Traditional Techniques in Web Design?

by Matt Ward

on September 20, 2010

in design

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The other day I was reading through an article by my good buddy Radu Chelariau, entitled “Analyzing In-Browser Design” over on his SickDesigner blog. The article is a great analysis of the many benefits of actually designing websites in the browser itself. If you haven’t already read it be sure to check it out!

One of the things that I found interesting, however, was the way he continuously used the word “tradition”. For example, when discussing the interesting relationship between working with code and creating beautiful, visual designs, Radu writes:

What In-Browser Design does, in my experience, is break that dichotomy because it reverses the traditional order of things. By tradition, we first create a design mockup, the client gives the ok and then we start coding.

There’s a lot of truth to that statement, or at the very least a lot of interesting possibilities, but the one word that really struck me, and which I have been meditating on ever since I read the article, is this notion of tradition. Basically, what this passage is implying is that the use of Photoshop (or some other, similar, application) is the traditional way of designing websites. By implication, of course, that also means that the process of in-browser design is somehow counter-traditional.

Why do I find this interesting? Probably because I would never have formulated things this way.

In the Infancy of the Web

I only turned 29 back in July, but I feel like I’m dating myself here because I was designing my first websites all the way back in 1996, when the internet was just a young hatchling and Netscape was the king of on top of Browser Hill. So, it would seem that I’ve been doing this web design thing in at least some capacity for about fourteen years now.

And let me tell you something: when I started doing this, I sure wasn’t creating my designs in Photoshop. I was doing it all the good old fashioned way, with Notepad (circa Windows 95) and my good old, trusty browser (at that time, probably Netscape 3.0). For the little bit of graphics work that I did need to do—such as really horrible gradient backgrounds and equally horrible buttons with terrible typography—I got by with a free version of Paint Shop Pro.

How primitive is that? Honestly, probably about as primitive as what almost all other “web designers” were doing at the time.

But that’s not the point. The point is that back then I was doing all of my design (you guessed it) in the browser. I wrote out my code (badly) and played around with the HTML until I got what I wanted. CSS hadn’t really hit the scene in any big way and the used of JavaScript weren’t all that extensive yet, so all I was really using was good old fashioned pre-4.01 HTML.

And the fact of the matter is that I continued to design in the browser for years and years to follow. Even as I started to add CSS and more JavaScript into my web design/development repertoire, and even as I started using more powerful graphics software, the browser remained my primary canvas, mostly because it was just the way that I had always done things.

In other words, it was my own little tradition.

Yes, that’s right. For me in-browser design was the tradition and the concept of actually creating a complete design mockup in Photoshop was completely and entirely foreign to me. Since I was designing websites, it only made sense for me to do so in such a way as to be able to see exactly what they would look like in the browser, rather than adding in an interim step!

It wasn’t until I started to really start reading design blogs and becoming active in the design community that I even heard of the concept of designing websites in Photoshop, mostly through various tutorials like this one over at PSDTUTS+

Quite frankly, it wasn’t until 2008 (12 years after having started designing websites) that I actually created my first mockup in Photoshop. Yes, it was only 2 short years ago. Since then, I’ve done several more websites where I started in Photoshop and have learned a great deal from it, though I have already started to lean back towards in-browser design for most projects.

Tradition

By now, you’re probably getting tired of reading about my own practices and experiences, and I’m sure you’re wondering what the point of this article is. Is it bad to confess that I have actually wondered the same thing? I really don’t have any major point that will irreversibly change the way that you approach web design.

I just think it’s extremely interesting to note the way that our preconceptions of what is traditional can not only shift, but can actually undergo a complete and total reversal, based on what we perceive to be the common trend within our particular communities – even if that perception may not be an accurate reflection of reality.

I would actually guess that there are a lot of people like me out there, who started designing in the browser and did it that way for years before ever opening up Photoshop. I would also imagine that a lot of these people have probably stuck with in browser design completely and never even bothered with the whole Photoshop mockup technique, either because it hadn’t occurred to them or because they were already fully convinced of the benefits of in-browser design.

So, if this article has any real message to get across, I suppose that it would have to be this: don’t let your perceptions of the what seems to be a “tradition” in the design community (or any other community for that matter) dictate how you go about your work. Yes, the community is a great resource to help you learn about new (or not so new) techniques, and to grow and stretch yourself as a designer, but it also contains a broad range of different, and often conflicting, ideas.

As you absorb all of that material and content, it’s up to you to become a filter. Consider everything critically and thoughtfully. In some cases, you may even want to try a new technique to see how it works for you. In the end, however, you simply cannot rely on the thoughts and ideas of others to define the way you work.

You need to make your own decisions about how you go about your business, supported with your own reasons. Make your own traditions and remember what I talked about in one of my previous articles – it’s the final design that matters, not the tools or even the process that you use to get there.

Conclusion

As I wrap this article up, I want to be very clear about the fact that I have absolutely nothing against Radu’s article, and that I don’t think what we’ve talked about here in any way detracts from the fine points and arguments that he makes in favour of designing websites in the browser.

By the same token, I am also not trying to come dismiss anyone who works be creating an initial mockup in Photoshop either. That would just be downright hypocritical after everything I’ve just said about making your own choices and decisions regarding how you want to work.

Just go out there, keep learning and experimenting and do things according to your own traditions, and in the way that allows you to produce the strongest possible designs!

Netscape Image by Toshihiro Oimatsu

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About Matt Ward