TECH

FiftyThree CEO Georg Petschnigg Interview: 'Mix' Is Instagram For The Soul

07/11/2014 13:56 GMT | Updated 25/11/2014 10:59 GMT

When Apple unveiled its Watch in September, there were thousands of websites and social networks where you could read updates from the event in real time. There were live blogs and Twitter wags, live streams and video chats.

But there was only one place where you can watch people draw it happening.

That place was Mix, the creativity community which now forms the "backbone" of FiftyThree, itself the company behind the award-winning drawing app Paper and the digital stylus Pencil.

And to get a sense of what Mix, Paper and Fifty-Three are all about, it's worth spending a few minutes looking at the iPhone 6 announcement remix page. One person drew themselves waking up like a zombie in the Philippines in time to watch the event. Others drew beautiful illustrations of the watch. Some joked about how a new version of Paper for a two-inch screen might look, or asked questions about its use in the classroom or sketched Apple CEO Tim Cook.

It's a kaleidoscope of creativity, positivity and art. It's various, and sort of a mess, but it's also consistent. And on September 9 it had coverage of events from Cupertino that was utterly different from anywhere else on the web. It did what every tech website on the planet, including us, was trying to do, by magic.

"That's what's great about humans," says Georg Petschnigg, CEO of FiftyThree, and co-founder alongside Jon Harris, Andrew Allen and Julian Walker. "They surprise you. At some point the level of finish and quality people are able to achieve is just a testament to creativity."

How 'Mix' works. Images by Blaze Sewalson, Santi Ekaut, ERO, Andrea Ferraroli, Maricela Borrero.

I meet Georg a coffee place on London's Charlotte Street so hip they have barely finished hoisting the hand-panted artisanal ship sign outside (I chose the venue, alas). But before Georg had even begun to describe how he sees the current incarnation of FiftyThree ("we're an experiences company that wants to make creativity more accessible") it was already clear that he is a man driven by more than just start-up talk. He comments with an artist's eye on the nightmarishly dense Americano delivered to me ("it's just… the blackest black"). He notices with a mixture of familiarity (as a former Microsoft manager) and sympathy that I am taking notes on a (sigh) Surface Pro 3.

And it's not long before he is holding his iPad and Pencil, and demonstrating how the app now replicates layering of graphite. It doesn't just overlay areas you've already drawn on, it deepens and thickens the shade by careful degrees. This small thing is itself a feat of both engineering and design vision.

"When you look at the Pencil, the tip, the side, the eraser, each side is doing something different. And it does it in a very instinctive way," he said.

"I think it is more a testament to the hand, and our ability to finely control instruments, and that is something that has been lost in touch displays. We're seven years in on the big touch display revolution and for us it's time to bring the tools back."

georg petschnigg

FiftyThree CEO Georg Petschnigg

FiftyThree's tools have been unique from the very first day Paper hit the App Store. Its signature tools start from familiar places (a pen, a pencil, watercolours) but they way they work is utterly unique. They are both realistic (the watercolour bleeds and shifts delightfully, you work in 'notebooks' with pages), but also idiosyncratic. The Pen creates thicker lines the faster you move, for instance, which might seem intuitive but runs counter to the reality of working with ink. You literally mix colours rather than selecting them, and rotate the screen with your fingers to undo. It's imprecise (this is the iPad, and not a Wacom Cintiq) but totally beguiling. And it's no surprise to learn that for every software engineer in the 48-strong FiftyThree team, there is also one designer.

It's so good that sometimes I find it hard to understand why Apple hasn't signed a blank check to buy this genius thing outright, and put the app onto every iPad by default - and not just the impressive 5-10% who have installed it by choice.

Pencil is the first of FiftyThree's physical tools, and it too has been a success (it's currently the best-reviewed and selling stylus of its kind on Amazon). I reviewed it and loved it. But to me it still feels like a first try. You sense there are more tools coming, including - though Georg won't comment - maybe something for the iPhone.

"When we look at the iPhone 6 we think 'that's a really nice large screen'," he said.

