Last update: Jan. 25, 2021. This article has been updated to reflect usage on iPadOS 14.4. If you plan to use Figurative extensively with Apple Pencil, read my companion article.
I can’t believe it’s been nearly a year since I originally wrote this article. It’s an understatement to say that the world has changed so much.
Originally, I wrote this piece to highlight the potential of being able to travel anywhere with Figma—a plane, coffee shop, a bus—with a tablet. Ironically, most of those use cases were made irrelevant due to COVID-19. Instead, I’ve been working more with Figma on a laptop, relegating my iPad Pro to secondary duty.
The other reason for my iPad taking secondary duty was the performance of Apple Pencil in iPadOS 14.0. It took a step back from iPad 13.7, and I had deliberately avoided upgrading until absolutely necessary (which was a few weeks ago). I figured I would update this article accordingly. I’m excited to report that Apple Pencil performance has steadily improved to a usable state in 14.4.
A new app has set the standard for using Figma on iPad Pro: Figurative for iOS. Created by Matías Martínez, this app comes closest to delivering a production-capable experience. (Check out my interview with Matías Martínez here).
I’ve been testing Figma on iPad since the release of iPadOS, and wanted to share what I’ve learned. I update this article to reflect the latest info and testing on my device.
- A 64 GB 10.5" iPad Pro (2018)
- Using fingers, an Apple Pencil 2 and/or a USB mouse and keyboard
- Connecting to Figma over various Wi-Fi networks
- A free personal Figma account
- Figurative (v1.2.2)
- The latest version of iPadOS (14.4)
Figurative is now the best option out there for using Figma on iPadOS 14.4. With Figurative, it is now possible to run Figma on iPad Pro and get by without a laptop. Figurative eclipses the need to access Figma through Safari or Chrome for iPad.
Figurative’s game-changing features:
- Custom fonts: Previously, the only way to access custom fonts in Figma on iPad was with a Figma enterprise account. This option is beyond the reach of many. Figurative lets you access fonts you install from custom profiles. I’ve tested Inter (only partially supported in Figma’s default font stack), New York and all the varieties of San Francisco. They’re all available to select once installed on iPad. For iOS interface designers, this is a big deal.
- Export options: Figurative uses the familiar iOS share panel for exports, which gives you more flexibility.
- Optimized screen design: Figurative eliminates the need for a URL field that would otherwise eat up real estate. Still, it supports multiple tabs. Screen scaling enables you to see even more of the canvas, which is useful both on smaller iPads and when connecting to an external monitor.
- Apple Pencil compatibility: Figurative is the only game in town for using Apple Pencil with Figma. For a deeper dive into using Apple Pencil, here’s a companion article that also talks about a plugin I wrote (Pencil Pal) to make life easier for users.
- Touch shortcuts: Rather than navigate the menu, Figurative offers quick touch-friendly shortcuts to common actions such as deleting and duplicating objects. While it’s still helpful to have a keyboard, these shortcuts provide a way to survive without one.
- Undo/redo gestures: In the “early” days of Figma on iPad Pro, it was really easy to accidentally move stuff around. Figurative uses a simple multi-finger tap to undo or redo actions. I’ve grown to appreciate and use these gestures more frequently.
In terms of performance, it feels like the iPad Pro can handle rendering without too much trouble. Figma relies heavily on the GPU but it seems the iPad Pro is powerful enough to keep up. I never feel like I have to “wait for” Figma to repaint the screen.
Occasionally, Figurative will reload tabs in the middle of work. I’ve only had this happen to me once during testing, but I’ve heard reports from others as well that this has occurred. (At Config Europe, Figma announced that it was improving file size memory. However, I have not been able to see that translate into improved performance on iPad.)
I would still hesitate to cut the cord completely from the Mac. For example, Figurative can’t handle large files. Based on my testing and reports from other Figurative users, large files (e.g. 145,000 layers and 0.19 G memory) will fail to load properly. (To be clear, Chrome for iPad and Safari also struggle with large file sizes, so this may not be an issue Figurative can fix.)
To completely cut over from the Mac, you’ll need to manage file sizes and split work into smaller chunks.
If you code your own plugins, you would still need the desktop app. I don’t see that changing any time soon (but happy to be proven wrong). Any plugins that require a desktop interface (e.g. Zeplin) obviously will fail to work on iPad Pro, but otherwise, many plugins run just fine.
The inclusion of Apple Pencil support makes Figurative the only way to run Figma on iPad Pro without a mouse or keyboard. In my testing, the app is smart enough to know whether I’m using the pencil or my fingers, and responds accordingly. For best performance, I recommend turning off the Scribble feature.
While this new support does prevent you from creating and editing objects in Figma with just your fingers, I doubt that’s a use case that anyone actually really wants. Using the Apple Pencil with Figma is pretty cool.
