The spectrum of mobile applications available has made designing on an airplane, street corner, or grocery store as easy as it is from an office. Need to show a rendering to a client or source materials from the road? There’s an app for that. The most promising apps, however, go beyond shrinking desktop tools onto a mobile device, as this quartet of tech-savvy designers note. Instead, these apps make the most of their connectivity and portability to create a new paradigm of digital design and collaboration tools.

When it comes to shopping around for apps, many architects have discovered that buying off the virtual shelf is not nearly as fun as customizing their own. And, along the way, these designers have also found that their personal favorites can lie outside the architectural realm.

Self-portrait via mobile device
Bob Borson Self-portrait via mobile device

Bob Borson, Bernbaum Magadini Architects

Mobile technology allows Dallas architect Bob Borson, AIA, the blogger behind Life of an Architect—one of the world’s most popular architectural blogs—to turn what were once throwaway moments into productive time on the clock. The iPad handwriting app Penultimate (Evernote, $0.99) comes in handy for both his full-time work and his blog. “I tend to sneak it in while I’m in line at the grocery store,” he says. “You can take notes or do a sketch and email it back to team members or the office. You can use your finger on the screen.”

However, Borson finds photography apps to be of most use, particularly in relating to prospective clients and showing them his work. “It’s about how I can make what I do and who I am apparent, and create transparency around what we do as architects—to demystify it a bit. Social media is changing the way our business is interfacing with users.”

Borson’s go-to photography app, Snapseed (Nik Software Inc., $4.99) for the iPad and iPhone (Android version forthcoming), puts editing filters and tools—such as aperture settings and straightening assist—at his fingertips while allowing him to post photos to his blog on the road. “There’s almost nothing that app won’t do for you,” he says. “It’s good for getting a dialogue going.”

Self-portrait via mobile device
Lars Teichman Self-portrait via mobile device

Lars Teichman, Zaha Hadid Architects

Working in frenetic London, Zaha Hadid Architects associate Lars Teichmann admits that his favorite mobile app may be London Tube Status (Malcolm Barclay, free), which not surprisingly provides subway and bus schedules. But his firm has also embraced the creation of its own apps, and has been doing so since 2009. “Our website is not really tailored for mobile devices, so the app actually gives you the opportunity to view the same content in a more direct, interactive environment,” he says.

In June 2011, the firm released Zaha Hadid Architects (Woobius, free), an iPhone and iPad app that presents its portfolio, and provides information on project materials, design choices, and inspiration. The office has continued developing the application, adding guides for specific projects such as the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, the BMW factory in Leipzig, Germany, and the London Aquatic Center for the 2012 Olympics. Another publisher has created a separate app for the Contemporary Arts Center (Planet Architecture, $4.99).

“You want to make the most use of the fact that the app is portable,” Techmann says. “If you go to a project, you can use the app to view plans, sections, and details. You can zoom into various building elements to find out how they’re put together and what they’re made of. You can see how it looked during construction and how things are assembled. It’s like a tourist guidebook.”

Self-portrait via mobile device
Sheila Kennedy Self-portrait via mobile device

Sheila Kennedy, Kennedy & Violich Architecture

“I’m interested in apps where the interface between wireless networks, natural infrastructure, and physical architecture are most thought provoking,” says Sheila Kennedy, AIA, founding principal of Boston firm Kennedy & Violich Architecture and KVA MATx, the firm’s interdisciplinary research unit. But, she says, “My favorite apps—the ones I know best—would have to be the ones that we’ve been designing.”

As part of a comprehensive river restoration project in Minneapolis, Kennedy’s firm is designing a free mobile app, River Talk, which solicits crowd-sourced information on the local wildlife. “It’s interesting … to give them [visitors] the tools to become citizen journalists or citizen conservation workers, and to be able to post that and aggregate it.” Her firm is working on a similar app for New York’s 34th Street Ferry Terminal; visitors will be able to view tidal flow measurements for the site’s river estuary as well as the number of people on the ferries.

Kennedy also enjoys using “phone apps that offer environmental monitoring capabilities.” Lorex Mobile ECO (Lorex Technology, free) for iPhones, iPads, and Android devices enables users to view and control live video streams, she says, while Tricorder (Moonblink, free, though now defunct) for Android devices allows users to point to a geographic area and detect magnetic fields, carbon dioxide, and other environmental data.

Self-portrait via mobile device
Mark Collins Self-portrait via mobile device

Mark Collins, Proxy

Mark Collins, co-director of both the New York design firm Proxy as well as the Cloud Lab at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, has co-created Morpholio (Morpholio Apps, free), an app for architects to critique each other’s work. Moreover, the app tracks how the audience looks through portfolios, Collins says. “Google has its own page rank algorithm. We’re trying to apply similar technologies to design. How long did people look at your portfolio? Did one image stop them in their tracks? We’re trying to make that a platform for critique and criticism.”

Collins also has a related app in the works, Trace (Morpholio Apps, free), that will enable users to sketch on top of shared designs. “The ideation and critique of architecture can be really augmented by this device network,” he says. “Technology is going be an instigator of conversation, an expander and evolver. The question is if we can evolve with that conversation.”

With his hands in so many endeavors, perhaps it’s no wonder that Collins’s favorite personal app is Sleep Cycle (Maciek Drejak Labs, $0.99), which monitors and measures your sleeping cycle throughout the night. “It will move up your alarm so it synchronizes with your sleep cycle,” Collins says. “I was skeptical, but it works great. It’s a nice tool for architects. We need a lot of sleep and we don’t get it.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Dallas, TX, Boston, MA, New York, NY.