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Some Thoughts On “Designing in the Browser”

by Stephen Hay

Originally published on Stephen's blog in December, 2014.

Ever since Andrew Clarke’s presentation The Walls Come Tumbling Down—which is the first time I heard of the term—the idea of “designing in the browser” has increasingly become a point of discussion and debate.

As one of those crazies who doesn’t use an image editor (like Photoshop) to create design comps, I’m often lumped into the design-in-the-browser category. So let’s clear things up a bit with my take on this approach.

You Don’t Actually Design in the Browser

Okay, you can design in the browser, meaning you open up a blank HTML file in both a text editor and a browser and have at it. But why would you? Some people really mean this when they speak of designing in the browser. But in my experience, that’s often not what we’re really talking about.

When I speak of designing in the browser, I mean creating browser-based design mockups/comps (I use the terms interchangeably), as opposed to static comps (like the PSDs we’re all used to). So it’s not the design. It’s the visualization of the design—the one you present to stakeholders. It’s not the only deliverable, but it’s the one that’s most important to show in the browser. Before that, I sketch. On paper. Other people I know who “design in the browser” actually use Photoshop. For sketching. But when we say “designing in the browser”, we mean the comp is in the browser.

We Sure Do like Our Comfort Zones

Creating comps like this puts many designers out of their comfort zones. Many feel they have to learn to code, or “think in HTML and CSS”. Those who know that isn’t true can still feel awkward pairing up with a developer to visualize designs. That said, I think that learning CSS can be a useful addition to a designer’s toolbox. Note that in all my talks and in my book, I’ve only ever stated my opinion that browser-based comps are preferable to Photoshop-based comps. I have never stated that code should replace Photoshop.

That said, I’m increasingly frustrated by the articles, talks and discussions defending Photoshop comps, almost all of them citing Dan Mall’s idea of “deciding in the browser” rather than “designing in the browser”. I do agree with Dan; in fact, designers should already have been “deciding in the browser”, for years, especially when doing static image comps. If you design for the browser, you decide in the browser.

So much effort is being put into stating the case for static image comps, almost as if to justify the current (which is also the past) way of working. “Let me tell you why I want to stay in my comfort zone.” “Let me tell you what you other disciplines need to do for me so that I can continue to stay in my comfort zone and do things the way I’ve always done.“

It would all be fine, if it weren’t complete bullshit. And that is partly due to the flimsy premises of the arguments given.

Flimsy Arguments

I don’t mean to pick on any specific article, but I’m compelled to provide an example and this particular article really got to me. Probably because I’m sure the author is skilled and talented, and thus many folks who read the article might swallow the premises whole. But looking at the points made, I’m inclined to disclose a couple of fallacies.

  • The author states that the desire to increase the speed of design and development is the driving force behind designing in the browser. While speed may be a factor, it’s arguably not the main factor, and certainly not the only one. More important, for example, is bridging the traditional gap between what the client sees in a comp versus the end result.
  • The implication of the sentence that follows is that web-based comps help speed but reduce the quality of the design work being produced. Tell that to The Guardian.
  • The author then proceeds to make the case for Photoshop instead of code (albeit with an 80/20 split). Nothing wrong with that, but the author’s personal experience with code yielding “dull” designs does not mean that code yields dull designs. It most likely means that the author tried getting into code too soon, or skipped sketching altogether, or is simply not as comfortable in code. I would agree that might not work out well. But in that case it’s the design process at fault, not the fact that code is used at all.

Code Can Support the Creative Process

Fabulous, creative things are being done with code. Just because some of us are more comfortable with graphical tools doesn’t negate that fact. It simply means that we’re less comfortable with code because we don’t know it as well as the tools we’ve been using for years and years. Which is logical, if you haven’t learned to code yet use Photoshop daily. And if you’re in my age range, you’ll remember that we didn’t always use Photoshop to create design comps. We had to get out of our comfort zone and learn it. And learn it we did, eventually.

For every person who tries opening a text editor and typing code from scratch before claiming “FAIL”, there are scores of us who actually sketch before even touching code. And I know designers who don’t code, but team up with developers to create design comps in the browser.

If you prefer using graphical tools, that’s fine. Nothing wrong with it. No one’s attacking you. But don’t say web-based comps are about speed when they’re not, that the process is less creative when your own approach to it is the problem. Photoshop is neutral. Code is neutral. It’s what you choose do with them and how.

I think code is a valuable tool, and I think web-based comps offer a plethora of benefits to the design process, clients, and teams. But again, I said web-based comps offer benefits as compared to Photoshop comps. Not “code is better than Photoshop”. That’s a huge difference. Designers know Photoshop; not all of them know the benefits of code as a design tool. I feel it’s important to talk about that.

Nobody is going to take your copy of Photoshop away from you. So since no one’s attacking, perhaps there’s no real need to defend. With false statements at that. In fact, for every defensive article or talk or tweet against code, I think about how time could have been spent learning some.

Creativity is tool-independent.

About the Author

Stephen Hay is a front-end design and development consultant based in the Netherlands. He is the author of Responsive Design Workflow (Peachpit/New Riders 2013), a contributor to Smashing Book #3, and a frequent speaker. You can follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenhay.