Most designers wireframe their designs in one way or another, even if it just involves them making quick sketches on the back of some scratch paper. Wireframing is an important part of the design process, especially for more complex projects.
Wireframes can come in handy when you’re communicating with clients, as it allows them to visualize your ideas more easily than when you just describe them verbally.
This guide covers what you need to know about website wireframes to get started.
Why You Should Wireframe Your Web Designs
Wireframing is really the first step in the design process. Unless the site you’re designing is incredibly minimal and simple, wireframing helps clarify exactly what needs to be on the different page types of your website.
By taking the time to create at least a simple wireframe, you can make sure that your designs will take into account all the different page elements that need to go into the design, and that they’re positioned in the best possible way.
Wireframes are also cost-effective by saving you potential time lost due to revising a high-fidelity comp. Wireframes can easily be revised or discarded.
Wireframes give your page layouts a great starting point and a solid foundation.
Wireframe vs. Mockup vs. Prototype
Wireframes, mockups, and prototypes are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are three different things (though there is sometimes some overlap between them). Each one has a slightly different purpose that it gives to the design process.
Wireframes are basic illustrations of the structure and components of a web page. This is generally the first step in the design process.
Mockups generally focus on the visual design elements of the site. These are often very close or identical to the actual final site design and include all the graphics, typography, and other page elements. Mockups are generally just image files.
Wireframes come first. What follows — either prototypes or mock up models — is largely going to be dependent on the type of site you are building. If it’s a web app rather than a simple static website, it’s likely going to benefit from prototyping.
How to Create a Wireframe
Creating a wireframe can be as simple or as complicated as you want. In its most basic form, your wireframe might be nothing more than a sketch on some graph paper. Other "wireframes" are created digitally and are really more like prototypes, with clickable objects and limited functionality.
The type of wireframe you create will depend on what the individual project requires, as well as what your own workflow is like. More complicated projects will likely have more complicated wireframes, while simple sites might have simpler wireframes.
What to Include in a Wireframe
Your wireframes should include enough information to reflect what needs to appear on each page of your website. Think about the general elements of most web pages:headers, footers, sidebars, and content areas.
Then think of additional elements your specific project will have: dynamic widgets, basic site features such as search bars and navigation, graphics, and so forth.
Once you have an idea of what your site will include, start creating your wireframes based on those elements.
How detailed you want to get will again depend on the project and the purpose of the wireframe. If your wireframe is just going to serve as a guiding document for your own reference, then you don’t want to get too involved in the wireframing process. On the other hand, if it’s going to be used by more than one designer or developer, or presented to your client, then it needs to be more formal.
Low-Fidelity vs. High-Fidelity Wireframes
You have a couple of options when it comes to the style of your wireframes. Some designers opt for low-fidelity (low-fi) wireframes that are basically just lines on a plain background with some labels. These include both hand-drawn and digital wireframes, and they’re usually very simple.
High-fidelity (hi-fi) wireframes go one step further, using certain design elements within the wireframe. This might include the logo or some other basic graphics, as well as the color scheme and other visual design elements.
Wireframes like this start approaching the level of mockups, but they can be invaluable in conveying a sense of what the website will look like, especially to clients who might have a hard time visualizing what a website will look like based on a low-fi wireframe.
There are dozens of different ways to create wireframes, ranging from simple, pen-and-paper sketches to more complex diagrams that look almost as polished as production websites.
There are also different approaches to the purpose and reasoning behind creating wireframes, depending on the needs of individual designers and projects. Here are some resources about different procedures for creating website wireframes.
UXmatters has a great article on how to wireframe using Adobe InDesign and Illustrator. They talk about what led the to the decision to use InDesign and Illustrator over other products, as well as how they go about using these two applications to create their wireframes.
Jason Santa Maria has a fantastic post about the "Grey Box Method" of creating wireframes. He outlines his entire process for creating wireframes, from sketching on paper to creating a grayscale wireframe in Illustrator. He includes examples from a couple of different sites to illustrate his points.