“What is your favorite PowerPoint template?” FiftyThree CEO Georg Petschnigg wants to know.
It’s a surprisingly pertinent question. Back in the early 2000s, Petschnigg was a PowerPoint engineer — and part of a thriving community of Microsoft employees building templates for the popular presentation software. “Those who came up with the best PowerPoint templates within Microsoft were seen as heroes,” he says. But years later, no such community exists for PowerPoint, or for apps like Paper, which many people today use to give presentations and storyboard ideas.
So today, Petschnigg and co. are unveiling Mix, an online community for posting, remixing, and downloading pages made with Paper. Mix is available by invite only today, but will roll out to all Paper for iPad users by the end of October. Pages in Mix, which FiftyThree calls “ideas,” might be outlines for a coloring book, lined paper for writers, grid paper for math students, or even iPhone wireframes for app designers. These pages might take the shape of a circular template for planning your day, an outline of a woman's dress, or an arrangement of Xs and Os to scribble out football plays. Or — you might just find a grid for playing a Dot game.
In the past, you might buy a different notebook for each of these utilities. Now, you can import any one of them with a tap into Paper. But of course, notebooks are disappearing — why emulate them? — so Mix hopes to limit the number of steps it takes to remix a piece of art on the internet that inspired you as well. "What that flow is like today is you find something you like online, right click to save it, open it in Photoshop, edit it, save it, and then share it," says FiftyThree co-founder Andrew Allen. "We wanted it to be as simple as tapping [a page] to download it instantly." Your downloaded pages fill one notebook within Paper, where you can draw on them, erase them or duplicate them. Once you’re finished, you can share pages back to Mix. Each page retains metadata for the page it was based off of, so you can track the progression of any one page through a slick, stack-like interface.
Like Petschnigg’s favorite PowerPoint templates, the pages you find might actually make your presentations, storyboards, and sketches better. The tutorials and art you find might improve your drawing skills. "One of the biggest criticism of Paper is that you’re just giving me a blank sheet," admits Petschnigg. "The first step of learning is imitation, that’s how we all begin." Like on Github or Dribbble, FiftyThree expects that some of the platform’s best work will be riffs on the work of another.
You might find dozens of storyboarding tools — some of them dramatically different, with others that are just slight variations on each other. But they’re all connected, bound by the original inspiration. Tap and hold on the "inspired by" button below any remix, and the original pops up momentarily so you can compare the two pages. This is important, says Allen, who’s also an award-winning filmmaker, because no two directors like the same storyboard. Similarly, no two executives or artists like the same template to work off of. Paper has been downloaded by nearly 10 percent of all iPad users, he says, so the potential audience is pretty large and diverse.
On Mix, the currency is remixes. Below each page you’ll find a number next to a heart symbolizing the number of times that page has been remixed. On each user’s profile page, you won’t see "2,500 tweets" — you’ll see something like "25 ideas inspired by 65 remixes." FiftyThree risks pushing its language a little too far into an incomprehensible twee-zone, but overall does a great job articulating how a community built around drawings, sketches, and productivity templates might feel. It doesn’t matter how many followers you have. It matters how many times your pages have inspired others. Mixel, from former New York Times designer Khoi Vinh, and DrawQuest, from 4chan creator Chris Poole, both had similar aspirations but ultimately failed — perhaps because they didn’t provide enough standalone utility.
Google Docs is great for marking up a text document, but Mix could offer a seamless way to mark up somebody’s drawing with red pen, for example, and then share it back to them. The app doesn’t include private remixing quite yet, but Petschnigg says his team has considered adding it. On day one, however, everything’s public — all ideas shared to the service are covered under a Creative Commons Universal Public Domain license, which means you retain ownership but anyone can remix your work. And Mix isn’t limited only to your iPad — the entire service, aside from its editing capabilities, can be accessed from the web. Each idea gets its own URL. If you find an idea on the web that you want to save for later, you can star it, then find it in the Stars page inside Mix on your iPad.
Back in the mid-2000's, Petschnigg was hard at work on PowerPoint for Office 2007. "It was a massive undertaking — a new UI, new graphics system, and a new file format," he says, "but underlying all of that was this idea to shift Office towards more of a workflow tool rather than a document creation tool." With Mix FiftyThree has built the flexibility to do both, while attempting to shrug off Paper’s reputation as a casual tool for blotting around with a digital paintbrush. Paper is undeniably playful, but is now arguably the best piece of tablet software for sharing outlines.
Paper still certainly feels more like a playful consumer app than a professional productivity app, but the line between consumer and professional products is blurring more every day. Paper is used in board rooms, and by CEOs like Jack Dorsey. Yet, Mix’s most popular idea thus far is a simple circle. Some users turned it into a pie chart, while others turned it into a cartoon character. On Thursday I turned the circle into a drawing of Jupiter, and then over the weekend I used the circle as a basis for a visual day planner. Then I got an email notification that someone had turned my Jupiter into a dress. "This is a big step in the creative process — think it, make it, share it," says Petschnigg, "because nobody creates in a vacuum."