The Mobile Creativity Conundrum: 5 Lessons Learned

An inside look at Adobe’s reboot of mobile creation, and what we learned about crafting mobile products and strategy.


Mobile is everywhere. It is how we communicate, buy things, date, find our way, and so much more. But it’s not how we create.

Sure, we take pictures and use apps like Instagram to share moments with others. But there is little-to-no professional creation happening on mobile or tablets. Most creativity apps have limited functionality and end by saving your creation to your camera roll. With limited output or interoperability with other tools, mobile creative apps are largely toys, not tools. The fields of design, illustration, video, and digital imaging are still practiced on the desktop. Surprisingly (ironically!), creative process has fallen behind the times.

Mobile creative apps are largely toys, not tools…creative process has fallen behind.

There are many folks out there who accept the fact that creative potential is chained to the desktop. But such limitations defy all we know about creativity. Namely, that inspiration strikes where you least expect it. That creative fields are advanced by new ways of capturing and iterating on ideas. And that we are most creative (and productive) on our own terms, which has new meaning in a mobile world.

Like most delays in technological adoption, you can blame legacy. More specifically, the dominance of a powerful and deeply integrated suite of creative tools with a user experience and set of file formats optimized for the desktop environment. So, you can imagine the concept of trying to “fix” mobile creativity at Adobe. We became the problem, and now we had the responsibility (and opportunity) to solve it.

About 18 months ago, I was asked to help build a team to reboot Adobe’s mobile strategy. Rather than think about porting famed Adobe applications like Photoshop or Illustrator to mobile (which had been attempted before), we started with a clean slate and a fresh set of questions.

  • How can mobile profoundly enhance creative potential?
  • Why aren’t people using mobile devices in their creative process?
  • How do we reconcile mobile creativity with the desktop workflows of creative professionals?

We gathered an extended dream team of passionate designers, engineers, and product leaders from around the company to challenge all conventions and conceive a new collection of mobile apps from the ground up.

Here are 5 things we learned along the way while changing mindsets, building products, and evolving the future of mobile creativity.

1. Make Natural Tendencies More Efficient

At it’s best, new technology enhances how you naturally live, think, and create. Rather than focus on brand new genres of creativity, we focused our mobile efforts on helping people absorb the world around them and create more productively. The sources of creativity don’t change: Travels, encountering the raw elements of nature, and getting lost — these are just a few of the sources of inspiration behind creative insight. The only problem is our memory and logistics. How do we organize and leverage everything we capture and experience?

Adobe Brush CC in action; capturing anything around you and creating a brush.

This was the vision for an entirely new family of Creative Cloud apps we call “Capture Apps.” They let you capture all the little things you see — shapes, colors, and brushes (and soon fonts and patterns) — with your phone/tablet, and then have it all at your fingertips whenever and wherever you want it. It is digital sampling for the modern creative. We’ve been working with some friends, like designer Timothy Goodman, to explore the potential of these new workflows (see some snapshots below).

Here’s an example where Tim used Adobe Shape to capture some shapes — stored in his Creative Profile, then brought them into Illustrator:

These capture apps are changing the way people create, and we’re starting to see a lot of experiments like this one published to Behance. Expect more capture apps… ;-)

2. Make Mobile Apps Free To Download. Drive Valuable Engagement

Great apps should engage you quickly, and the easiest friction to remove from becoming engaged is upfront payment. As a result, all of our new mobile apps are free to download and start using. So, how do these mobile apps support the Creative Cloud business? We find that, the more compositions you make with iPad apps like Photoshop Sketch — and the more shapes, colors, and brushes you capture with the Capture Apps — the more you’ll want to leverage that content in our desktop tools (all of which require a low monthly subscription fee beyond the trial period). In essence, our products succeed when they add value to your creative process. Our mobile business only succeeds if these products help you express your ideas and create in new ways — across apps and devices.

3. Build An Ecosystem vs. Isolated Apps

We realized early on that the future of creative apps would come from many companies, not just Adobe. One of the first and most controversial decisions we made was to open up Adobe’s technology to third party (non-Adobe) developers. Rather than try to build the full array of mobile applications for creativity ourselves, we wanted to enable a thriving ecosystem of third party creative apps, and enable connected workflows between them that makes mobile creation desirable. We had a few objectives for what we named the “CreativeSDK.”

  • Enable users of third party apps to login with their AdobeID to get access to their “Creative Profile” — all of their assets stored in Creative Cloud (think: Fonts, colors, Lightroom photos, specific layers in a PSD, vector objects captured using Adobe Shape, etc..).
  • Enable third party apps to access proprietary formats like PSD’s (Photoshop Files) and create PSD’s and other desktop file formats.
  • Engage a broader audience: We hope that third-party apps leverage Adobe technology to serve a much larger audience of creative people.

