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This article is from January 28, 2009, and is no longer current.

iPhone Apps for Designers

At some point soon, we’re going to marvel at this novel period when most cell phones are still used solely for making phone calls or sending text messages and email. On Apple’s iPhone, the calling features are just one small part of what it can do; thousands of applications are available — most costing $10 or less — that redefine the idea of what a “phone” can be.
For designers, the iPhone (and the iPod touch, which runs the same software but doesn’t include phone functions) is turning into a valuable sidekick. Amid the games, utilities, games, novelty programs, and, yes, games on Apple’s App Store are lots of apps geared toward designers. Here are several that stand out. (Note that URLs in some cases lead directly to the App Store within iTunes.)
How much time do you spend scrolling through font menus in various applications looking for just the right typeface for your projects? (And how much of that time is spent waiting for the software to render preview versions of the faces?) The free FontShuffle, from FontShop AG, is an interactive library of around 650 of FontShop’s offerings. Tap a style, such as “slab serif,” and then an attribute within that style, such as “geometric,” and you’re given a screen full of matching typefaces. If you’re not crazy about the results, tap the Shuffle button or shake the iPhone to display more faces. Selecting one brings up a sample, where you can also type any text you’d like.
Figure 1. If you don’t see a typeface that excites you, shake the iPhone or tap Shuffle to bring up more options.

Color Expert
Some designers possess an innate sense of color, while others need help mixing and matching colors that work well together. Both types are well served by Color Expert, a $9.99 app from Code Line Communications. An interactive color wheel displays color sets in several schemes (monochromatic, analogous, complementary, and so on) that update as you drag a finger across it. You can also view a host of color palettes, determine hex codes for RGB values, and look up HTML named colors and Web-safe palettes.
Figure 2. Use the Color Expert color wheel to find colors that work well together.

That’s great for noodling around with color groups, but imagine that you’re walking around and run across an object or scene with a color you think might be good for a project. In Color Expert, take a photo with the iPhone’s camera, and tap the object in the picture to sample the color. You can then build a set based on it. You can also use images in the Photos app as source material.
What many designers will find most attractive, however, is support for Pantone swatch libraries. Color Expert will tell you not only the closest Pantone match for the colors in your set, but will also point you to the page in the physical swatch book where you can find it. (Keep in mind that the Pantone colors onscreen are approximations, and not as accurate as the printed swatches.)
For later reference, you can store the color set or email it as an image attachment that includes each color and their numeric equivalents.
Figure 3. Color Expert speaks Pantone, just like you.

A surprisingly large number of color utilities are available for the iPhone and iPod touch. While Color Expert excels at discovering colors that complement each other, Rick Maddy’s $4.99 Palettes offers two other compelling features.
First, instead of sampling one color from an image, Palettes can analyze a photo or Web URL (including HTML pages and CSS files) and offer a breakdown of its colors, which you can then manipulate.
Figure 4. This photo of a child in a tutu is stored on my iPhone. Palettes pulled out the colors in the photo to create the palette below.

Its other strength is the array of export options for sharing a palette. In addition to sending an image containing previews and information about the colors, you can attach the palette as a file that can be imported into Photoshop, Illustrator, GIMP, Paintshop Pro, or the Mac OS X Color Chooser. Or, when you’re back at your computer, with both the computer and iPhone connected to the same wireless network, you can launch a Web browser on the computer and connect directly to Palettes on the iPhone. From there you can download or upload palette files.
Figure 5. The variety of export options in Palettes ensures that you can work with the colors quickly.

Palettes Lite, a free version of the app, gives you an idea of what the program can do but limits the number of palettes you can create and doesn’t offer as many export options.
Let’s see: large, colorful, touch-sensitive screen that’s specifically designed to be operated with your fingers. It’s a finger-painting sketchbook — with Undo! Steve Sprang’s $4.99 app Brushes can handle your squiggles and cocktail-napkin drawings, but also gives you the sensitivity and brush control to really paint on your iPhone.
Change brush sizes and hardness, choose a color from a color wheel and set its opacity, and then start drawing. You can use the iPhone’s two-fingered pinch and separate gestures to zoom in or out or drag the canvas around. You can also sample colors in an image (including photos you import from the Photos app) by holding your finger to the screen. Instead of an eyedropper cursor appearing, as you would expect in a desktop application, Brushes displays a circle around your finger (which would otherwise obscure the cursor) that contains the sampled color.
Figure 6. Brushes offers variable brush sizes, partially transparent paint colors, and that tool missing from the portable watercolor set in your bag: an Undo button.

If creativity strikes in a less visual fashion, what you might want is a brainstorming and mind-mapping application like Tenero’s $7.99 iBlueSky. With a few taps you can easily build a hierarchical connection of ideas, including the capability to cut, copy, and paste branches. The interface is pretty basic, but it doesn’t get in the way of quickly jotting down notes and related topics.
When you’re done, iBlueSky exports (as an email attachment) to seven different formats: PNG, PDF, text outline, NovaMind, BSKY XML (iBlueSky’s map format), OPML (used by other mind-mapping applications), or Freemind MM (another mapping program). Your outgoing email contains files in each format; you can’t pick and choose. But what’s important is that you got your ideas down and in one or more formats you can build on.
Figure 7. iBlueSky lets you quickly jot ideas on the iPhone or iPod touch, no napkin or pen required.

