The phone as a mobile creative studio
Issue 71: More creating, less scrolling
At Macworld on January 9, Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, a mobile phone that would change the way smartphones are used. "An iPod, a Phone, and an Internet Communicator," Jobs would say repeatedly.
Smartphones are normalized today, but back then, the idea of having something to replace my textbooks, sketchbook, Nikon DSLR camera, and iPod classic in one device felt unreal. If I wanted to record a video, I'd have to borrow it from the art school library. The ability to create, all within reach of your pocket.
14 years later, this magical device has become a pocket media center than a computer. With the rise of social media and companies thirsting for engagement, more apps were created for content consumption instead of creation. Companies were building dark patterns and incentives to get people addicted to staying on the app even longer. I’ll say this—the infinite scroll is one of the worst software interactions ever made because of the outcomes.
Are smartphones killing our creativity? No. We are. What if we could take the pocket media center and remind ourselves that the smartphone is a small computer? What if we flipped the mental model of the smartphone being the smallest creative studio instead of a mini entertainment center? A smartphone is not more powerful than a laptop, but more effective due to its mobility—a great device for generalist work. Let’s make the smartphone the greatest creative tool again. Like any good tool, configuring it to your needs is the best way to get the most out of it.
Swap consumption for creation
You wake up, roll over and pick up your phone. Without even thinking about doing it, you open Instagram and start scrolling, and keep scrolling. Half an hour goes by and you’re still scrolling, and honestly don’t know why. We've all experienced this. Interactions become engrained in our brains without us realizing it. A remedy to these interactions is to swap your workflow with something else that is more creative. Replace apps that foster mindless scrolling with curiosity and creation. Instead of having opening Instagram, Twitter, or some scrolling social network app, I replace it with the Books app. In the mornings, I wake up naturally tapping in to read a few pages in a book instead.
Optimize ideal workflows and work with the constraints
In the Nine Inch Nails album “Hesitation Marks” there is a secret track called "Conversation With...” where Trent Reznor records himself talking a bit about his process. He talks a bit about the rules and constraints he sets to create an album. He mentioned that the album “Year Zero” was created while on tour with the constraints of laptops and mobile equipment. Having a set of constraints or limitations created focus. I view this mindset as similar to creating on the smartphone—leveraging what makes it an excellent creation tool instead of making it something it isn't.
The smartphone is great for capturing, drafting, and editing. It’s rare I’ll write an article or work on a project to completion. However, it gets me 80% there to finish on my computer. Optimize for what the phone is good at. I wouldn’t try to build an app or a high fidelity design on the phone, but I might capture ideas, annotate, and plan the work.
Limit distractions, highlight priorities
Put the most important things in front of you. I replaced my Home Screen with anything that might be a distraction: text messages, social media, and yes, the phone itself. I intentionally make entertainment or social apps more difficult to access. For example, I don’t have the Twitter app on my phone. There are times I check Twitter on my phone but I have to log into the mobile browser and use it. That bit of friction saves me from mindlessly opening and scrolling.
Phone usage occurs typically on the go as you’re waiting. Putting creative tools in the forefront encourages a different type of phone usage. Instead of texting other people or scrolling social media as I wait for a friend, I now spend those pockets of time on iA Writer, capturing some thoughts and iterating on sentences. This may feel like a fragmented way to work but the minutes add up.
Create with your mobile studio
In Abigail Schwartz's article, “Virgil Abloh’s Social Media Rise to Success," she highlights how the late great designer did so much work on his phone:
"He doesn’t have a desk, or office, or his own building for that matter. The one place he is the most is on a plane. And for his desk? That would be his phone. His legacy and his best work are made through his presence on social media. He has a mindset of a millennial so he is able to attract them. His phone is his primary tool, that’s how he works. He is an engineer so he has a facility with technology. He thinks and creates on his phone, so he knows how to use it the way we do."
Before COVID, I traveled a lot for work and personal reasons. Abloh's quote resonates with me because it reinforces the best creative tool is the one you have with you. So many times on a flight, I'd pull out my laptop or iPad only to have the person in front of me lean all the way back. I end up pulling my phone out to work instead, and it became a productive habit.
Here are a few examples of how I create on my phone:
Editing photos with Darkroom
Writing and editing with iA Writer
Capturing photos with Halide
Adding to-dos with OmniFocus
Responding to email with Superhuman
Adding thoughts with Muse
Record audio notes with Otter
In a world of pro laptops, M1 chips, and more power, my most effective design tools are still pen, paper, and my phone. The smartphone is the smallest studio you can take with you. If you're feeling like your phone is detracting your creativity, try configuring it in a different way that fosters the work you want to do.
P.S. I’m taking the rest of the year off and so excited to maximize being cozy. You’ll get an issue next week but I wrote it ahead of time and scheduled. I’m telling you all this because it’s important to rest and you don’t have to always be productive. Take care!