In essence, any “competitive” creative app out there can become a partner, providing their users full compatibility with Adobe’s desktop tools and other CreativeSDK-powered apps. iPad drawing app Paper, by FiftyThree, was one of our first CreativeSDK partners. And you can now make something in Paper and push it to Adobe Illustrator. The best collaborations are mutually beneficial and expand the possibilities. Non-Adobe apps get more users and compatibility with our desktop tools (which supports their businesses), and Adobe achieves a more seamless creative experience across mobile and desktop apps. Win win.

The prospects of the CreativeSDK were significantly bolstered last year when we acquired Aviary and welcomed to our team the brilliant minds behind one of the most successful mobile SDK’s in the industry. It’s early days, but the CreativeSDK is spreading fast (and all of our own apps were made using it!).

4. Don’t Fight Or Replicate The Past, Build Upon It.

Rather than attempt to reproduce our desktop apps, we started with a clean slate and aspired to build mobile apps “simple enough for anyone, yet powerful enough for professionals.” This approach created some guiding principles for us:

  • Empower the designers. When designers are positioned as product leaders alongside engineers, you get a superior user experience. The default states and on-boarding interfaces are thoughtful and consistent. The customer research and analytics are more closely connected to the design process. And the little things that make a big difference are kept (not cut!).
  • Don’t compromise on compatibility. While short-cuts and compromises under tight deadlines are tempting, we were not willing to accept “half ass” workflows. Mobile apps needed to push to their desktop counterparts quickly and reliably, at full fidelity.
  • Your assets must always be accessible and compatible. Perhaps the greatest innovation of Creative Cloud is the “Creative Profile”— a collection of all of your assets (whether they are captured on mobile, or dragged over to your CC libraries on desktop). We did a lot of work under the hood to connect creativity across mobile and desktop.
  • Every app had to stand on it’s own, while enabling a connected creative process. We envisioned a day when you might forget what device you used to create what!
Adobe Illustrator Draw enables you to create vector drawing, fully compatible with Illustrator.
Adobe Photoshop Mix enables you to composite/edit images, and then continue your work in Photoshop.

Rather than supplant the desktop tools, our new mobile apps support them. Sure, these apps are powerful on their own. But they also act as “first mile” apps to do certain tasks on your lap that you can then continue in desktop products like Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, or Premiere Pro.

Perhaps the greatest example of transformative mobile-to-desktop workflows is our latest app “Adobe Comp CC,” which we made in collaboration with designer Khoi Vinh. Launching today, Adobe Comp enables rapid creation of layouts and wireframes for mobile, web, and print projects. Anything you make in Comp can be continued in Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. Check it out:

5. Innovation only sticks with a simple story.

Alas, now the challenge is telling the story. It’s a good problem to have: Most people don’t know about Creative Cloud’s newest apps and services, but when they do, they repeatedly use them. How do new innovations get the spotlight amidst the huge shadows cast by legendary products like Photoshop?

What we’re trying to do is tell a simple story, rather than focus on every app and every feature. Even our approach to naming reinforced this with simple straight forward descriptive app names such as Sketch, Shape, Brush, etc…so that no single app would overshadow the collection.

Creativity strikes on its own terms — any time and anywhere.

Despite our best efforts to sketch on napkins and recall everything that inspires us, our ideas are strewn about, on scraps of paper and long-lost memories. So when we sit at our computers, using tools like Photoshop and Illustrator, we work in isolation. Our potential is held captive when our natural creativity is disconnected from the tools we work with.

Creative Cloud ushers in a new era of creativity by connecting you to every moment of inspiration you capture and any asset you create, so you can make amazing content on your own terms.


Early Innings

As you may know, I joined Adobe through the acquisition of Behance just over two years ago. The Behance community has thrived as a result — growing from one million to over five million members showcasing and discovering creative work. Our ambitious roadmap keeps the team engaged, and the opportunity to take on new challenges around Adobe (like rebooting mobile) keeps us learning.

Acquisitions only work when missions are aligned. Most acquisitions fail. The same thing can be said for startups. But when they do work, they can be wildly successful.

At Adobe, it’s been very rewarding to build products that help the creative world connect and create, as well as help shape an internal culture focused on teamwork and customer needs. I know I speak for all the designers and engineers I work with when I say we’re still in the early innings…

Now go check out the new mobile apps, especially “Adobe Comp CC,” that just launched. Excited to see what you’ll make with these new products!


I want to extend special gratitude to a few of my colleagues who helped edit this post (and work with me to lead and transform mobile at Adobe), including Govind Balakrishnan, Karl Isaac, Eric Snowden, David Macy, Avi Muchnick, Adam Lehman, Bryan O’Neil Hughes, Geoff Dowd, and Mala Sharma.

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