Platform cues

The iPhone has revolutionised the graphic and content potential of mobile phone applications, increasing the medium’s value as a branding tool. Scott Billings looks at how developers are turning to design to make their apps stand out in a now-crowded market

As the seams at Apple’s App Store threaten to burst, the volume of iPhone mobile phone applications continues to soar. Stacks of apps, from both independent developers and big commercial clients, from trivial little games to a major music platform, are lined up and waiting for the green light from Apple so they can enter the store. The apps micro-payment market is booming. For digital designers, this is a coming of age in mobile apps possibilities. The iPhone’s 480×320-pixel screen ‘real estate’ and button-less operation have opened up graphic possibilities and a new level of intuition in interaction design. And with brands starting to see the value of mobile apps to their marketing mix, the opportunities for professional designers are ripe.

The iPhone is certainly not the only touch-screen mobile around (handsets using Google’s Android platform are emerging, and others run on the Symbian platform) and it’s easy to forget just how small the iPhone market really is: O2 says it has sold ‘more than a million’ handsets, but that’s in a mobile market, says Ofcom, of more than 75 million connections. Yet the iPhone is clearly the designer’s favourite. ‘It is ahead of the competition and although at first sight it’s similar to a Google[-powered] phone, it’s quite different to use,’ says Alasdair Scott, director at mobile group The Bright Place, which has developed a series of i-Trump apps based on the original Top Trumps card game.

Of course, mobile apps did not appear with the advent of the iPhone; there are many available for older handsets, mostly using the Java language, but their visual and interaction capabilities are far more constrained. The arrival of larger screens and touchbased interaction means that visual elements are becoming as vital as coding, opening the door for developers to work in collaboration with graphic designers.

‘There’s a real talent to designing with very few pixels – originally we had 32×32-pixel, black-and-white icons. Now things are a little bit easier. The iPhone gives you proper screen real estate and 57×57-pixel icons, so the experience compared to a Java app is very different. And because of the mechanics of how an iPhone app is constructed, you’re looking at the space as one element, in which you can hang different bits. In the old days of the Internet, you had separate elements like pictures, text and headers and they all looked a certain way,’ adds Scott.

As graphic possibilities increase, so does the importance of visual impact. Advertising agency Fallon’s visual identity work for the BBC’s national radio stations was conceived in 2007 with mobile platforms in mind, and has come into its own in BBC Worldwide’s new Radio Times iPhone app, itself a great bit of information design by US group TV Compass.

But ensuring stand out from the crowd is harder than ever. The ‘open’ distribution platform of the App Store has attracted a swathe of independent developers – some hobbyist, and others seeking to making a living – but often without any real training in visual or interaction design. Independent developer Ed Lea acknowledges that without higher quality design, apps are now less likely to be seen. ‘I’ve noticed a huge shift in the Apple Store since it launched last year. Getting applications noticed is now very, very difficult. Working with a designer to create an application that’s both aesthetically pleasing and well thought out certainly wouldn’t harm [its chances of success].’

Having held number one spots in the App Store charts with his MMS and TV Plus apps, Lea brought in illustrator Emma Anderton to create a character for his latest offer, the ‘novelty app’ BoomBot, which reads out text entered into the phone.

But perhaps the biggest shift for professional designers will arrive when corporate clients start to explore the marketing possibilities of mobile apps. ‘They are very much part of the marketing language, converging around websites, widgets and phones,’ says Jon Carney, chief executive of digital and mobile consultancy Marvellous. ‘And there is a branding impact in using apps too – it’s part of a whole move from being a message holder to becoming an enabler. In this way, everyone has a chance to do something interesting.’

CASE STUDY: GROLSCH’S WALK THE LINE, DESIGNED BY MARVELLOUS

Marvellous’ work on an iPhone app for drinks brand Grolsch is an example of how commercial clients are starting to use mobile applications to engage with consumers. Grolsch wanted to send out a message to younger drinkers, to encourage them to consume its products in moderation.

Walk the Line is a ‘game’ for up to four players which tests the ability to walk in a straight line after drinking, measuring how steady players are on their feet. Deviations from the straight line are recorded by the iPhone’s built in accelerometer and at the end a score out of 100 is awarded. Low scorers are advised to take a break from the lager.

The marketing opportunities are evident: Grolsch is taking the app to music festivals in Holland throughout this summer, asking revellers to walk the line, at the same time delivering brand promotion in an innovative way.

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