Once in a while, an app comes along that’s so cool and does what it does so well that John Gruber writes about it on Daring Fireball. Usually, he knows what’s good. One of his more recent picks was Photolettering. The iPhone-exclusive app is really simple: Take a picture or use one of the shots in your library and touch it up with some great typography and a couple simple filters.
I’ve heard of apps like this before, but Photolettering is supposedly the simplest one in the business. What makes this app work so well? How easy is it to use? Read on to find out.
Keep It Simple, Stupid
Photolettering has an interface that’s just plain simple. A question mark hovers on the top left of the screen at nearly all times in case you have any problems figuring things out, but trust me when I tell you that you won’t. The app is so easy to use that my own mother wouldn’t have problems with it, which is a compliment to the designers.
Tap the Camera button to snap a picture or tap the Gallery button to add a picture. From here you can adjust the typography, move the words around, choose the colours and even choose from a couple filters to process the image with. It’s simple as pie; it actually felt to me like it wasn’t complicated enough. I wanted a drop shadow, but it wasn’t part of the font that I used. I felt like there should have been a couple more steps to make my adjustments. That’s not a complaint, that’s just a note of how easy it is to use. Even I’m impressed.
Within the app, there are a fair bit of choices. When it comes to choosing colours for the typography, you can choose what felt like an endless amount. It was like I was looking at every variant of letter colour under the rainbow and then some, but it never felt overwhelming. The picture felt truly customized by the time I was done, but I felt like I hadn’t really done much work. I wish I could say that for all the photo apps I come across.
The real star of the show is the fonts though. The developer, House Industries, is actually a design studio that specializes in fantastic typography. Photolettering, in that sense, is an app made especially for design snobs: This is the sort of app that Apple would want to acquire for the typography and fonts alone because the postcards would make great “You can do this with your phone!?” demoes.
Breaking Your Bank in the App
There’s another issue at hand, though. At the time of this writing, three fonts come with the app. They’re pretty versatile ones, and I think most people would be able to get by with them the majority of the time. That’s a loaded sentence, so let me break that down and put it as simply as possible: anybody who’s geeky enough to want this app based on the developer’s street cred is going to want more of the fonts sooner or later. There are twenty-one in the app, and they come at a hefty $0.99 each, or $10 for the whole package.
It’s hard to justify that kind of value. If you’re not a frequent traveller, I’m not sure you have a reason to pick up all of the in-app purchases. And $10 is a decent amount of cash to fork over for some fonts for most people. Granted, some developers are used to this, but the average person? I’m not sure if they’ll bite or even want to bite. In fact, most people are likely going to be happy with the 80-million colour choices (I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect, but it feels like there’s that many) and the three available font choices. I’d guess that 90 percent of my friends would certainly be happy with that. Most people are likely going to get perturbed by in-app purchases to the point that they might not even use the app.
One of my colleagues suggested Over as an alternative, but Over comes at an entry cost of a couple dollars and still offers a limited selection of fonts (although they admittedly offer more through in-app purchases than Photolettering). I haven’t had the opportunity to play with Over, but I haven’t heard the same raving reviews of their typefaces as I have Photolettering’s (and I’m also not positive that Over allows you to send postcards). From the designer’s perspective, Photolettering is a dream — but most people don’t care about the designer’s prospective. I would recommend weighing your options before investing into either app.
I showed the app to a large variety of friends and got a great conversation going about it on Facebook. I never look for people’s opinions on the apps that I’m reviewing, but I knew that there would be some interesting conversation about the merits of typography and in-app purchases. Most of them were surprised at the high cost of the typefaces. Even the ones who weren’t surprised didn’t seem interested in spending $10 on fonts, but most of my friends don’t have instant uses for them. After all, who is this app for?
Obviously, Photolettering is great for travellers. If you’re out of the country, sending a postcard with “Wish You Were Here” written on it in gorgeous lettering with a fantastic picture you took yourself is a one-of-a-kind gift idea. Beyond that though, I’m not sure there’s much of a use for the app. I’m not an Instagram user; I feel it’s one social network too many for my liking, and I like the idea of using this as an Instagram replacement of sorts. But there just aren’t that many filters. Photolettering features four filters, which is frankly not enough for any Instagram (or even Flickr) junkie.
The Bottom Line
Photolettering is really good at what it does. Simply put, this app is drop-dead simple to use. But it’s not necessarily something I think you need to whip out your iPhone for and download right away. It suits a niche. It has a lot of limitations and a lot of in-app compromises. Every design decision is a compromise, and these are the ones the developer chose to make. Most of them keep the app as simple as possible. I can’t stress how easy this is to use. But that doesn’t mean that the purchasable fonts in the app, despite their beauty, are going to be worth your hard-earned cash. This is an app for geeks. It’s a beautiful app, but it serves a niche. If Photolettering fits that niche in your life, I’d recommend it for its sheer simplicity alone.