Concepts is an infinite, flexible creative tool for all your good ideas. Available on iOS, Windows and Android.

Designing Concepts: 10 Years of Creative Development

A Story about Concepts for iOS, Windows & Android

From baby concept to first 10 years. Wishing Concepts a happy 10 year milestone!

It’s been 10 years since we launched the first version of Concepts, our infinite canvas creative tool.

It all started as an idea in TopHatch Founder Ben Merrill’s imagination - a premonition that drawing could go farther than the edge of your paper, that a scribble could grow with your thinking and become a great idea, that a messed up sketch could be poked into place instead of having to start over on a new page. 

As a systems designer and robotic engineer, Ben wanted design to be a creative story instead of a frustrating one. He built a first prototype of his ideal tool for the very first iPads, won a design competition for its initial concept, and 10 years later, along with mobile game developer and Co-Founder David Brittain, is developing Concepts to be a smart, interactive design companion. Concepts is now a multi-platform infinite canvas creative tool used globally by designers, illustrators and visual thinkers for flexible, vector-based sketching and ideation.

We thought we’d share a few tidbits about where Concepts started back in 2012, and how far it’s come in just 10 years.

Concepts 1

In a universe where the desktop ruled design, and where CAD and Adobe tools were powerful but heavy to learn and use, Ben was looking for a capable "design sketchbook" to work out his ideas.

The release of Apple's mobile, touch-based tablets hit an intuitive creative spark for Ben, allowing him to reconnect his hand to the paper (or screen) and skip the mouse on his creative journey. Ben built directly for the iPad's interface, connecting hand gestures with drawing behaviors, inspired by body mechanics, as well as physical objects like rubber bands with their flexible structures.

The launch of Concepts 1.0 for iPad. Version 1 explored a gesture-based precision mode, where you could place one hand on the screen, then draw with the other hand.

Ben connected with David, an expert in vector math and game development, to develop a vector-based, interactive drawing system that centered around these gestures. By using vectors to draw, which retain their definition despite zooming or editing, users could always focus with clarity on the current part of their creative cycle - whether sketching ideas, studying larger frameworks, immersing in details, or sharing various pieces with other apps and designers.

Version 1.5 introduced Shape Guides to allow precise drawing of various shapes with your fingers on the iPad. Active styli weren't available yet.

In the midst of their discussions, not only did Ben and David discover a creative experience they could genuinely believe and invest in, they formed a strong partnership, and began to build an international team and a smart application.

Concepts 2

The Copic color wheel became a playful, spinning color animation to sharpen the design palette.

The Copic color wheel caught Ben’s attention as a beautiful spectrum and a practical solution for creators looking to produce professional digital work on an iPad. Too Corporation granted TopHatch permission to use their color wheel, and the rotating, playful implementation Ben designed has been a highlight of the app to this day. We are grateful for the privilege to share Copic's color wheel as a digital counterpart to their popular, traditional artistic media.

This full page marker scribble was meant to show off just how real and messy a digital marker could appear.

Alongside the color wheel, the team developed a complementary digital "Copic" marker, the first vector brush in Concepts with real-world texture applied. Texture is a dramatic part of the creative journey, and vectors in design apps have always been represented by a strict set of line data - mathematical, unapproachable and difficult to fall in love with. Ben wanted the creative experience in Concepts to feel as satisfying as drawing with physical media, so he sandwiched vectors with real-world raster textures to create a unique set of drawing tools that look, feel and play together naturally.

To give his mobile design app more of a sketchbook feel, Ben designed the gallery with swipeable stacks of paper. The app won a Tabby Awards and an Apple Best in 2013.

Concepts 3

In November 2015, Apple released the first iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. This was a huge stepping stone for developers like us who were crafting a professional productivity tool. It felt like the technology was finally there to realize the vision we had for Concepts.

Version 3 of Concepts pushed at the possibilities of working with iPads and stretched its gesture-powered vector capabilities. Pixels couldn't be altered after-the-fact, but vectors could, giving users an enormous amount of interactive creative freedom with their sketches. With Stroke Adjustments (now called Selection), users could pick up line work with their fingers and move them, change their tool, color, size or smoothing, and edit them even months after drawing to fit a growing idea or changing project specification.

