On the iPhone a fundamental UI component is the list, which is known in iOS programmer-speak as a UITableView. The default appearance is rather plain but does have the coolness associated with all Apple interface elements. Yet, because it is so common that also makes somewhat boring and doesn’t bring anything special to your app. Your apps don’t have to be plain. Apps can look nice and well designed, but it might take the eye of a graphic designer to help a programmer get there.

Let’s examine one app we developed and the evolution in designing its list format. Here’s an example of the final result so that you have an idea as to where we’re heading with the design.

This app received a 5-star rating in the app store. Of course, as with all design, the best app designs are not apparent. Notice how the design is never mentioned in this review:

This app does the nearly impossible: suggest (successfully, I should add) a four-day itinerary for Buenos Aires. As anyone who has been there knows, the city is huge. Having been there twice, this guide is as spot on as it can possibly be. Be warned, no city is as easy to negotiate as a mobile phone app — there will be dozens of distractions, travel delays, and discoveries as you go. I wouldn’t want anyone to just stare at the app all day! However, this is a great app for helping cut through all the overwhelming information about BsAs — good, clear suggestions you can trust completely.

There’s so much more to developing and designing an app than visuals. Indeed, it’s very easy to get sidetracked in designing an app by trying out all sorts of variations. An essential part of managing the app development process is knowing when to stop experimenting and just get the app completed.

The day screen

Since this app provides a 4 day itinerary to Buenos Aires, the heart of the app is a set of 4 screens: one for each day. We’ll use day 2 (shown above) as our example in exploring how this design evolved.

The example uses a UIViewController with a UITableView rather than a UITableViewController.


In its most basic level our tableview looks very plain. In fact, Apple even refers to this type of table as plain.

In iOS-speak plain actually refers to the fact that the table is one list without any sections. The other type of table is a group table and is divided into sections. You see this on many apps. For the 4 day app it wasn’t necessary to divide the listing into sections, so I started out with a plain table. (Another post will take a closer look at designing a group table.)

Give it some color

A background image is easily added and makes a lot of difference. A golden paper-like textured background was created as a jpeg at a size of 320×416.

UITableView adding background image

To associate the background image in the code I created a property called “imageView” and made the connections in Interface Builder. (I’m leaving out a few steps, obviously. So if you’re new to iOS development then I recommend a book for you: Head First iPhone and iPad Development: A Learner’s Guide to Creating Objective-C Applications for the iPhone and iPad is a particularly gentle introduction, plus it has a fantastic book design.)

self.imageView.image = [UIImage imageNamed:@"background.jpg"];

Be sure to first set the background color of the tableview to clear in order for the background image to display. And you’ll also need to make the cell transparent by setting the background color of the cell to clear.

cell.backgroundColor = [UIColor clearColor];

Work the text

A number of excellent font choices are built into iOS, plus you can embed your own fonts. If you don’t know anything about fonts then stick with Helvetica. For this app we tried something a bit different and chose to put the main entry in Georgia-Bold.

UITableView changing font

And we deviated from the standard black and added a color that complements the background image.

cell.textLabel.font = [UIFont fontWithName:@"Georgia-Bold" size:16.0];
cell.textLabel.textColor = [UIColor colorWithRed:0.427 green:0.38 blue:0.314 alpha:1.0];

Specifying colors in iOS

If you’re a Web designer or work with any desktop tool, then you probably noticed something different about the way the color is specified in the above code. In iOS you don’t identify colors with hex or rgb numbers. Instead, you use a UIColor. The easiest way to figure out these values is just to plug in the results from an online UIColor converter.

Add a subtitle

Remember the early 1990s and Gopher? Don’t let your tableviews look like something from 1993. And don’t make users select an entry just to see what it’s about. Unlike Gopher, in iOS menus you can add a second line (a subtitle known as a detailTextLabel) to each entry.

cell.detailTextLabel.text = [[listOfItems objectAtIndex:indexPath.row]objectForKey:SECONDLINE_KEY];

Since detailTextLabel is a separate property from textLabel it doesn’t pick up the same formatting. That’s good. In the above code you can see how I’m pulling the text from an NSArray named listOfItems. Another part of the code not shown here actually parses a property list, which is a type of XML file for storing small amounts of data.

Here’s the screen with the detaiTextLabel added.

UITableView adding subtitle

Give it some space

The screen looks very crowded. Not good. Let’s give some breathing room to the cells by just changing the row height in viewDidLoad:

self.tableView.rowHeight = 80;

Play around with that setting and see what works best.

UITableView changing row height

I chose 80 for the row height because I want to add another visual element to each cell.

Images have meaning

Cells can have an image on the left side. Images are not just decorative but convey meaning about that menu entry. Since the available space for an image in a table cell is so small I recommend not to use thumbnails. So often when I suggest using a small image in a cell people jump to the conclusion that it’s a thumbnail: a miniature of a larger image. The response is usually, “The thumbnail will be so small that no one will know what it is.” That’s true and it’s why you don’t want to use thumbnails.

Instead, create a small image that is a detail from a larger image. Details are wonderful ways to enhance a project. Let the detail serve as a representative of the whole image.

I created a set of detail images 50 x 50 to go in each of the cells. (Note that you’ll also want to create a 100×100 detail image for use no Retina Display devices.)

As an example here’s a large image:

Girondo scarecrow

Here’s the detail used in the cell:

girondo detail

See the difference between a detail and a thumbnail miniature of the entire image? The detail works so much better.

Add the code to enable the detail image to display:

UIImage *cellLeftImage;
NSDictionary *dict	= [listOfItems objectAtIndex:indexPath.row];
NSString *fileprefix = [dict objectForKey:BACKGROUND_KEY];
cellLeftImage = [UIImage imageNamed:[NSString stringWithFormat:@"%@.png", fileprefix]];
((UIImageView *)cell.imageView).image = cellLeftImage;

UITableView no border

Hmmm, looking good but look closely at those images. It needs something around that image. Add a border. Remember to import QuartzCore/QuartzCore.h in your header to get the border properties working properly.

[((UIImageView *)cell.imageView).layer setBorderColor:[[UIColor grayColor] CGColor]];
[((UIImageView *)cell.imageView).layer setBorderWidth: 2.0];

Careful use of images on the left-side of a cell can make a huge difference in improving the design.

Don’t forget to change the selected highlight color

You’ve gone to all this trouble to add a nice golden palette to your screen, so you want to be sure and change the color used to highlight the menu when touched. If not, you’ll get the default blue:

Yikes. Continue in the method where you customize the tableview cells

- (UITableViewCell *)tableView:(UITableView *)tablesView cellForRowAtIndexPath:(NSIndexPath *)indexPath

Add the code:

UIView *goldenColor = [[[UIView alloc] init] autorelease];
goldenColor.backgroundColor = [UIColor colorWithRed:0.824 green:0.749    blue:0.553 alpha:0.70];
cell.selectedBackgroundView = goldenColor;

And the final result:

That’s it. Remember this isn’t a step-by-step tutorial but assumes you have a working knowledge of Objective-C and the iOS SDK. That’s not the hard part. The trick is figuring out the design.