Branding and visual design in iPhone apps

The purpose of the iPhone Human Interface Guidelines (requires login) is to help developers create well-designed experiences for the iPhone that also measure up to Apple’s reputation and high standards. The guidelines drive toward a consistency, and to this end they encourage developers to take advantage of a sizeable library of existing components.

Somewhat understandably, they don’t say much about branding… beyond this warning:

Branding is most effective when it is subtle and understated. People use your iPhone application to get things done or to be entertained; they don’t want to feel as if they’re being forced to watch an advertisement. Therefore, you should strive to incorporate your brand’s colors or images in a refined, unobtrusive way. For example, you might use a custom color scheme in views and controls.

Apple wants your application to be a friendly sibling to its core iPhone applications:

The user interfaces of iPhone applications are characterized by beautiful images and lush color. As an application designer, you want to fit into this environment by providing an aesthetically pleasing user interface.

It boils down to the question of how much to use the building blocks that Apple provides vs. whether to invent your own. And the answer is not straightforward. To help designers frame their decisions around this problem, Apple identifies three different application styles:

  • Productivity Applications – enabling users to organize or interact with information
  • Utility Applications – performing a basic task and requiring little user input
  • Immersive Applications – a full-screen, visually rich environment (mainly games)

From Apple’s perspective, the launch icon and the loading (i.e. splash) screen provide sufficient branding opportunities for most applications. Putting aside games (and other “immersive” apps), most iPhone apps are satisfied to take this approach, and most iPhone apps look very “standard” in their use of colors, icons and other elements. But even within what could be described as “refined” and “unobtrusive” there is a range of possibilities.

Most applications (like these examples from Yelp and TwitterFon) have little more than a custom-colored navigation bar, with standard text:


Some applications use a custom typographical image in the navigation bar:


Although, this often reverts to plain text or goes away altogether on screens that require a dynamic title:


A few applications use an image for the entire area of the navigation bar, but it can look a little funny when combined with standard-looking navigation and control buttons:


Beyond the navigation bar, most applications use the basic iPhone styles, icons and controls for the main screen content, although many apps apply some custom colors, fonts and other minor style elements. Nonetheless, these apps still feel “Apple” in the way they look and behave. Only a few apps abandon the Apple guidelines altogether in favor of a branded experience.

In the thumbnails below, the Quantum of Solace app limited its branding to a custom color palette, whereas Lil’ Wayne went stone gangsta on the guidelines (click thumbnails to enlarge):

quantum3 lilwayne3

This is where the lines are fuzzy. Within the Lil’ Wayne app, there’s quite a bit you can do, so in some ways it would qualify as a “productivity” application, but it’s probably more appropriately positioned as “immersive.” Transforming your friends into Lil’ Wayne is a game, of sorts.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that when it comes to branded third-party applications, the iPhone does not differ philosophically from regular Mac OS (or Windows for that matter). Outside of games and other immersive apps, Apple probably prefers that developers work within the Apple styleguide, and for the most part this works to everyone’s advantage. It’s problematic when a standard component – like a dialog box – looks and behaves differently from one app to another.

The desktop operating systems have established themselves firmly enough that most developers happily eschew non-standard branded “skins” for Mac or Windows apps. But iPhone apps are trendy right now in the way that Web 1.0 used to be, and guidelines or not, it’s a bit like the Wild West.