Building Custom Apple Watch Faces

I mentioned in yesterday’s OmniGraffle sponsorship post that I made some cool new Star Wars Apple watch faces. That resulted in several emails from readers asking exactly how I did that. So here goes.

Custom Apple Watch Faces

Apple’s not big on custom watch faces. In fact, I would be surprised if they ever open the watch up for just anybody to make their own watch faces. Apple does, however, allow you to make a watch face based on your photo album. The idea is for Apple Watch owners to use their favorited photos on the background of a basic digital watch. If you love your dog, you can have your dog on your wrist every time you check the time.

I tested this watch face and didn’t like it because my favorited pictures (largely family pictures) don’t look good on a small screen and definitely don’t make a good background for a digital clock. That got me thinking about what would make a good background. Specifically, could I make something that approximates a custom Apple watch face so long as I’m willing to stick with the digital clock available on the built-in photo watch face? The answer is that it is absolutely possible to make interesting custom watch faces this way. The trick is to have a simple graphic and a pure black background.

Icons Are Key

As you may know, I love Star Wars. So I decided to make myself a series of Star Wars watch faces. Images shrunk down to a watch face size look pretty odd and anything with too much detail compresses into just a blob of pixels. Icons, however, are different. They are usually graphically fairly simple and can easily scale down to a small size for your watch face.

So I did a Google search for Star Wars icons. Specifically, the search was “Star Wars icons PNG”. It turns out there is a treasure trove of Star Wars icons on the Internet. Below is a more refined search of “Star Wars icons R2D2 PNG”.

A lot of icon files, particularly in the PNG format, are saved without a background making it really easy to drop them onto a black background to make your Apple watch face. To add a layer of difficulty for this tutorial, I picked this one that has a bright orange background. I then open the file in Preview and used the Instant Alpha feature to remove the background. It’s fairly simple. Just drag the mouse enough to remove the background and nothing more. When you’re done, save that file and then you’ll have a background-less PNG file of R2D2.

 Removing the background in Preview.

Removing the background in Preview.

A Black Background

Next I needed to get that icon on a solid black background. This is the part where I use OmniGraffle. In OmniGraffle, I made a black square. Notice it is not gray or partially black. It’s solid black. When the watch face displays on Apple watch, anything other than black looks off. I tried using gray backgrounds and other colors and they all look silly because of the way the watch is made. A pure black watch face fades right into the background. If you look at Apple’s own watch faces you’ll note that almost all of them also use the pure black background.

Then I simply drag the R2D2 PNG file on top of black square in OmniGraffle. The photo watch face displays the time in the lower-right corner of the watch. Therefore, that section always needs to be solid black. (You can make an adjustment to display the time at the upper-right portion of the watch face if you prefer but I want the icons on top.) While respecting the area for the time display, you can set your icon anywhere else on the black square. I center larger icons and place smaller ones to the left but do whatever blows your hair back. Don’t make the icon too small. Don’t forget that watch face is still pretty small. Once I got things laid out exactly how I want in OmniGraffle, I export the images as PNG and then import it into the Photos application.

By default, the Apple Watch imports your favorited photos. However, in the Apple Watch preferences app on the iPhone, you can change that to import any album you choose. So I made a new album called, appropriately, “watch”. Now I have the Apple watch sync the watch album over instead of my favorites. I’ve loaded that album up with various bits of Star Wars themed custom faces I made in exactly the way I described above. It usually takes a few minutes but eventually the new images will sync over your watch and if you set the photo face as your default Apple watch face, you’ll suddenly find you got some nice custom watch faces. If you aren't feeling like makinig your R2D2 watch face but would rather just download mine, here you go.

Obviously, you don’t have to just use Star Wars icons. You could also simple icons from your interest (or fandom) of choice. The Internet is full of interesting, cleanly designed icons. Put any one of them on a solid black background and sync over to your watch and enjoy.