It’s midnight on March 29, 2012, when I and my fellow co-founders (Georg Petschnigg, Jon Harris, & Julian Walker) of a newly-formed startup called FiftyThree quietly push out a new drawing app to the App Store. I climb into bed then check my phone and immediately see tweets begin to pop with our hashtag #madewithpaper, downloads begin to climb, and drawings done in our signature inks start showing up on Tumblr. Within hours the app climbs to #1 on the App Store and articles hit every major tech media outlet including a premiere on the newly-launched The Verge. The adrenaline is rushing, and I don’t sleep at all that night.
Today marks 10 years since that night we first released the Paper app. I haven’t written much about Paper, because, honestly, I’m not sure how to. How do you fit a decade-long mission into a tweet thread? Like many creative tensions, I’m often caught between opposing feelings of having nothing to say and also too much to know where to begin.
Origin stories in tech are often about as true as the comic variety—mythologized to create an allure of genius and clean up any of the messy legal bits. In honor of its 10 years, I thought it’d be fun to pull back the curtain and share a few of the details of how Paper came to be.
1. Born from the ashes of a Microsoft project.
While Paper was born in 2012, its roots go back a few years prior when we co-founders first met at Microsoft working on the idea for a new device called Courier. Before the iPad, this was a two-screen digital journal + pen with an entirely new OS and apps designed for a very un-Microsoft customer—creative types. Despite internal excitement for the product, Ballmer shut down Courier in 2010, and if it wasn’t for a leaked prototype video that caused a stir online, things might’ve ended there.
Courier was dead, but we couldn’t quite shake off the mission. As my co-founder Georg would say, “Hope is the last thing to die.” (Apparently in German, it sounds less depressing). At some point we realized that if we wanted this to exist, we’d have to make it ourselves. In that moment, FiftyThree was born.
There was one minor hiccup…
2. None of us had built an app before.
In 2011, things were different. The iPad was nary a year old and the App Store was fresh too. “App” was the word of the year and the tech world buzzed with excitement searching for the next big app. User experience patterns were still up in the air which kicked off a cambrian explosion of experimentation.
None of us had built an app, and I hadn’t even shipped any production software (outside an all-in-one printer). Though we collectively had many years of experience in designing and shipping very sophisticated software, none of us had built and shipped a mobile app. This turned out to be a blessing as it meant we could rethink the most basic assumptions about mobile as the clay was still soft.
3. Designing on principle
In 2011, most startups had dreams of creating the next social media app. There was little excitement (much less funding) for building tools, and the productivity world was still dominated by the same players who had ruled the PC-era of the mid-90s. This software was designed for workflows—file systems, menus, key commands, wizards.
We were aiming for a different kind of “flow”. The kind of freeform thinking you do on a post-it note or whiteboard when the tool disappears and ideas can freely spill out from your head to the page. Through this lens, most of the typical software patterns had to be rethought from core principles that drove the creative process.
This is easier said than done. Many projects begin with principles (ex: easy, simple). But the hard part isn’t coming up with the principles so much as adhering to them or rather becoming subservient to them. But when you do, they can lead you to some very interesting places.
4. No back buttons
Paper had no Back or Close buttons.
We held the belief that early ideation is about always moving forward. This is the “Yes, and…” philosophy that unlocks creative flow. We took this literally and designed a navigational model where you never had to back out of a menu but would simply move on to the next thing.
At a time when most apps relied on nested menus that had you diving in and out (a la iPod), we came up with a spatial navigation model that you moved through with gestures. This meant you always had context of how you arrived and could see where you might go next. To close, a small pinch would take you back to your pages and a big pinch would take you all the way back to your row of journals. One single, interruptible gesture years before iOS’s fluid home swipe gesture.
5. No menus
Paper was the only drawing app with a perfectly clean blank page. No menu bar on top or buttons tucked in a corner.
Based on the principle of no distractions. This meant our navigation and actions needed to be gestures.
How to undo? Make it a gesture! We came up with a 2-finger spinning gesture we called “Rewind” inspired my early days as a DJ where you spin a record to cue up the starting point in a song. We expanded on this idea in future versions with a 2-finger tap that you’ll see in most drawing apps today.
6. No settings
We embraced constraints that removed unnecessary decisions and focused your creative energy on expression. To us, this meant no fiddly settings for brush size or sliders to dial in a specific color. Paper had 5 preset brushes and 9 colors. On a digital device that could do anything, we found the constraints felt strangely liberating. Plus, it meant we could lean into something new—using speed and direction to create expressive inks that were dialed in for specific creative activities.
7. Designed for thinking (not drawing).
Many wondered why Paper’s tools were named “Sketch” and “Write” instead of “Pencil” and “Pen”. We designed our tools for an activity, not an aesthetic. In Paper, we felt the final picture wasn’t the point. Paper was about ideas. It may seem like a subtle distinction, but it unlocked a whole new way of thinking for us.
The Draw tool was a particular favorite. It was inspired by the squeeze brush pens common in Japan that are capable of both thick and thin lines—perfect for very expressive drawing. More importantly we flipped the common pattern by drawing a thin line when moving slow and thick when fast. Nobody was doing this. It was considered too “unrealistic”. But to us, it was a natural outcome of designing tools as an activity for thinking and not a simulation of a real brush. When you draw, you move fast for bold strokes and slow for details. Our Draw tool mapped directly to those needs. You’ll find some version of this brush in most drawing apps today including Apple’s own PencilKit.
