Living, breathing design comps

In my book Flexible Web Design, I give lots of reasons why liquid/elastic layouts make sense. While this will hopefully convince you, the designer, to give them a try, it’s not necessarily going to convince your client that a flexible layout is acceptable for his or her own site—especially if you present comps to your client as static images created in Fireworks or Photoshop. Andy Clarke makes a great argument against presenting clients static design comp images because they set up expectations in the client’s mind that the design is always going to look exactly that way, instead of varying based on the user’s browser, text size, installed fonts, monitor colors, etc.

While Andy’s proposal doesn’t just pertain to the design process for flexible sites—he seems to advocate it for all types of sites—Andy does ask:

Is the fact that so many web pages are fixed width and centered a direct result of clients signing off fixed width design visuals?

I’m willing to answer yes to that question. Not that this is the only reason fixed-width designs get created, but I’m sure it plays a role in many of them. As I talk a great deal about in my book, as well as the presentation I’ve made at a couple conferences lately, you can’t build a flexible page unless you’ve designed it to be flexible in the first place. You may design a page that must be fixed-width inadvertently, and won’t catch it until you go to build the page in (X)HTML and CSS. But if your client already signed off on the design when it was a static image, it’s now too late to change the design to make it liquid-compatible. Forcing yourself to build at least a rough version of the page before you present the design to the client is a great way of checking if your design is truly flexible-friendly. If you find that it isn’t, you can make design changes to avoid CSS headaches later.

A lot of the commentary surrounding Andy’s proposal has been that building pages for clients will take a lot more time that isn’t in the budget. I think this is a valid argument. But, I also agree with the arguments that this workflow method can actually be a time-saver—or at least that the extra time spent making the (X)HTML/CSS comp can be made up later. Andy says:

As I work almost as fast in markup and CSS as I do in Fireworks, I find that the overall time that I take designing and implementing that design is dramatically reduced as I am not duplicating work. It leaves me free to spend more time on fine tuning a design and I’m sure that my designs are all the better for that.

I’m right with Andy on this one. I’ll spend a lot of time futzing with the perfect border color or the perfect amount of spacing under a heading; when it comes time to build the page, I’ll have to do all that futzing over again in the CSS to find the perfect em measurement, for example, that matches the spacing I created in the Fireworks comp. It’s often faster for me to just leave all the work on these design details to my CSS development stage.

Another argument for time-saving comes from Kyle Weem’s response to Andy’s original post:

…you can absorb that extra time spent in the budget that would have been wasted on extravagant solutions generated to create identical rendering where it need not exist.

Another argument I totally agree with, especially if you are trying to create flexible designs. When you build the (X)HTML/CSS before showing to the client, you catch things in your design that are going to be tough and time-consuming to build—either because you’ve designed them in such a way that you can’t make things flexible, or it’s just going to take a lot of hacking to get it looking the same cross-browser.

All this said, this method of showing (X)HTML/CSS pages to clients instead of static design comps is not something I’ve actually done (though I do sometimes show wireframes before design comps). But as someone who primarily designs liquid layouts now, I can see it being really beneficial to the way I work, and I’m definitely going to give it a try soon.