Four Ways to Draw a Cube - This video was made by Ben to capture the many ways a user could draw an object in Concepts. It didn't matter which method you picked, they were all correct.

This editability eased creative worries. Our team received happy feedback from users sharing how they could finally draw without being afraid of making a mistake. With his video Four Ways to Draw a Cube, Ben showed how playfully you could realize your ideas. It didn't matter which method you picked - freehand, line guides, editing or smoothing, they were all appropriate methods for getting your ideas onto the paper.

Version 3 also held the first release of the Infinite Canvas, one of the trademarks of Concepts and a must-have for Ben's smarter-than-paper sketching tool. How could you follow your ideas down the long road if you always had to start a new sheet? Why hit the edge of the paper if you didn't have to? The idea of infinite opened up a new creative dimension.

This Apple-featured image shared how you could focus on the details, like design measurements, to create large scale design projects on your iPad.

Concepts 4

Concepts 4 focused on enhancing the design experience to make it more efficient, versatile and connected. Our team created editable, drag&drop Object Libraries to make design work faster, developed gesture-based Advanced Transforms for editing work (available only on desktop software until then), and added a variety of file export options to allow designers to integrate their mobile-created sketches into design software from the likes of Autodesk and Adobe.

Version 4.2 introduced a new Objects library allowing you to drag+drop pre-made objects onto your canvas for faster work. Concepts won a second Apple Best in 2016.

We also dove deeply into developing artisan-like brushes and tools that were completely editable, helping architects and illustrators to more efficiently create professional grade drawings. As we'd done with the Marker, we gathered samples of traditional artistic media and created richly textured tools like the Soft and Hard Pencils, Soft and Hard Masks, and the blendable Watercolor brush - tools that had never been combined with vectors.

Version 4.5 included an organically styled vector watercolor brush, blendable same-layer, stackable via separate layers. The watercolor brush was an essential design choice for architects to help them draw and be able to present projects to clients in app.

With these developments, we were responding to a couple of driving factors. The first was feedback from our creators, who were using the app daily and knew what they needed to accomplish their work. In fact, these are daily conversations we feel privileged to have, that we've threaded throughout our team to help us understand our users and market on a deep level. This has been critical to our development. Thank you for sharing your insights.

Second, we really wanted to push the abilities of Apple's latest technologies. As developers, we are driven to build a creative tool that is cutting edge and can do things other apps can't do (what makes us unique), while still integrating fluidly with latest apps and technologies (what allows us to continue breathing).

Version 4.6 - Sketching with new pencils. Again, enhancing the organic sketching experience on digital devices.

Concepts 5

We gave Concepts a deliberate upgrade in Concepts 5 with a modular, circular tool wheel and improved workflows. This release was part feedback-driven, and also part Ben’s desire to move into a modernized aesthetic - the future of design should feel like it.

The Concepts Tool Wheel - first sketch to final app design.

Half of our users fell in love with the circular tool wheel. The other half panicked and requested the classic toolbar back, due to their established muscle memories and two-handed drawing practices. We pulled back on the release, added a redesigned toolbar, and gave our designers both.

This is a pattern we’ve aimed to follow with all of our releases, and it’s how we work best. It's necessary that we listen to our users. With their metric, we can solve for their creative frictions and develop a more relevant tool. We then test the developments with our (wonderful) beta users so that Concepts is as stable and positive an experience as possible, then share the release widely.

Version 5.0 - The new circular tool wheel. This is the version of Concepts you're used to using.

With Concepts 5, we continued working to allow users to individually customize their creative experience. Alongside the movable menus, we added a brush market with a variety of textured tools to enhance drawing, and developed a versatile custom brush editor to allow anyone to create and share their own brush libraries for Concepts (for example, this Interior Design Tiling brush set by Interior Architect Jessika Wendel).

Version 5.1 - An example of the new textures available for drawing in-app. Concepts is still an ideation and design app, but the sketches can be pushed further through the design process, allowing improved presentation and sale of ideas to clients. It also can be more enjoyable to simply spend time drawing in an app with so many creative textures.