8. Ink took a long time.
As anyone who’s built inks knows, you can get basic ink working in about 5 minutes, but that final 10% of polish getting the ink to both feel natural and look like something you want to share with the world, will take you months.
9. Designed with Pencil in mind.
While designing Paper, we were also secretly developing a new digital stylus we called Pencil. Unlike most styluses, Pencil was going to be active meaning we could distinguish between touch and pencil inputs. Many of the gestures we introduced to Paper anticipated the use of pencil + touch interactions. A stylus to draw, a finger to smudge, two fingers to rewind, flip Pencil and use the top to erase, tilt Pencil to shade, a swipe from the edge to turn the page. You could truly get lost in creative flow without ever touching a single button.
10. Many ideas were abandoned.
We had countless ideas that we explored and abandoned. One such feature idea was Smart Pages. The idea with Smart Pages was to embed behaviors into a page that would alter your ink input. For example, you could choose a grid paper where every line you drew would automatically snap to the grid lines. Or you might choose a watercolor paper where inks and colors would bleed into one another. Different papers would create different reactions with the inks.
While it sounds fun, it quickly becomes a development nightmare to build the logic to work across a growing matrix of different paper types and tools. Even more importantly, it’s bad for creative thinking as it forces others to essentially do math while creating: ink + paper = ??? This is the same challenge Hipstamatic struggled with (film + lens + flash = ??). It’s much easier to constrain creative decisions along a single dimension like a tool. We eventually did add the ability to draw straight lines and perfect shapes (Think Kit) but we built those features into the tool.
11. Designed in Keynote.
For the younger designers, before Figma or Sketch, product designers had to co-opt tools intended for other uses and bend them to their needs. While most interface designers used Photoshop or Illustrator, there was a secret weapon for wireframing and basic prototyping—Apple’s Keynote. Paper was designed and iterated on in hundreds of Keynote decks, prototyped in After Effects and Flash, with final assets crafted in Photoshop. When the right tools don’t exist yet, you adapt.
12. Inspired by animated films & built in OpenGL.
Let me remind you, this was 2012. There was no Swift UI. It was a challenge just to build a standard app. And we set out to build one in 3D.
I leaned on my experience created animated short films and created a motion prototype of Paper’s entire navigation model in After Effects using 3D layers and lighting inspired by some of my favorite animated shorts like The Owl and Between Bears (Eran Hilleli). We took this and coded the views in OpenGL with real 3D layers, lighting, and shadows. I kept asking for so many tweaks that Julian relented and built into the app a set of in-app sliders for me to dial in every detail for position, light intensity, shadow falloff, and the like.
Ten years later and I’m still designing and building 3D apps. My entire workflow has changed, but it’s still a challenge.
13. The name “Paper” was a late change.
At a time when most products had invented names like Zune or MDX5000, we wanted something familiar. The name “Paper” was a casual candidate name for the Courier that MS never pursued. It felt perfect—analog in a digital world. It turned out to be such a popular name that a few bigger players couldn’t help but try it on as well.
14. Making the video was my first time exploring NYC.
I was a recent transplant to NYC, and having spent 8 months building Paper, I realized I hadn’t explored any the city. When it came time to make the launch video, we didn’t scout locations, we simply wandered the city with a camera like tourists capturing things as they happened. For future videos, we continued that trend of firsts with trips to Central Park, Rockaway Beach.
Also small, high-quality cameras (phones, GoPro) weren’t a thing yet, so the first person camera perspective was achieved with a custom rig I made from a modified ski helmet and a Canon 5D Mark II. The first-person perspective and dreamy tone was inspired by Chris Milk’s Last Day Dream.
15. Paper’s immediate success surprised us too.
We were happy with what we’d built, but the feedback on our Paper beta build had been lackluster. This had followed a long fundraising effort where we struggled for months to get anyone excited about the market for creative tools. We fully expected to release Paper and face a slow, uphill battle. It turns out investors and influencers don’t make for great beta testers—lesson learned ;)
On day one, Paper became the #1 app across the world, #1 in revenue. It was featured on the App Store homepage for a full week, won App of the Month, then App of the Year, and then the Apple Design Award (and a few others). It was exhibited at an art gallery in Soho. These were different times.
Sometimes winning is surviving.
Most apps from the early App Store-era that were hailed for their design are no longer with us (Path). Yet Paper is still here. And in much the same form as when it was first released having weathered the many tides of changing UI trends (flat design) and iOS updates. The same principles continued guiding it through new features, experiments, and even full rewrites. Every part replaced, yet its soul intact.
Hundreds of designers, engineers, and others have shaped Paper over the last 10 years. I’m grateful to them and the team at WeTransfer who continue its legacy. I’m grateful to the loving fanbase who’ve supported Paper from day one and trusted hundreds of millions of ideas to its digital pages.
Though I no longer work on Paper, I still use it. In writing this article, I wanted to get the original version of Paper 1.0 running on an old iPad. I tried for a full day but failed. A reminder that our work is transient—here for its moment and then gone.
What remains is impact.
Influence isn’t easily measured or displayed on a shelf. You only notice it years later in your daily life when you randomly bump into it. You feel it when you open a new app and notice a familiar ink style or gesture or UI pattern. You feel it when you run across a young designer or student who tells you that your little app had an impact on their journey into Design.
We often get caught up in moving our product metrics or landing the next funding round or other external measures of success. Let me tell you, those don’t stick around for long. If you can, be part of something that inspires others to see the world a bit differently. You won’t regret it.
Set ideas free.