Screenshot of GoodNotes app and counting game with text

Creating Digital Images for Tactile Graphics Machines, Part 1

Step-by-step tutorial on how to quickly and easily create digital images to run through a PIAF or Swell machine.

We know that students need tactile graphics to learn new concepts and we have been looking at a variety of tools used to create tactile graphics. (See Tactile Graphic Tools post for details.) In this digital world, we also want to work “smarter not harder”; creating digital materials and sharing them is a way to increase the number of accessible resources available to educators and students. (See the Book Library for accessible digital materials -including downloadable images for tactile graphic machines and/or embossers.) With these things in mind, let’s dive deeper into a classic tactile graphics tool – tactile graphics machines – and how to create digital images to be used with this tool.

Tactile Graphic Machines

A tactile graphic machine, such as the PIAF or Swell machine, makes raised line drawings on special paper, called capsule or swell paper. The heat in the machine causes the lines to swell, creating tactile graphics.

Software to create images for the tactile graphic machine

I spent days researching various sketch, art and paint programs, along with photo programs, for both the iPad and Mac. The main criterion was to find an application that is easy for educators to use, and that contains all the basic features needed to quickly create images for tactile graphics machines. This application should be intuitive and simple to use, without an overwhelming number of features. (Honestly, the sketching/paint apps that I reviewed required watching numerous detailed tutorial videos and/or reading manuals/blog posts; these apps took dedicated time to find the features that I needed to complete my task!)

After trying numerous applications on a computer and tablet, it quickly became apparent that using a touch screen tablet is hands-down the easiest way to “draw” compared to manipulating a computer’s cursor. 

Image of the GoodNotes Tool Bar:

Top row buttons: Back, Grid View, Search, Bookmark, Share, (name of current document), Undo, Redo, Add (pages), Read Only/Edit, More

Tools (second row buttons): Tool Zoom, Fountain Pen, Eraser, Highlighter, Tool Shapes, Lasso, Elements, Image, Text, Laser

Note: Double tap on a button to see all the options.

Image of GoodNotes Tool Bar

The GoodNotes app quickly became my favorite choice due to its user-friendly and simple design – and GoodNotes has all the features required to complete the task! GoodNotes is currently $7.99 in the App Store and is available for iOS and Macs; it is not available in Google Play.

GoodNotes in the App Store

Apple Pencil and iPads

Using a stylus is significantly easier than drawing on a touch screen using a finger! There are currently two Apple Pencils available; if purchasing an Apple Pen, be sure to check if it is compatible with your iPad! Note: There are other stylus brands available. See the list below to identify which pencil works with which iPad:

Apple Pencil 1

Image of Apple Pencil 1 with silver band where end cap is removed to expose the lightening charger plug.

The Apple Pen 1 as a removable cap and recharges by plugging into the iPad.

Apple Pencil 2

Image of Apple Pencil 2 without an end cap.

The Apple Pen 2 does not have a removable cap; magnetically attaches to the iPad to charge.

Creating a Digital Image 

The video below is a step-by-step tutorial on how to create a digital image for a tactile graphics machine using the GoodNotes app. Since not everyone has access to an stylus, the videos were created with finger gestures. You can imagine how easy it would be to use a stylus, as the tip is more defined than the width of your fingertip. It can take a couple of tries to start/stop tracing when using your fingertip!


The goal of the tactile graphic in this video is to demonstrate the general layout of the counting game and the 2×4 grid. The animals were not included in the tactile graphic. The counting game randomly displays different types of animals and amount of animals in the grid. If desired, the teacher can add stickers or manipulatives to represent the number of animals in the current grid.

Image of tactile graphic created in the video, with an outline of the grid, answer choice boxes and buttons down the right side of the screen. This image is ready to be printed on capsule paper and then sent through the tactile graphics machine.

Outline image of the counting game, ready to be printed one capsule paper and sent through the tactile graphics machine.


By Diane Brauner

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