The team also realized Ben's dream tool that he'd had in his mind since the first version of the app - the Nudge tool. This original tool allowed you to poke or pull at your line work and move them around like string on the canvas. It was an organic approach to vector editing that catered to the flexible, freehand sketching premise of the app.

Ideation sketches behind the functionality of the Nudge Tool. This was in Ben's mind for years - an ideal, organic interaction that allows you to poke or pull your lines like string.

Version 5.2 - Nudging filled strokes. Nudge is a tool unique to Concepts. Watch this video to see how Nudge can influence your ideation sketching.

After the Nudge tool came a variety of fresh features - a presentation mode for sharing designs with audiences; the Slice tool as a destructive eraser and vector cutting tool; a Grid Editor and Snap functionalities to improve the design experience along with our artistic developments; Perspective Grids to help creators sketch their designs a little easier and with a little more confidence.

If you're invested in the digital creative space, it can seem like these developments that feel and act so magically are almost expected or taken for granted. We all put our hands up and say, "Of course, this should be obvious by now." But the truth is they take deliberate engineering to bring the developments about. They wouldn't exist if we didn't put the ideas and time in. Watching our world's technologies grow one decision at a time - whether it's our own app or through another team's resources and efforts - is humbling and worth celebrating.

Concepts for Windows & Android

As Concepts 5 gained momentum, we received a large amount of requests to develop the app for Windows and Android platforms. We took a careful look at current hardware and platform support, backed the initial investment ourselves, and developed a baby 1.0 sketching version for Windows 10, Android and Chrome OS platforms.

We released these at the tail end of 2018. Supported since by our users’ generosity and loyalty, we have developed three quarters of the mature iOS app version for these platforms in only three years’ time. You can see a feature parity roadmap here and discover build roadmaps for iOS, Windows and Android here.

Concepts for Android & Chrome OS Launch - The first edition core sketching package. As we've developed, your support has been so appreciated. We won a Samsung Best Creative App in 2019 and a Best of Google in 2021 thanks to your votes.

It isn't a simple, "bring Concepts for iOS over to the other platforms" project. Like Apple, Windows and Android each have their own intelligent ecosystems, and we've wanted to research and design just for these platforms and their users. There's nothing like a mismatched set of hot keys to quit your creative flow, and just as we've uniquely designed for Apple's systems to become intuitive, we've listened to feedback and added workflows for Windows and Android each to make Concepts a great experience.

Concepts for Windows 10 launch, showing exclusive interactivity with the Surface Dial.

Concepts 6 and the Future

With Concepts 6 for iOS and complementing updates for Windows and Android coming this month, we’re wishing Concepts a very happy 10 years! You may have noticed a preview teaser for the release - we are excited to introduce key workflow updates, some fun surprises, and a brand new logo. We invite you to take part in our birthday sketching challenge with The Big Draw this month that is all about cake design. Help us celebrate our creative journey with your cake sketches.

We're thrilled to be pulling our three platform versions together into a cross-platform sketching system that can bring your ideas, projects, workflows and devices all onto the same page. There’s a lot to come in 6.x (our way of saying 6.0+), including many of your top requests, optimizations, and workflow improvements. We hope our next ten years will be just as packed with smart design solutions as our last ten, which we hope will enable a bright future filled with your creative innovations. As creators ourselves, we believe that you change the world with every sketch.

Ben, meanwhile, continues living in the future as he leads the design of Concepts. He uses the app every single day to outline his projects not only for the app itself but for his hobby robotic systems. He says, “The app in my head is about five years down the road, and the version I wish I had is relegated to Tony Stark. It just takes a long time to build good tools, but we’re making progress.”

Thank you to you, our customers, for your kilometers (miles) of support over the decade. We are grateful for your insightful conversations over the years that have inspired us to continue developing this infinite creative tool.

We wish you the very best with your creative projects,

Ben, David + The Concepts Team

Photos, videos, artwork and copy credits belong to the Concepts Team at TopHatch. Thanks for sharing our story.


How We Develop Concepts - Why we develop Concepts the way we do.

The Concepts Roadmap - What we’re working on, and what we’ve accomplished recently in one tidy list. Toggle to your platform at the top of the page.

The Big Draw and Concepts Partnership - Learn how Concepts and The Big Draw met and are creating a positive impact through drawing and creative thinking around the world.