Digital artists are a demanding group. For most electronics consumers, an improvement in resolution, display size, interface or sensitivity is a nice added feature; for graphic artists, illustrators and photography professionals, it’s a competitive advantage.
When Wacom approached Ziba about redesigning their industry-leading graphics tablet, the Cintiq, they had this group of professionals at the center of their vision. Ziba has nearly a decade of history with Wacom, designing previous incarnations of the Cintiq, award-winning tablets like the Intuos4 and new lines like the Bamboo that expanded their user base. But pleasing its power users has always been Wacom’s central passion. To move the market forward, the new Cintiq 24HD would have to be larger and more sensitive than any of its predecessors, and more powerful than anything else on the market. Lofty goals, but also the source of plenty of obstacles, both technical and experiential.
What the pros need.
To begin with: a 24 inch screen. And not just any screen, but one that can be drawn on with 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity and manipulated rapidly. A digitizing screen of this size had never been made commercially, for good reason -- initial technical specifications put it at 35 pounds, two inches thick, and producing three times as much heat as the previous Cintiq. When a Ziba engineer set a weighted slab of plywood on the table imitating the tablet’s dimensions, conversation at the kickoff meeting fell dead silent.
There were also the exacting demands of the pro user. Every second an artist or designer spends adjusting the screen or looking for a control interferes with the creative process and kills productivity. So the Ziba team quickly built a number of rough prototypes, augmenting previous generation Cintiqs with Styrofoam and foamcore frames to imitate a wide range of new interface concepts. Then they invited half a dozen elite digital artists to try them out, and watched carefully to see what they did. A full day of observation, discussion and frequent modification revealed some surprising truths about what digital artists need and expect from their tools:
Ergonomics: Cintiq owners expect to be up and running on their tablets in 10 seconds, and they use them for up to 18 hours. A comfortable, relaxed posture wasn’t just a nice feature but an occupational health necessity.
Nimbleness: Multiple modes only matter when they’re effortless to achieve. The tablet had to somehow allow quick and easy adjustment, despite its enormous weight.
Stability: Drawing on a screen means leaning on it, so the mounting frame had to lock rigidly in place, while still offering flexibility.
Leading Edge: Two inches thick simply wouldn’t work. Many users draw with their elbow on the table, meaning the leading edge of the tablet had to be as low as possible.
Blind Operation: Artists and designers use their tablets with incredible speed; looking for a command costs them time and concentration. The Cintiq’s bezel needed controls that were flexible enough to eliminate the keyboard while drawing, and tactile enough to enable blind operation without a long learning curve.
Modes: A Cintiq is a monitor replacement, which means it’s used for more than just digitization. In addition to accommodating drawing, it also had to serve as a computer monitor, presentation display and collaborative work surface -- each with its own height and orientation.
60 pounds of effortless.
Prototyping began at that very first meeting, when the creative director laid a few pens under the plywood slab and began rolling it around -- a small-scale imitation of ancient Egyptians using logs to roll massive stones toward the Great Pyramids. The lesson was clear: when a heavy object needs to move, don’t pick it up, make it slide.
The team quickly focused design efforts on a sturdy but easy-to-manipulate frame that would let users not just shift the tablet laterally, but lift and angle it without having to support the weight themselves. The mechanism that Ziba’s engineers and designers developed in response is a radical departure from previous tablets. A cast aluminum U-frame with a solid steel axle offers dozens of unique orientations, from a high, table-like work surface to a variety of drafting positions, including one that rests in the user’s lap, below the edge of the desk.
Two weeks after the first trials, the expert users were brought back and presented with updated prototypes based on the new U-frame concept. Their second round of feedback made it clear we had a winner. All that remained was the hardest part -- getting the execution to match the concept.
Over the course of the next few months, the team had to draw on its full gamut of expertise, working simultaneously in physical prototypes and CAD models, and pushing back and forth with the Wacom engineering team to solve a complex series of intertwined mechanical problems. The mechanism they ultimately arrived at is a triumph. Its exquisite balance and spring-assist make tablet adjustments finger-push easy. A pair of paddle-activated clutches unlock instantly, then re-lock securely upon release. Together with its frame, the tablet weighs 60 pounds, but manipulates more easily than a desk lamp.
Other details make sure the frame is just one part of a beautifully integrated product. A smart repositioning of internal electronics, for example, shrinks the leading edge down to ¾ of an inch, and allows for two fans and an array of heat pipes to quietly abate the tablet’s significant heat output. Clever routing runs all the wires internally through the frame and into a rear access bay, with nothing exposed. Care was taken to use standard connectors throughout, to reduce replacement costs and help future-proof the device. Aesthetically, the entire product is subtly but impeccably detailed, with plenty of nods to automotive and aircraft design -- see, for instance, the wing-shaped paddles that engage the clutch-lock.
Success: The must-have graphics tablet.
Within four days of its release, the new Cintiq had sold out its entire initial run, and earned Gizmodo’s Best Graphics Tablet of 2011 designation, along with dozens of glowing reviews from the tech and design press. With Ziba’s help, Wacom isn’t just staying on top of the digitizing tablet game, they’re transforming it for good.