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Why wireframes are essential for web design

Ashley Gainer's Layout avatar

Wireframes are awesome. They take your big idea for a website and they help you get it all right, before you do any coding.

Wireframes are essentially a black-and-white sketch of a web design – they’re the step between napkin sketches and coding (although maybe you do hi-def wireframes somewhere in there, too). They take the key elements and lay them out, two-dimensionally, so you can conceptualize the design before putting in an ounce of actually building it. The particularly great thing about wireframes is that they strip away visual elements so you can focus on user experience, information flow, and function.

“Wireframes strip away visual elements so you can focus on UX, information flow, and function. ”

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Here are just some of the reasons why you should be creating wireframes for your designs.

Wireframes save you loads of time

Like outlining copy before going into full-blown writing mode, sketching wireframes makes your design process go tremendously faster. You’re able to make a place for all the elements you want to include, and then see how all those pieces fit together to make the overall look of the design (albeit prototypical and in grayscale). You’re starting to make design decisions and get a feel for how this site will come together before committing serious time to building anything.

And that’s just for your initial idea… the fun really starts when clients get involved, doesn’t it? Client feedback can be incorporated significantly faster when you’re just tinkering with a wireframe. Spending a bunch of time in Photoshop making a decent mockup of the design, only to have the client say they want the search bar above the header and the column on the right instead of the left – not an issue when you’re dealing with a wireframe!

Plus, wireframes allow your client to make decisions about the structural things that matter to the site, instead of getting caught up in colors and fonts. By having less to distract them, they can bring their deep knowledge of their audience to the table and help you come up with a  design their users will love to use (and not just love to look at).

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Wireframes help you stay organized

I hand-sketch wireframes at the outset of any site design because that’s how I best capture all the big ideas about a site. The longer I sketch, the more detailed the design can get until I feel like I have a good sense of where it’s going. If it’s for one of my own sites, I can go straight to building; if it’s for a client, I’ll make a more formal wireframe to share and get feedback.

Finding a layout that works is one thing, but there’s also the information hierarchy to think about. When you’re working on a wireframe and tinkering with the elements, you’ve got plenty of time in that process to think about the flow of the site and the way the users will move around it. Making course corrections along the way aren’t a huge deal because it’s all just an outline at this point.

Wireframes make the “fun part” easier

With wireframes, you can experiment with layouts, buttons, and typography more easily. You can play with the visual strength and scale of your elements before introducing colors. You have a sense of how it needs to look with the layout, which gives you something to hang your experiments on. It serves as its own muse, in a way.

Once you’ve carefully considered your wireframes, then you’ve got all the bones for a successful design and can focus on making it all look good. You no longer have to “keep in mind” the various features, priorities, structures, and information flows that you and/or the client want implemented. You’ve already made those decisions, so now it’s time to build!

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Wireframes show you your best workflow

One of the great things about wireframes that most people don’t seem to discuss much is this: Working with wireframes helps you establish your own workflow.

When you’re dealing with sketches and “big ideas” and tinkering with grids and layouts and scale, you get a good sense of what you like and don’t like. Do enough projects by wireframe, and you’ll develop a real understanding not only of your preferences and strengths, but your ideal workflow and the related energy patterns.

Maybe you’re a pencil-and-blank-paper designer, like me. Maybe you love InDesign and hate Illustrator, or vice versa. No matter your tools of choice, working with wireframes lets you develop your natural grid, with the right number of columns set to the right width.

What do you think – are wireframes essential or overrated?

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