to carry around a sharpener, and, after experimenting with varying thickness of lead, the 0.7mm comes out as the winner for its ability to shade in areas.

Fine black pen — By the end of this exercise I’ll have a single sheet of paper full of flows, interactions, icons and notes. I’ll finish up by going over my best ideas with a Black 0.7mm Uni-ball pen and stick it on a wall for early feedback from product managers, devs and other designers. The darker lines help it stand out when I capture the feedback on my phone’s camera.

With feedback captured and a page of flows, notes and sketches to work from, I’m now ready to begin wireframing on the iPad Pro.

Wireframing with the Apple Pencil

Your first time sketching on the 12.9" iPad Pro screen might feel like you’re about to take a marker to your living room TV, but the real estate you have to work with is a lot smaller than the A3 paper I recommend you start with. It’s enough space to cover 2–3 screens at a time, or one part of a flow.

There are a ton of quality apps out there for sketching on the iPad, and after much experimenting I landed on Paper by 53 as my tool of choice.

Why Paper by 53 rocks my socks

Organised artboards – This is the most immediate benefit I found to sketching digital: no more stacks of paper and finding a place to store them once you’re done. When you’re scrolling through the thumbnail view you can see how your ideas have progressed. This is especially useful if you want to add it to your portfolio.

Cleaner wireframes – The shape correcting tool in Paper by 53 is the reason I use this app over all others. The app recognises roughly drawn shapes like rectangles and immediately corrects them into straight, clean shapes. This allows me to spend less time trying to sketch neat wireframes and focus on exploring ideas.

Copy and paste – Clearly a huge time saver and a pain point of sketching on paper. It’s easy to create variations and duplicate elements. Unfortunately you’re limited to pasting in the same artboard, one of my biggest qualms with this app. To get around this I’ll create and an artboard with reusable elements and work off a duplicate for any new screens.

Colour palette – Creating a custom palette with a wide spectrum of colours and greys means all the colours I need are at hand and my output looks consistent.

Review and feedback – When I’m ready to review the wireframes I’ll send them to Dropbox and place them in an artboard proportionate to A3 paper in Sketch. The large A3 printouts make it easy for all stakeholders in the room to see the designs, and the additional whitespace allows space for notes and comments whilst keeping them containted to a single sheet, in case you need to move it.

Capturing feedback is easy with A3 printouts which has plenty of space for notes and comments

Final thoughts

Depending on the feedback you receive this process can take a few iterations, but the ability to copy and paste elements and duplicate artboards means it should be more effecient than doing it with pencil and paper. Once I’m confident there aren’t any show stoppers with the functionality covered in the sketches, I’ll raise the fidelity by recreating the wireframes in Sketch, with the aim of getting a journey in Invision to share as soon as possible.

If the thought of getting an iPad Pro + Apple Pencil has crossed your mind I hope I’ve given you an idea of how it could speed up your wireframe sketching process. And hey, if it doesn’t work out you’ll still have an iPad, which is nice, right?


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Anant Bhadreshwara is a Product Designer at Schibsted Marketplaces. He can often be found lurking on Twitter and cradling burritos in the London area. He finds talking in the third person unsettling.