How Adobe Reinvented The Pen To Draw On The Internet

What is the future of the cloud-connected interface? How about a simple pen and ruler?


This week, Adobe announced that the Creative Suite was becoming the subscription-based Creative Cloud. It didn’t go so well. But amidst the bad news, we may have lost sight of Adobe’s rationale for pushing the cloud beyond profits. And you can see that rationale hiding inside Project Mighty.


On one hand, it’s just an aluminum stylus that can replace your finger on the iPad screen. On the other, it’s a cloud-connected pen–or humanity’s single-greatest, simplest creative apparatus, married to the entire world of digital tools and information. Today, Project Mighty allows you to draw an image on your iPad screen, then seamlessly continue drawing that same image on your iPhone screen. Tomorrow, such a tool could draw anywhere–screen or table–while constantly syncing with your creative depository in the cloud.

Now you have to admit, that’s at least a little bit intriguing.

How It Came Together

Project Mighty, along with an accompanying “short ruler” codenamed Napoleon, were both designed by Ammunition (and engineered by Mindtribe). Ammunition has been working on various concepts with Adobe for the past five years. These are the first two designs to be made public.


“One of the goals of this was just to make a beautiful, sweet object,” Ammunition Founder Robert Brunner tells Co.Design. “The pen in particular is one of those simple, beautiful forms. But it actually has a purpose. We took the triangular shape–this classic shape that’s easier to grip–and twisted it. So the point at which your fingers hold it, the pen is at its best.”

The pen has a pressure-sensitive tip, a button to reveal onscreen menus and a glowing tip to convey modal information (designating if you’re drawing with any particular settings), and that’s it. The accompanying ruler is similarly sparse. Six shapes appear on the surface (it’s unclear if these will be actual buttons), a plastic back slides easily on a glass touch screen, and a few capacitive points convey its position to software.

“When [Adobe’s VP of experience] first said he had this idea for a digital ruler, to be honest, I was like, ‘I don’t know,'” Brunner admits. “As we actually started to work on it and play with it, we realized that it was very smart. You can certainly set up software to draw straight lines and snap to angles, but the simple addition of this other physical thing gives you so much more confidence.”

Even still, why did the team pursue a pen and ruler at all? In the digital world, there are no physical bounds dictating a tip of a pen needs to be connected to a long channel of ink. Couldn’t Project Mighty look like an ergonomic swirly straw, or a creative pair of brass knuckles–any dream device that could reimagine the very core idea of what drawing can be, rather than the old default pen and ruler?

“It’s simply because they’re extremely familiar,” Brunner says. “That’s the thing. You can come up with something entirely unique, but the fact is, these two devices, or shapes, are incredibly embedded in our understanding of drawing and creating.”


The Power Of Illusion

Adobe frames Project Mighty as a high-tech, borderline magical device that stores your identity and your projects. In reality, the hardware itself is fairly dumb, but its implementation is ingenious.

The pen is just a Bluetooth stick in the simplest of senses. Software spots its unique Bluetooth identifier. That code is associated with you. And you’re associated with the files/settings you’ve stored in the Adobe cloud. In other words, Project Mighty is really just beaming software an alphanumeric string, which logs into your accounts very quickly so you don’t have to. Finding myself fairly proud of piecing this together, I ask Brunner about it.

“You’re right, it’s an illusion per se,” he says. “All the pen is doing is IDing you and the app you’re in, and contextually allowing you to do things. But that’s an important idea! Using objects as a conduit to data is a powerful and interesting possibility. But for some reason, in the world of development, there seems to be a hard line between hardware and software.”


This hard line is exactly what Project Mighty is working to erase. It’s a peek into the most basic and powerful interactions that smart design can drive as we approach the Internet of things. This pen doesn’t need to gyroscopically record your movements, save them onto some flash drive, beam them back to the computer, then beam them to the cloud every moment. It just has to be a stick with a button that’s ready to be identified by software.

In other words, there’s nothing inside the hardware that demands the pen remain proprietary. Project Mighty could become popularized for apps living in the walls of Adobe’s own products. With a little modification (maybe an optional real pen tip?) Project Mighty could become the tactile, connective tissue between you and any surface on which you’d like to draw. This semi-smart pen could become the ubiquitous way we interact creatively with the world around us.

“Something I noticed: I used to always carry a pen,” Brunner says. “I don’t anymore, whereas my iPhone is always in my pocket. Maybe this thing can bring back the idea that the pen is always with you.”

Project Mighty and Napoleon are currently in developmental prototype stage.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach