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The Comping Process

May 9th, 2016 @ 6:46 am PST

When designing a website, the first step is and should always be scoping. This scope is what defines every other aspect of a web project, from cost to content to design. When the design process begins, there are three ways to approach it.

  • Design a static comp in Photoshop or other design software
  • Build wireframes that position things how they might look in the final product
  • Start in the code and build using HTML and CSS for a functional comp

Static Comp in Photoshop

This has been the standard for years, which lets the designers with the experience review the scope and build the look and feel of the site with tools the designer knows well. The end result is a file or series of files that are static images that act as screenshots of what the end product might look like, filled with placeholder or actual site content.

Pros: The design is put together using design tools by an expert in design. Designer defines colors, block treatments, fonts, etc, and the developer takes these resources when stepping into the code.

Cons: Not all designers might be as familiar with how things work in a web environment and may design elements that look great but might not work as well. This creates an uncomfortable position for the developer where an approved look may be time consuming or difficult to translate into a website.

Build Wireframes

For a more data centric, or agile design process, it might be more efficient to simply wireframe the layout and begin development with the goal of defining images, colors and other design related elements later.

Pros: Get started in the code quickly

Cons: Not as much time or focus spent on user experience or the user interface (UX/UI) which may result in a design that's a bit bland.

HTML & CSS Comp

For many sites, a comp isn't much more than blocks of content or media that are displayed in the browser using HTML and CSS. By starting here, you're addressing two steps of the process at once. This is best handled by a designer who is also a developer, one who knows HTML, CSS, mobile as well as core design principles. By building in the browser, the developer won't get hung up on margins and padding or other inconsistencies that might be included in a Photoshopped comp.

Pros: A design will have to be turned into HTML/CSS at some point anyhow, might as well start there. Some things are quicker and easier to do in HTML and CSS than they are in Photoshop, such as globally changing colors. In addition, you can easily create both mobile and desktop versions of the design at once using CSS media queries so that the client can preview how it'll look in all environments.

Cons: Revisions, especially ones where the client doesn't like the design at all, become potentially more time consuming possibly requiring a larger amount of work to be scrapped. This is also potentially a longer process to complete initially, but minor edits might be simpler and quicker to make.

Best Option

Depending on how a project is managed and scoped, the ideal solution is to come up with a static comp along with a style guide or Style Tiles. This guide defines colors, fonts, sizes, buttons, and other design elements to be used everywhere else. Buy starting with a guide, a developer or designer knows how something should look and ensures that each page follows the same design rules.