People want to be able to do cool stuff with their computers. It’s why they bought them in the first place, right? The promise of power, being bestowed with abilities that up to now you didn’t possess.
One category of apps that has long been ruled by high-end software is graphic creation. There’s no doubting the utility of these apps for the professional, but both their toolkit and their price tag are overkill for the average consumer.
But while the marketing message and pedestrian price tag of $19.99 appeal to the consumer, does Artboard fulfill on their promise of “Simple. Powerful. Fun.”? What does Artboard have to offer? And while we’re at it, how does it stack up to its high-end competition?
In my opinion, an app’s feature set is a misleading metric. More doesn’t always equal better. There’s little doubt that Microsoft Word has a “robust” set of features, but I’m writing this article in Hog Bay Software’s WriteRoom because its mathematically smaller feature set makes it more useful to me than Word’s.
But that can cut the other way as well. QuickTime is an adequate media player for most Mac user’s needs. But as soon as you need to play a codec it doesn’t support, you’re on the prowl for a more feature-rich player. The key is in striking a balance.
Artboard has its own manifesto:
Simple. Powerful. Fun.
Much of what Artboard is is what it’s not. Artboard is not bloated. It doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars. It doesn’t take weeks or months to learn. It doesn’t require you to remember multiple tools to accomplish a simple task.
Those are lofty goals, aren’t they? And worthy ones too. Sounds like a good plan: avoid feature bloat, maintain a small price tag, be intuitive, and present a simple and explicit toolset. But the ever-present question is: did they do it? I’d say in some respects, yes, but in others most definitely not.
Artboard’s introductory UI belies the use case that Mapdiva expects – creating something, and then printing it. Artboard comes with a wealth of template options, and you can create a new document of any size using the standard menu item, File > Drawing Setup…, including the choice of a variety of drawing units.
Once you’ve decided on your document size, you’re presented with the main UI.
Honestly, this didn’t blow me away. It’s pretty much standard Cocoa interface elements. If you’ve ever used Mail.app, then you’ve seen this layout. Two columns of content, a toolbar button across the top, and floating panels of options hovering around your screen.
Personally, I’d like to see something a little more daring, a little more different. Why not a one window interface? Is there a way to show users what kind of tools they have at their disposal without using a floating box with icons inside? Floating windows get messy, they get confusing.
And there are portions of the UI where Mapdiva didn’t even try to innovate. They’re using the standard, system-wide color picker and font browser. Two core features of a graphics app weren’t given personal attention and care. Maybe in future updates these are some areas the developers could address.
If you’re coming at this from a different perspective, perhaps this is the first time you’ve used a graphics program before, then I guess Artboard’s UI isn’t too bad. It’s still got a learning curve to it. Big bold icons and descriptive labels help, but at the end of the day, a graphics program is going to be a tricky thing to use.
It’s a complicated piece of software, designed to let you do a multitude of things. Paring down the interface and sticking to relatively universal UI metaphors is a conservative way to try and lower the learning curve. I’m not sure if it’s the most successful one though.
Artboard offers 22 tools in two different categories, Selection and Graphics. Most of the basics are there. You can create rectangles and ovals, irregular polygons and regular polygons. They have both a round rectangle tool and a round-ended rectangle tool. The reason for the duplication baffles me, though duplication does seem to be a theme.
They have both a straight line tool and a Bezier line tool instead of one unified Pen Tool. I’m not sure if they created this duplication by accident, or in the name of simplification – presenting the user with shortcuts to commonly used tools – but I find it cumbersome in practice.
Moving on to how the tools work in practice we see both achievements and failures. If you’re building a graphic that’s composed of full, regular shapes – squares, circles, rectangles, etc. – then Artboard really aids you. The tools to build those shapes are intuitive.
Once you’ve created something like that, you can switch over to the Selection Tool and adjust scale, rotation, and radius (in the case of rounded rectangles). The handles for those tools are overlaid on the shape, and the adjustments are made in real-time, giving the user immediate visual feedback.
It’s when you jump to the more “freeform” tools that things start to fall apart. The most glaring issue for me is that, when you create a shape with the Bezier Tool, you can plot points, adjust the curves in a smooth manner, but when you move to close the shape – you can’t! There’s no way to close a shape using any of the pen-like tools!
This is just shocking to me. How can you expect to create clean graphics if you aren’t able to create closed paths? Not to mention that you can’t add or remove points on a previously created path with the Bezier Tool. Nope, you need to use the Add Points Tool or the Remove Points Tool, adding more friction to the user experience.
I think it’s safe to say that I’m not exactly satisfied with the toolset that Artboard provides. But it wouldn’t be fair for me to leave this review here. Because I haven’t gotten to one of Artboard’s clutch features – a robust symbol and swatch library.
Symbols and Swatches
Artboard has a Styles and Clip Art window. Its a floating panel that’s visible by default, but can be controlled by a toolbar button. It sports a vast library of swatches, styles, symbols, pictograms, and clip art. And it’s quality stuff too.
I think this is exactly the kind of feature that a consumer-minded vector graphics app should have. Big kudos to Mapdiva for including this with Artboard.
Actually swatches are a stepping stone to the one professional caliber part of Artboard – the Style Inspector. This panel lets you compose layers of styles onto a shape or path, and then save them to your personal library.
If you spent a little time tweaking the available controls, and added a splash of creativity, then you’d be able to create some pretty cool things. I highly recommend exploring the built-in styles with the Style Inspector.
Well, I haven’t gone easy on Artboard, that’s for sure. I really hope that the developers at Mapdiva know its because I see so much potential in apps in this space. I know first hand how much work goes into developing an app – and I want the fruits of that work to be successful.
If you don’t have ambitions of being a vector-based artist, you just want something to lay out your business cards in or make a yard sale flyer, then Artboard’s for you. If you are looking for something that you can grow into, something you can use to express your creativity in a little more freely, maybe Artboard isn’t what you’re looking for.
There’s no doubt though that Artboard is an app with a strong future. While the current version may have come up lacking a little in my estimation, it does have a complete current feature set for basic vector graphics. The way Artboard is designed seems to have the average consumer in mind, and in a lot of ways they succeed in appealing to that user base.
But they have room to grow – don’t we all – and if they analyze the areas where they can improve, and put the thought and effort into growing the product, they’ll be well on their way to being a perennial hit.