Design studios are filled with digital devices, but when architects congregate for a pin-up or desk critique, someone is bound to unfurl a roll of trace. That initial layer of delicate but sturdy paper soon evolves into a stack of ideas, each drawn with progressively more finesse.

Computer software has significantly streamlined design production and construction administration. Mobile apps and the cloud have allowed architects to do everything from documentation to printing from the field. But technology has largely let design conception and iteration remain manual processes.

This void is what the Morpholio Project hopes to fill with Trace (, the free mobile app it launched earlier this week. As the second app designed by the New York-based collaboration of architectural practitioners and academics (who are also deft programmers), Trace is an iPad app that essentially digitizes its namesake. (A version for Android devices is “in the pipeline,” according to the team.)

Though programs such as BIM have been “phenomenal” at optimizing the production process, “a designer’s hand can be tenfold better than a lot of these digital processes,” says Toru Hasegawa, a Morpholio co-creator who also serves as co-director for both the design studio Proxy and the Cloud Lab at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architectural Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). “Trace is naturally part of the architectural tradition of the work and design processes.”

The Trace app opens with the canary-yellow backdrop of its analog counterpart. But the blank sheet is not intended to stay empty. “You can start from scratch, but Trace is a starting point in that you can underlay something,” Hasegawa says. “Ideas are really difficult to pull out of thin air…. There’s always a starting point—a reference point—which could be a site drawing, an image from the Internet, or a sketch that you drew 10 years ago.”

Users underlay an image or, more specifically, a digital image file, that can be seen through the initial yellow layer through a user-specified level of transparency—the same way they do with analog trace paper. Morpholio also offers underlayment templates ($0.99 each, Apple iTunes store), such as rectangular and three-dimensional grids. Tech-savvy users can also create their own underlayment templates.

With a finger or a stylus, users can then sketch over the image on their iPad as they would on trace paper. New digital layers of trace can be added as users refine their work.

Trace Launch Promo #1 from The Morpholio Project on Vimeo.

Unlike trace paper, Trace restricts access to previous layers, though users can see about five to six layers down, Hasegawa says. “If the line was very important, you have to retrace it.” Though people are used to manipulating and reordering multiple layers in other design and drafting programs, he says, the Morpholio team wanted to distinguish between layers intended for organizing information and layers that distill ideas. “The idea of forgetting is absolutely important. Putting [adding] a layer is a two-edge sword of allowing yourself to forget, but also allowing yourself to pull out what is important.”

Users can draw in black or red, as well as erase. Morpholio co-creator Jeffrey Kenoff, AIA, says that the team is considering adding more colors. “We are not trying to be a drawing app, but an idea-making app,” he says.

Trace files can be saved, emailed, and shared with other users through Morpholio’s eponymous debut app, an online portfolio-sharing tool. “It becomes like a ping-pong match,” Hasegawa says. “You can sketch a few layers and then send it back. We’re bridging beyond email communication … [to] have a conversation through drawing.”

Trace can also be used for “site iteration,” Hasegawa says. For example, architects in the field can photograph a site condition that needs modification with their iPad, trace on it, and then show it to a contractor or send it back to their office. “If an image is worth a thousand words, then an image plus a few lines on top is worth 3,000 words,” he says.

The Morpholio development team, which also includes Proxy and GSAPP’s Cloud Lab co-director, Mark Collins, as well as GSAPP’s program director at the Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, Anna Kenoff, continues to work on expanding Trace’s capabilities. “What is coming is two people drawing at once,” Jeffrey Kenoff says.

Hasegawa hopes that Trace will introduce—or reintroduce—architects, designers, and students to manual sketching. “The design process is ultimately the value that architects, or any designer, generates,” he says. “This is intelligent technology for the hand, which can do more than just typing or clicking.”

Note: This article has been updated since first publication to correct the Buell Center's full name.