NOW READING: A Radical New Way to Collaborate, From the Makers of ‘Paper’

A Radical New Way to Collaborate, From the Makers of ‘Paper’

An empty canvas is great if you’ve got the imagination to do something with it. Sometimes, though, it takes a little push to get the creative mojo going.

That’s the thinking behind Mix, a new collaborative platform from FiftyThree, makers of the popular iPad sketching app, Paper. Built right into the app, it’s based around a continuously expanding pool of shared content that’s available for anyone to mix, remix, and draw inspiration from. The whole thing is based on a sort of utopian vision of digital creativity. Everything in Mix is available for you to rework as you wish, and everything you rework becomes available for others in the same way.

According to FiftyThree co-founder Georg Petschnigg, Mix has been part of the vision from the start. Paper, the company’s first offering, was all about thinking, he explains. Pencil, the thoughtfully designed iPad stylus released last year, helped facilitate the act of making. (With iOS 8, Pencil will be getting a pressure sensitivity feature, increasing its capabilities).

With Mix, which is available today for invitees ahead of a wider opening next month, FiftyThree is tapping into the great creative catalyst of collaboration. “Bit by bit by bit we’ve been building towards this,” Petschnigg says. “We’re really for the first time digitally closing the creative loop.”

It isn’t necessarily what you’d expect from a collaborative platform. Unlike, say, Google Docs, Mix doesn’t offer any way to work on things in private. Instead, it’s a free-for-all by design. Every piece inside of it is up for the taking. You can think of it as a fluid global game of Exquisite Corpse, except at any point a given work could be the head, the body, or the tail of someone else’s creation.

In private tests over the last several months, the company’s seen the tool used in all sorts of ways. One widely riffed upon template was a blank “Hello, My Name Is” name tag. Others used it to sketch ideas related to fashion and architecture. You can view related collections in the app or through an accompanying website.

Andrew Allen, a FiftyThree co-founder, refers to the novel model as “shared creativity.” And in addition to the technical challenges of creating a stable cloud-based platform for sharing visual work, it involves a host of other challenges. How do you organize all the content that’s born from these ever-splintering family lines? How do you surface the visual prompts that are most likely to inspire people? The even thornier questions swirl around the ideas of authorship and etiquette. As Allen asks, “If we create a work of art together, who gets to sign?”

FiftyThree is content to wait and see how people use the tool before answering some of these questions. And indeed it’s hard to imagine what the platform might look like, say, three months from now. It seems at least possible that an environment in which output flows into a creative commons by default could actually engender a fairly limited range of output in the first place. Serious creative types want to share their work, sure. But serving up it up to be remixed ad infinitum is a different proposition.

A Mix creation.

That concern may be beside the point. At heart, you could say that Mix is less about the creative product than the creative process. Its greatest value could simply be establishing a space where low-stakes creativity is encouraged. “For a good percentage of our users, their first reaction is, ‘I’m not creative; I don’t know how to sketch,” Petschnigg says. “One of the reasons you’d want to go to Mix is to get started. Not everything is a masterpiece; not everything starts out as a masterpiece.”

He likens it to another institution where creativity is king: Kindergarten. There, he says, youngsters are actively given a framework for expression. There are pages to color, pipe cleaners to bend into monsters, macaroni to arrange into a necklace.

“But the moment you sit down in first grade, your creative process is over,” he says. “Those visual communication skills, they really go to the wayside. For us, it’s really important to bring some of that back.”


This article was featured on WIRED on September 16 2014 and was written by Kyle VanHemert, an author at WIRED Magazine.Critical Thinking Companion