Now that digital cameras can perform sophisticated on-the-spot calculations, it’s easy to forget that photography can still be an exceedingly mathematical endeavor. PhotoCalc, a $2.99 utility from Adair Systems, is the left-brain answer to creating right-brain–friendly photos. It can calculate depth of field distance limits; tell you whether a combination of aperture, ISO, and flash power will adequately light a scene; and even use the iPhone’s internal location controls to tell you how early you need to wake up to catch tomorrow’s sunrise.
Figure 8. Take a lot of guesswork out of your photo shoots by using PhotoCalc.

Jobs – Time Tracking
You may use something on your computer to track how much time you spend on each client’s tasks, but how do you record time when you’re away from the computer? Bjango’s $4.99 Jobs keeps you accurate down to the minute (if you choose) without forcing you to recall later how much time was spent doing what. You can set up clients and link them to records in the iPhone’s Contacts database, create job details, and tap a giant start/pause button to bookend the time you spent working on them. When you’re ready to invoice, you can export the data via email in plain text, CSV, or XML formats.
Figure 9. Jobs makes it easy to keep track of time and billing when you’re away from your main computer.

This $1.99 app from Balmuda Design Ltd. doesn’t require much explanation: It’s a virtual 10-key keyboard on your iPhone that, when tapped, produces numbers on your computer. If you find yourself on the road often (or your main computer is a notebook) and you’re accustomed to using a 10-key layout for entering numbers, NumberKey plus an application running on your Mac gives you an external numbered keyboard.
Even if you’re not crunching digits, because NumberKey works as if it were physically attached to your computer, it can also be used with keyboard shortcut combinations; for example, setting Command-Option-number key 7 to apply a body style in Adobe InDesign, which would otherwise require also holding down the Fn modifier on a Mac laptop.
Figure 10. NumberKey is exactly what it looks like — a 10-key keyboard extension — but virtual and wireless.

The more you use an iPhone or iPod touch, the more you realize you’re carrying a compact computer that just happens to make phone calls or play music. (In fact, the iPhone 3G is roughly equivalent, in processing power and memory, to a PowerBook G3 Lombard.)
And with the App Store growing at an incredible rate, there will be many more designer-friendly applications vying for our attention soon. Click the Comments button below to share your favorites!

Author and photographer Jeff Carlson (@jeffcarlson, jeffcarlson.com) writes for publications such as DPReview, CreativePro, and Macworld, and is a contributing editor at TidBITS (tidbits.com). He is the author of numerous books, including The Photographer’s Guide to Luminar AI, Take Control of Your Digital Photos, Take Control of Your Digital Storage, and Take Control of Apple Watch, among many other titles. He also co-hosts the podcasts PhotoActive and Photocombobulate, and leads photography workshops in the Pacific Northwest. He believes there's never enough coffee, and does his best to test that theory.
  • Feelingrandy says:

    It’s all a bit of nonsense really. Fact is, there is hardly a way to change a font on the iphone, so looking at the possibilities and not using being able to use them is—well, torture. Job tracking is the most practical, otherwise these are amusements for the moments caught in an elevator.

  • Michael Paitich says:

    This was a very helpful article, telling me about apps I didn’t know existed. Some are going to be more useful than others, for sure, and designers will ignore those that are mostly useless.
    I disagree with Feelingrandy about the FontShuffle, from FontShop AG. It might be useful if you’re away from your computer and want to search for a font for a design project you have in your head. For instance, I may be thinking about a poster design I’m working on, and want to browse for a suitable font while I’m on my lunch hour or on a plane. Or just familiarize myself with fonts so that I can identify them in the future. Also, apps are frequently updated with new features, so the next version of the Font Shuffle app could maybe even use the iPhone’s camera to take a picture of a font, then consult the database and identify it for you.

  • jeffcarlson says:

    This came out after I wrote the article, but it’s something I would have included: WhatTheFont now has an iPhone application.


    So, Michael, your wish has been granted. Take a picture of some text, upload it to the WhatTheFont servers, and it will tell you what the font is. Pretty cool.


  • Michael Paitich says:

    That’s great! Now if only I had an iPhone instead of the iPod Touch :>))

  • Anonymous says:

    I bought all of these!! What a great article!! – Thanks!

  • Anonymous says:

    Looks like they just raised the price to $9.99!!

    I would of totally purchased it for $4.99, but $9.99 I don’t think so. Way too much for a iphone app,

  • Anonymous says:

    This app really is for any one with the word ‘Designer’ in their job description.

    Provides detailed color metrics (RGB, HSB, CMYK, and HEX) for every color in the swatch and allows you to email your swatch and its color metrics.


  • Anonymous says:

    have a look at this one as well.

    Graphic Design Quiz.

    The app keeps track of the users score. The hi-score is “guru design”. The user can post the score on facebook as well.

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