SimplyMpress is a typography and layout app we recently released (June 2013). It lets you quickly create vintage-looking designs for greeting cards, posters, flyers, scrapbooks, etc. Below I describe the design process and some of the issues we had to work with to produce a cross-platform app.
SimplyMpress is the second creative app we have produced. It's an off-shoot from our first app, LetterMpress: A Virtual Letterpress, which was initiated through a successful Kickstarter campaign.
SimplyMpress basically came about from users wanting to create designs with a vintage look, but didn't want to spend time arranging wood blocks and making prints on a 1964 Vandercook SP-15—even if it is virtual.
We created a list of features, primarily from user comments (and criticisms) on LetterMpress, that we wanted this new app to have
1. Create the look of letterpress—fast
2. Ability to use ones own fonts (especially important for non-Latin language users)
3. Import images
4. Make it available on more platforms (iPhone, Android, and Windows)
Instead of trying to add these features to LetterMpress, we decided it would be better to create a new app that focused on productivity, but produced similar results.
We wanted the app to work well on small screens as well as monitors, so we focused on creating an interface that would allow as much viewable design space on a smart phone, but still have quick access to most-used tools.
We looked at various graphical approaches for the interface. Because SimplyMpress produces designs that have a vintage letterpress look, we originally thought the app should evoke a similar feeling as its predecessor, LetterMpress.
However, we eventually felt this approach relied too much on applique. We decided on a clean, iconic approach for a few other reasons: We didn't want the interface to overshadow the art created by the user, and the multi-platform approach would require the icons to work at different sizes and resolutions.
Another important factor in designing the interface was memory usage. While image icons don't take up lots of memory, SimplyMpress would allow "open-ended" content creation (it doesn't take much to have a giant file once you place a few large photos on a page) so we would need to be hyper-aware of memory usage in every part of the app. While the newer tablets and phones have enough memory to handle pretty complex files, we knew there would be millions of first generation iPads and older Android devices still in use.
The final toolbar design we settled on positioned simple icons on a single level. The toolbar would become scrollable when the screen could not display all icons at once. We also added an iconic scroll bar at the very bottom that gives a visual indication of where the user is and what tools are outside the view.
In order to keep the icons and gestural actions to a minimum, we implemented an "Exclusive Edit Mode" that the user would enter in order to perform specific edits on an object. This had the additional benefit of requiring only a single finger to perform all the actions. While using two fingers to rotate an object seem simple, many special needs users don't have this luxury, as we learned from our first app.
Having high-school and college-age children, I'm aware how much they do on their phones (almost everything if they could). It was our intention that SimplyMpress could be a useful design tool for students if one could create a usable design in a short amount of time.
The beta version interface worked quite well on small screens. I've never been comfortable using drawing apps on my iPhone, but I could create a fairly intricate designs within about 15-20 minutes.
Before we even considered investing the time to create an app like SimplyMpress, we needed to see if the vintage wood type look could be achieved.
We had created hundreds of high-resolution scans of wood type for LetterMpress, but most of the impressions were fairly small. To get larger impression patters we collected very large wood type specimens (some up to 36") to create hundreds of impressions that were sectioned and categorized into three levels of wear: vintage, weathered, and distressed.
To keep file sizes to a minimum we created repeating patterns from a select group of impressions. Extra retouching was required to reduce obvious repeating parts of the impression.
Soon after beginning development on SimplyMpress, we realized that a collection of fonts would be needed—especially for mobile devices. We decided to create a set of OpenType fonts based on the wood type used in LetterMpress.
We started with five fonts, which then grew to 10, 15, 20, 25, and finally 28. We already had high-resolution scans to start with, so creating the initial glyphs were straight forward. However, we had no idea of the time and effort required in learning the software, all of the technical issues such as kerning pairs, ligatures, foreign characters, accents, export settings, testing on different platforms, and all of the idiosyncrasies that come with each issue.
The other issue we needed to take into consideration was that most of the wood type, because of its production process and setting, uses characters of equal height—meaning rounded letters like the "O" are the same height as straight letters like "H" (most rounded letterforms are dimensionally larger, extending below the baseline and above the cap height to keep the from looking undersized when next to a straight letter).
While this issue didn't seem to matter as much in our first app, LetterMpress (or for real letterpress, for that matter), it was quite obvious in SimplyMpress, which allow setting multiple lines of type, like a word processor. So we made the decision to modify the original wood type letterforms to work outside the context of letterpress.
Here are some design examples created entirely with SimplyMpress.
A week after its release, SimplyMpress was featured on the Mac App Store. After the first four weeks is remains in the top 5 in "Top Paid" apps in the "Graphics and Design" category. We're about to release version 1.0.3 which has several feature updates.