Freehand drawing performance seems to have degraded relative to 13.7, sometimes resulting in rougher lines and laggy response times when you move the pencil too quickly and/or try to draw with the left and right panels hidden in Figma. Between 14.0 and 14.4, Pencil performance has improved to the point where it can be usable, with only noticeable visual lag if you move Apple Pencil too rapidly.
For those expecting to use iPad Pro with an external monitor, I recommend a USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter that lets you mirror the display to an external HDMI-compatible monitor and charge at the same time.
The Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro makes for a much more portable form factor, compared to hauling around a separate Bluetooth keyboard and/or mouse. But really, any mouse or keyboard should work just fine with Figurative—even wired ones if you have a USB-C to USB adapter.
The Need For Keys
An external keyboard is strongly recommended when using Figma:
- It makes it easier to control Figma via keyboard commands, such as nudging objects or copying/pasting. I use the undo command a lot; it’s very easy to move objects around accidentally.
- It maximizes canvas viewing space and eliminates some issues when using the on-screen keyboard (e.g. access to the modifier keys).
- Access to modifier keys makes it a bit easier to select multiple items or view context menus.
If you don’t use an external keyboard, you may have to resort to some hacky workarounds to fill out text.
If you’re a designer who loves keyboard shortcuts, you’ll be able to manage many aspects of Figma design through the keyboard vs. touch. For example, I use the keyboard to nudge objects around precisely.
Other Use Cases
If you log into Figma on your desktop and on iPad Pro, the latter can work like a Wacom tablet. While there is a slight delay for the desktop screen to update, it’s possible to turn the iPad Pro + Apple Pencil into a second input device.
Although this review assumes you don’t have a Mac, Sidecar is a nifty feature that extends your screen real estate for managing multiple Figma windows.
I’ve only tested live collaboration with myself (meaning in the same file on Mac and iPad) and the iPad seems to keep up just fine. In fact, you can run Figurative in multiple windows (either split or float on top), meaning it’s possible to run a prototype and editor at the same time!
Another use case I’ve been exploring 2020 is to use iPad to control a prototype. By that, I mean changing a prototype in real time by making changes to the editor on iPad. For example, I created a plugin called Slide Show that effectively changes any series of frames into a controllable slide deck without wiring them up as a prototype. You can then dynamically change data in real time with other plugins, e.g. to create a live timer.
I’ve been using Figma on iPad since the fall of 2019, and every new release of Figma and/or iPadOS—and more recently, Figurative—has brought about improvements to the experience.
For a device not officially supported by Figma, this is pretty heartening to see. It’s also interesting to see job postings from Figma that include creating a better experience on tablets. It’ll be interesting to see if that manifests itself in 2021 and beyond.
The Future Is Today
I love Figma. It’s an awesome design tool.
With the inclusion of first-class mouse support on iPadOS and the debut of Figurative, Figma on iPad Pro got a big boost. It’s at the point where I can leave my laptop at work and rely on the iPad Pro for most work tasks. Only large files, a regression in Apple Pencil performance, and plugin support/development prevent me from cutting the cord completely.
It’s definitely worth giving Figma a test drive with Figurative, especially if you want to use iPad Pro to “scratch that design itch” while away from a laptop.
In earlier articles, I said I’d prefer Figma to continue focusing on improving its software on Mac and Windows rather than add mobile support to the mix. I still believe that because I’m still hungry for upgrades such as component states and improvements to Auto Layout.
That said, the release of Figurative is making me second-guess that stance. I had previously assumed that getting Figma on iPad Pro would be a monstrous undertaking, and perhaps under the hood, the jump to make iPadOS “officially supported” opens up a major can of worms and makes testing incredibly difficult. As a product designer, I can sympathize.
Still, given that Sketch isn’t willing to port its software to iOS, Figma has a unique opportunity to widen the gap even further and create one more reason for designers to switch from Sketch’s artboards to Figma’s frames.
Even if the iPad remains on the “not officially supported” list, I hope Figma will continue to allow developers such as Matías to explore what’s possible. I firmly believe in a future where an iPad is all that’s needed to craft great design, and I’d love to continue to use Figma in that future state.
If you want to learn more about Figma on iPad, here are my two other articles on the subject:
- My interview with Figurative creator Matías Martínez — none of this is possible without this amazing app. I enjoyed learning what inspired him to create it in the first place.
- If you want to try and ditch the keyboard and mouse, here’s my article on using Figma with Apple Pencil 2. This is a deeper dive on use cases focused on Apple Pencil and the plugin Pencil Pal.
Any questions about Figma on iPad Pro? Let me know in the comments. I’ll answer as best I can. Thank you for reading!