What Every Designer Should Know About iOS

Working with designers over the years, I’ve seen a few areas where the world of a designer and the world of a developer merge very well, and a few areas where they don’t. Photoshop comps that lead to sliced assets with non-localized text on them, storing a vertical gradient in a 1,024 × 1,024 JPEG image, Retina Display graphics that don’t match up to their non-Retina Display versions, and other places where I feel that a little bit of knowledge about iOS would go a long way. So, I’ve prepared this piece on what every designer should know before working with an iOS project.

  1. Apple Controls Everything.
    Literally. Since there’s no getting around this fact, we might as well start with it now. When your developer works with iOS, she’s using Apple’s tools to run on Apple’s operating system. So when she tells you that, for instance, a navigation bar can accept a tint color but not a custom gradient or an image, that’s because the Apple-provided version has those restrictions. Normally this isn’t an issue, but a designer needs to be prepared to provide their art in several different formats. For a tab bar, for instance, icons need to be (around) 30 × 30 pixels and filled out in the alpha channel.
  2. The Retina Display is not for layout.
    I think the best example of my last point above is the Retina Display. When it came out, developers started asking their designers for double-sized versions of their assets. Every image you provided for the original product needed to be resized. But the important thing to note about the Retina Display for a designer is not that suddenly there are two screen sizes to worry about on the iPhone. In fact, that can lead to catastrophe. When you design for the iPhone, you still create according to a 320 × 480 point screen. The Retina Display, unlike the regular display, happens to have two pixels per point. So when you make your assets, you have to design around the smaller size, but then take your assets and make a version exactly twice as large. This needs to be exact because the developer isn’t specifying the double-sized art or layout—in fact, they don’t specify anything. The art is simply named with an @2x suffix and iOS loads it in automatically.
  3. Things Change.
    When the Retina Display came out, that was a big change for designers (and developers). Apple can do this at any time. Tomorrow morning, Apple could announce a new iPhone Nano with a smaller screen or an iPad Pro with a Retina Display screen. If the screen size changes beyond a certain threshold, then developers will need to re-work their applications’ UI to accomodate. If that happens, your developer will be asking you for new assets, and he’ll want them immediately. If you saved everything in Photoshop six months ago and forgot what exactly you did to style everything, it’s going to be a long week. That’s why I recommend working in vector art for all but the most photorealistic elements (like skeuomorphism). If your work is in vector art and the developer suddenly needs assets at 150% of the original size, you re-export as .PNG, send it to the developer, and go back to doing whatever it is designers do in their free time.
  4. Push Your Developer.
    iOS has very sophisticated drawing abilities. If you want the background of a certain UI element to have a gradient, you might generate that gradient at the size of the element, then send it to the developer. If you know that the gradient can be stretched horizontally, you might send a one-pixel-wide version of it, instead. But you can also just tell the developer, “Draw a gradient from this color to this color and use it here.” This applies to more advanced drawing as well—need a circle with a dark-blue fill at 80% opacity, stroked with a 3-point thick, white line? The developer can draw it in code. This has the advantage of working at any resolution and being extremely changeable. Decide tomorrow morning that you want the color of the circle a bit lighter? Instead of sending the developer a new image, send him a new color and have him draw it differently. I called this tip “push your developer” because not every developer is as comfortable as the next with more advanced drawing, but I firmly believe that the more drawing you can do in code, the better.
  5. Spend Time on the Icon.
    The app’s icon is the first thing a user sees when they’re browsing the App Store. A beautiful, well-conceived icon can do wonders for an app. There are plenty of resources online for iOS icon design, so if you’re not sure where to begin, just head to Google.
  6. Standards are High.
    The most successful iOS applications have a level of beauty to them that other apps just can’t match. Utilitarian layouts with spartan design work, and if your client is an enterprise looking for an internal app, are appropriate, but won’t help the app. Your goal should be to make the app successful because of your design, not in spite of it.