Review: This Is Not An App is one, and it's rather cloying
This Is Not An App is, despite its name, a $5 app from Penguin Group, authored by writer and illustrator Keri Smith. Like much of Smith's work, the app’s focus is on artistic creation and freedom. As an app, it’s cleverly executed. As an experience, it left me wanting.
This Is Not An App is clearly a successor to Smith’s book This Is Not a Book. The reason Smith labels the app and book as, respectively, not an app and not a book, is this: Each consists of a series of loosely guided prompts, meant to motivate you to create something.
When you first launch the app, which runs nicely on iOS devices of every size, presents a typewritten note urging you to enjoy This Is Not An App pretty much however you’d like. And you’ll discover, likely accidentally, that you can actually scribble all over the note. At first, your scribbles are just made with a virtual black pencil, but then you’ll spot the scrollable bar at the bottom containing oodles of other tools: a paint brush, a smudge tool, a typing tool, the camera and your photo roll, a marker, and more. Among the “more” is an innovative, dripping wet brush of sorts; it streaks down the screen in whatever direction you tilt the device.
When you’re done mucking about with and defacing that typewritten intro, you’ll eventually spot the page-turn curls near the bottom of the screen. When you tap on those, you’ll realize that you’re on the first page of a virtual book, and advance to the next one: “This is a dare: Write a list of things you would like to try in your lifetime.”
If you’re like me, you might then immediately wonder just how many pages are in this (Not An) App. That’s likely when you’ll notice the other buttons at the bottom, if you haven’t already, besides all the painting/drawing tools: a color/pen-size chooser, Undo, and Settings. When you tap on the Settings icon, you get a few options—including one that lets you hop directly to any of the pages in the app. Ironically enough, even the page numbers are paginated; after a couple taps, you’ll see that there’s a total of 50 pages, plus that first introductory screen.
Each page presents its own unique instruction: “Drop a string onto the screen. Trace the string. Repeat.” “Color in this shape using the strangest method you can think of.” “Draw or write something here. Erase it.” A couple pages even encourage you to record audio, which you can then play back within the app.
If all this sounds a bit precious to you, you’re not alone with that take. Though I expected to love This Is Not An App, I repeatedly found it annoyingly cloying instead. I think the book would actually feel a little less so—many of the instructions in the app are near-impossible to follow through with on an iOS device; they scream for pen and paper instead: documenting your entire day one day, inviting others to scribble out a note, making a list of things to do before you die. These aren’t things you want to write out with a drawing tool, and the text entry mode works, but isn’t ideal for any meaningful writing.
You can move objects you draw or add around the screen, rotate text and photos with two screens, and zoom in as desired. The color-changing doohickey offers an intuitive RGB mixer, meaning you can pretty much generate the color you’re after, so long as you’re willing to be patient.
If you do spill some beautiful artwork or prose onto the virtual screens, This Is Not An App makes it easy to share that creation. You can email individual pages, or post them on Facebook.
The developers call This Is Not An App an “ingenious exploration into all the different things an app can be.” I don’t buy into that label. To me, it’s a guided, overly cute journaling app of sorts. The app is built well and works fine. If the content sounds endearing to you, and not too affected to enjoy, you likely will appreciate the app.