In this article I'll share with you in detail about the pros, cons and limitations of using the iPad for graphic design work.
I'm an artist and graphic design who has worked in the print (newspaper) industry since 2006. For personal work, I have created graphic design such as name cards, invoices, Youtube thumbnails, eBooks, etc. I have also reviewed many art related tech products for artists and designers and that includes the various iPads over the years.
Can the iPad be used for graphic design? Yes. There are many capable graphic design apps available from the Apple App Store.
Is the iPad a good tool for graphic design? That will depend on the kind of graphics you want to create. If you use the iPad as your only tool for graphic design, there are many limitations that you need to know so read on.
What is graphic design?
When I talk about graphic design, I'm referring to mostly graphics not drawn by hand, and graphics that may involve text.
Below are the different categories and types of graphic design:
- Print projects: Posters, flyers, name cards, brochures, magazines
- Web design: Web banners, ads, layouts, Youtube thumbnails
- User interface design: Icons, UI elements, mockups
- Charts and graphics: Pie charts, bar graphs, tablets, schematics, flow charts, maps, blueprints
- Branding: Logo, branding identity, packaging design, book covers
- Illustrations: Book or print illustrations, web illustrations, lettering, calligraphy, comics
A distinction has to be made between illustration and graphic design because these are two different fields. Illustrations can be hand drawn or created with graphic design.
The iPad excels at hand drawn art, e.g. painting, comics, sketches, concept design, calligraphy. The Apple Pencil is a fantastic drawing tool which can also be used for graphic design.
A computer or laptop excels at graphic design, and can be used to create hand drawn illustrations when used with a drawing tablet.
If you can only choose either a computer or an iPad for graphic design, go with the computer. For drawing, you can pair it with an affordable pen tablet (less than US $100).
Take this illustration for example which shows how a goal is scored by a soccer player.
That graphics or illustration was created with Adobe Illustrator. This software was used because of the visual style it can create, and how easy it is to make certain changes. For example, players positions can be changed, colours of the jerseys can be swapped, instead of scoring a goal the ball could be blocked, perspective of the field can be changed. Body postures can also be changed but that will require more work as it involves re-drawing the soccer players.
It may be possible to recreate the same graphics with Photoshop, Procreate or Clip Studio Paint. But the visual style may look different and making changes will be more difficult. And if the illustration was hand drawn, making changes involves re-drawing, and that will take a lot of time.
It is important to use the right tool for the right job. You can hammer a nail with a spoon but it doesn't make sense when a hammer will do a better and faster job.
When it comes to choosing a computer or tablet for work, I always recommend choosing based on the software you want to use. Your clients will not care what software or hardware you use, but if you use the wrong software, it will just take more time to complete your work. When it comes to graphic design work, choosing the right software is important. Using the right software can help you save time and money, and save you a lot of frustration.
Adobe Illustrator is an important graphic design app available on Windows, MacOS and iPad. It is a monthly subscription app so I would recommend the competitor Affinity Designer instead which is a one time purchase.
There isn't any significant advantage to using tablet version Adobe Illustrator to create the soccer graphics above. Using the desktop app will be more productive as you will have all the features, access to all keyboard shortcuts, customise keyboard shortcuts, and can work with external displays without limitations.
Tablet apps usually just offer a subset of features compared to desktop apps. If you already have a computer, it makes more sense have a software trial instead of spending hundreds of dollars to buy an iPad for a software trial.
Here's another illustration created with Adobe Illustrator. My wife said my baby girl now has more hair than me.
This is the wireframe for that illustration. This was created with the desktop version of the Adobe Illustrator because I was able to work faster with keyboard shortcuts and a larger display with palettes displayed to show adjustments I can make.
This illustration was hand drawn with Concepts which is an app available on iPad, Android and Windows. This is not a graphic design as it's just an illustration with no design element. If this was used on a page with text layout, then the whole page is considered a graphic design.
What are the graphic design apps available on the iPad
Some of the more capable graphic design apps are Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Affinity Photo, Affinity Designer, Vectornator and Amadine.
Since Adobe apps are subscription based, it's more economic to go with apps that are one time purchases instead. Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer are must-buys for graphic designers.
For graphic design that requires layout and text, Adobe Illustrator and Affinity Designer are great.