"It's really just interpreting what makes most sense [for an iPhone screen]. What role does the phone play? At this point it's clear that the phone is a device that plays in your creative process for sure, and it has with cameras and also some drawing, but we think it could be more."

What seems clear is that for FiftyThree, the question is not whether they can shrink Paper onto the iPhone, but how they can interpret creativity itself and develop products that enable it - regardless of device.

"You need people, tools, and ideas. They're all there [in Paper, Pencil and Mix]. So now as we evolve we look at how the tool set affects the people you can bring in, what are the other creative dimensions?" explains Georg.

"So far it's just 2D only, there are no images, no 3D, no Smell-o-vision, no taste. Imagine if we were to build a creative tool for cooks? I'm not saying that is what we're going to do but when I look at the potential for human creativity and the advance of technology... Creativity is one resource that is going to get better and better. It improves with age, it's something where the human has a limitless ability to adopt and evolve."

Reading that might raise your anti-PR fluff shields to maximum. But to talk to Georg in person, it feels true to say that FiftyThree is not about any of its current or future products, but something larger. It's about capturing and riffing on inspiration. About convincing people to pick up a pencil (or a Pencil) and dive into a world of drawing, sketching and collaborating creatively that they may feel they have been 'outside' since school. And not for profit, necessarily, but because it's an objectively Good Thing to do.

"By the time you graduate people think they're not creative. That's so shocking to me," he explains. "We've evolved as a species these giant brains, two hands, fantastic education, we are relatively free of risks of we have plenty of food, and we've reached a point where people are saying they are not creative. What else are we doing?"

The idea of Mix, and Paper, is to get this stuff that's latent inside you, out:

"Instagram is the stuff that's around you. Mix is the one place where you can see what's inside of you, what they think about, what they think is interesting. It's the closest you've ever been able to peer into someone's mind, across the world. You can't do this with words and language because you might not be able to understand it."

And while there are certainly extreme artistic talents using Paper, Mix really isn't about celebrating excellence so much as welcoming engagement, and inspiring collaboration.

"I think ideas really are a dime a dozen, they come and go," Georg says. "What you keep from project to project is a team, people you work with and collaborate with. That's the joy of creativity, when you have collaborators whom you move forward or who move forward. Mix is really set up to do that."

georg petschnigg

Enabling this collaboration - you can literally copy and draw all over someone else's work on Mix - requires both legal and social effort. Mix requires a Creative Commons-style license for users' work, and is managed by a community team who watch out for (apparently very rare) problems between users. And to some extent, FiftyThree is still figuring that out. "It is a cultural change we have to bring about," Georg said. "We don't know really how to collaborate on digital projects at that scale... It's being learned and you can see it on Mix."

The future of FiftyThree is bright, and while it has approached new product releases and feature requests if not slowly, then deliberately, over the past few years it's still clearly brimming with ideas. One of the most intriguing is FiftyThree's plans for enterprise software, and how to bring its philosophy of creativity into the work environment.

"We're very focused on the consumer space. But we think some of the biggest impact our tools will have is in enterprise. That's a longer process for us to get there but we will do that," Georg said.

"When you look at the creative tools of the enterprise, you have OneNote and Powerpoint. That's the pinnacle of creativity in enterprise. And I speak as having worked on those tools for many, many years, I know it. It's a truly creative outlet for people in those jobs to use Powerpoint. And I think that's not the purpose of that tool. The purpose is to sell, pitch, be persuasive. That's not what creativity is about. It's about thinking, finding something new and inviting in the dialogue."

How might this work? Perhaps like this 'Sketchnote' of a recent speech by Georg in Vienna:

But despite those ideas and ambitions, the point of FiftyThree is not to become the next Microsoft Office, or Adobe Creative Suite.

The mission of the company appears to be something more discrete, but also more profound than that.

"If you look at Adobe, they're serving professional content creators very well" Georg said. "But we want to be more like Nike. We want to be like fitness for everyone - creativity for everyone. That's our direction."