For illustrations, you can use any of the six apps listed. Adobe Photoshop and Affinity Photo are good for hand drawn illustrations. Adobe Illustrator, Affinity Designer, Vectornator and Amadine are good for creating vector style art.
For apps that specialise in drawing, there are Procreate, Clip Studio Paint, Infinite Painter, PaintStorm, Artstudio Pro, Concepts, Adobe Fresco, Medibang Paint Pro.
Colour support on iPads
The iPad displays with the best colour support are from the iPad Air, iPad Pro and iPad mini which according to Apple have "wide colour display (P3)". I don't recommend the iPad mini though because the display is just too small.
P3 is a RGB colour space. From the CIE 1931 chromaticity diagram showing the P3 gamut, you can see the P3 colour space encompasses the sRGB colour space. In other words, P3 can display more colours than a 100% sRGB display.
The colour accuracy on iPads is good enough for creating designs for the RGB space, aka the web, and for video production (if you don't mind working on a small display). For print designers who create graphic design with iPads, it's recommended that the artworks be converted to CMYK and checked on a colour calibrated display before sending to a printer.
P3 colour space does not encompass the AdobeRGB colour space that's suppose to produce colours that can be created CMYK colour printers.
I'm a graphic designer who works primarily with print (newsprint) and I work with a colour calibrated display. There are some rules with print design that don't apply to web design. Text has to be 100K instead of 4C black or sRGB black. Some printers have a total ink limit that you must not breach. E.g. Newsprint is 220 - 270% so your mixed colours should not exceed that. A colour with 80C 80M 80Y may breach that limit and your printer will give you a call when they see an alert on their computer.
When creating print graphics, you should choose CMYK as the colour space for your new document. At the time of writing this article, you cannot create a CMYK file with Adobe Photoshop tablet app. Anyway, even if you create a CMYK file to begin with, remember the iPad display supports P3 so CMYK colours may not appear accurate on the iPad so you will have to do a visual check on a calibrated display.
Checking colours after converting sRGB colour space to CMYK is important because colours will shift. E.g. Changes in skin tone can make people look more lively or pale. When converting sRGB black to CMYK, the total ink may be breached. If you have sRGB black text, you will have to convert all those text to 100K.
Colour calibrators do not work with iPads because there are no colour calibration apps. Colours on the iPads look great out of the box but how does Apple actually colour calibrate their tablet displays? Do they use technology from X-Rite or Datacolor or do they have their own colour standards?
How much RAM is needed for graphic design
All iPads are powerful enough to handle graphic design, and that includes the iPad 9 (2021) that only comes with 3GB RAM.
How much RAM do you need is a difficult question to answer. Ideally, more RAM will be good as iPadOS itself will use up RAM.
Desktop version of Affinity Photo used 700MB RAM (rounded up) with no files open, and used 800MB RAM total to create the Youtube thumbnail above.
Desktop version of Photoshop uses 900MB RAM even with no files opened.
There are no apps to check RAM usage for specific apps on the iPad. There's a good chance tablet apps will use less RAM, but even so having more RAM (at least 4GB) for graphic design work is recommended. The amount of RAM will limit the number of layers you can create.
11-inch vs 12.9-inch display for graphic design
Most tablet apps are designed with minimal UI elements, but even so it's better to get a larger display because you can show more UI elements, especially if you want to keep the palettes on screen while you work.
The 4:3 aspect ratio of iPad displays is alright but not ideal for working with graphic design. When you consider palettes and UI elements are usually on the sides, when working with squarish or horizontal content, there will be wasted space at top and bottom.
This is where working with a laptop or an external display with 16:10 or 3:2 aspect ratio is better.
This is how Photoshop looks on an external display connected to an iPad (with the help of Apple Stage Manager). In this case, Photoshop is showing on the external display, and the tablet interface on the iPad.
The wider display can present the content larger even with the palettes open by the side.
Not all graphic design apps are optimised for external displays. Affinity Photo, at time of this writing, cannot be made full-screen on the external display. I'm pretty sure more apps will be updated for use with external displays in the future.
Currently, Affinity Photo can use the external display to present a larger version of the graphics you're working on. I don't find this useful as you're just looking at the same graphics.
For graphic design apps that do not support or are not yet optimised for external displays, you can use those apps on the tablet and have other apps on the external display (with the help of Apple Stage Manager).
Apple Stage Manager external display support only works with iPads that use the M1 processor. This feature will not work with iPad Pros and iPad Airs from 2020, iPad mini 2021 and entry level iPads.
Using larger displays with desktop graphic design apps is more productive.
In the photo above, when working on a 16-inch laptop, I can show two columns of palettes on the side while working on the page design. To work on the same design on the iPad means the palettes are often hidden and to adjust settings I have to show and hide the palettes repeatedly and that's not as productive having the palettes visible all the time. When working on my 27-inch monitor, I can even place more palettes. A larger display will also allow you to place other windows, e.g. reference photos, by the side.
The tablet versions of Photoshop and Illustrator are not designed with ability to place more than one column of palettes yet.
Another advantage of a larger display is you can see your design at its actual size. E.g. You can see actual size of magazine pages you're designing on a 27-inch display. This is helpful for checking legibility.
File management and backups
Most tablet apps will either save the graphic files within the app or onto the cloud.
Either way, you don't have to worry about backups because on an iPad, you can use Apple iCloud (monthly subscription) to backup everything. In the event that the tablet is lost, damaged or stolen, you can get a new iPad and restore everything from iCloud. If your graphic files are stored on the cloud, the downtime is how much time it takes for you to get a new iPad. If your files are not stored on the cloud, e.g. Affinity, Procreate files, you will have to wait for your graphic files to restore from the backup.
Backing up files on desktop OS is quite simple too. Just use Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive or some other online backup service to sync all your computer files online. The downtime is how much time you take to get or set up a new computer.
When sending files to clients, just upload them to some online storage with a download link for your clients.
Other issues with graphic design on iPad
The cursor on the iPad is a circle, and it's gray by default which is not easy to see against darker backgrounds. You can add a coloured outline to the cursor for extra contrast but you can't change the shape of the cursor. This circular cursor of course will not be as precise as an arrow cursor. When you're creating pen paths and points, you have to use Apple Pencil instead for more precision.
Not all keyboard shortcuts from desktop apps are ported over to the tablet apps. You usually can't customise keyboard shortcuts with tablet apps.
Workflow with a mouse on a tablet is can be very different from workflow with mouse on a desktop. On a tablet, your mouse is essentially your finger, so there's no right click or middle click.
Installing fonts depends on the apps you use. If you use Adobe apps, you can install fonts into Adobe Creative Cloud and these fonts should be available on devices that run Adobe Creative Cloud. With other graphic design apps, you have to install the fonts onto each app you use. E.g. If you use 5 apps, you install the fonts five times. This is because there's no universal font management system on the iPad such as the Fonts folder from Windows and Fonts Book from MacOS.
At the time of writing this, the M1 iPad Pro 11 (128GB) and 12.9 inches (128GB) are priced at US $799 and $1099 respectively. Refurbished models, if available, are US $679 and $939 respectively. Apple Pencil is US $129.
The M1 Macbook Air with 8GB RAM and 256GB storage is US $999. The M2 Macbook Air with 8GB RAM and 256GB storage is US $1199. Refurbished models are 15% off.
If you look at the pricing, the M1 Macbook Air just provides more value for money simply because it's cheaper at $999 and the iPad Pro 12.9 with 256GB storage and Apple Pencil is US $1328. That's more than $300 difference. Even the M2 Macbook Air is cheaper. You can use the savings to increase RAM to 16GB.
Graphic design can certainly be done on iPad but I would recommend you go with a laptop or computer instead.
When I assess technology for work, I ask whether I can save time or money with the technology. If the main reasons you're considering the iPad for graphic design work is because you like the touch interface, Apple Pencil is awesome, or the iPad is so compact and portable, the display is so nice, well, those reasons may not be enough unless they really improve your productivity compared to creating graphic design on a computer.
Graphic design is just more productive with desktop apps, a larger display and keyboard shortcuts. When you add a keyboard and case to the iPad, the weight isn't too different from a 13-inch Macbook Air.
if you already have a computer and is wondering whether you should get an iPad for graphic design. My recommendation is go buy Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer to get started and see if those two software can fit in your workflow before you spend hundreds of dollars on an iPad to test whether graphic design can be done on a tablet.
If you need to create hand drawn art, obviously the iPad will be an obvious choice. If you need to create hand drawn art, you can have a computer with either an iPad or a pen tablet or pen display. The iPad has the advantage of being portable.
This is just my take as a graphic designer. I'll choose a computer for graphic design any day unless I have to create hand drawn art.