Work Life

I can’t design in the browser

It’s a guilty secret I’ve been harbouring for about a year, I cannot design directly into the browser. My creative brain switches at the point when I open my html/css editor (Espresso), and starts thinking in terms of structure and how to achieve the look of my design using as much native CSS as possible. If I don’t have my design to follow, the whole process breaks down for me. I’ve tried, goodness knows I’ve tried, but my designs end up suffering, looking boxy, bland and uninspiring.

Once upon a time this would not have been a problem, as much as it is today. With the rise of responsive/adaptive design (I still prefer adaptive but hey, tomato tomatoe) but it’s just not doable to produce endless Photoshop comps for every breakpoint. Photoshop comps have been a pain in the bottom at the best of times. A client saying “Can I just change that blue, to a slightly different shade” invoking fear amongst Photoshoppers, whilst designers-in-the-browser laugh at our stone-age tools. Aside- Why Adobe have never implemented global changes a’la InDesign, I’ll never know. Seconds later, they have a new blue, across an entire site while we sit changing manually. It’s a labor intensive process at times.

So what’s the answer? I’m still trying to find it. For some projects, a hybrid method of producing a type of scratch file, with a general overview of the style and colours of the app/website, then going straight into HTML/CSS has worked, in others, I still need to produce full-scale visuals. Visuals that are slowly becoming less and less useful as they adhere to a fixed canvas size.

Designing straight into the browser isn’t an option for me though, I still need to go through that creative process in my graphics editor away from the structure of div’s and presentational code, but after getting some initial designs down on paper. Thankfully, I know I’m not alone, I’ve spoken to various others in the industry who all feel the same. Frustrated creatives with no real answers.

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  • Reply Jt February 23, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    I find Photoshop extremely limiting after working with CSS. Of course I do comps there, even if for no other reason than client communication, but I feel much more empowered behind a text editor.

    It somewhat surprises me as well, I have always considered myself a visual person, and I’m definitely no code guru. I just feel like I can do a lot more, a lot easier, with CSS, HTML, and Javascript.

    Photoshop is an ancient relic. It hasn’t changed in decades and it absolutely sucks for the job.

  • Reply Marco Campos February 23, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    i know that feel.
    in the last few days i saw a post, don’t remember where, i think it was webdesigner depot or smashing magazine saying that we should use InDesign instead of Photoshop for the reasons of been able to do this global changes. i have to test it yet, but looked promising when i tought about it.

  • Reply Steve Yeoman February 24, 2012 at 3:16 am

    I don’t think you should design in a browser, unless you are only laying out a bit of text. All you need to know is the constraints of the medium you are designing for, so don’t give me silly distracting images and oversized headers, understand that blends and translucency are becoming more easily available, understand user behaviour when browsing mobiles as opposed to desktop , etc etc.

    You wouldn’t design a layout for a poster on a printing press would you?

  • Reply I can’t design in the browser | StevenCodes February 24, 2012 at 7:04 am

    […] Direct Link to Article — Permalink […]

  • Reply Medden February 24, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Interesting article Sarah. It certainly got me thinking.
    Since web design progressed from bad WYSIWYG/table based design, writing HTML/CSS code by hand has been the de-facto way to create websites.
    Whether that is a two step process, photoshop/fireworks first, or just designing directly in the browser, it’s still a laborious task.

    Don’t you think that all us clever web types could collaborate and create some snazzy app that let you manipulate graphical elements, Photoshop style, and which output clean semantic CSS or Sass/Less ?

    We all use browsers that support HTML5 Canvas, so that’s cross platform support sorted. Bolt on a clever interface that lets you switch between responsive design sizes.
    Apps like Sumopaint show what is possible through a browser these days, we just need an API to spit out valid css. It could even keep up to date with all those pesky browser prefixes or show you progressive enhancements right there in the app.

    There certainly seems to be an obvious gap in the market for a design tool like this, which is slightly embarrassing when you consider that it’s our job to design web based solutions.

  • Reply Jeffrey Friend February 24, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    I can’t design in the browser either, sorta. If I have a design comp to work with for either the desktop or mobile version, I have no problem designing in the browser for all other resolutions. I still need to start with Photoshop though, and wish i could start in the browser.

  • Reply Nicole Glynn February 24, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    I’m the same way. I’m not as creative when restricted to code in the design stage. I’d rather design in photoshop with no thought to how the code will work and then be challenged to make the design work in the browser. I get more interesting results that way.

    As far as responsive design goes, I’ve yet to experiment with it much but I plan to on my current portfolio redesign. I have designed the layout for large desktop screens in photoshop and plan to simply code it in such a way that it can adapt to smaller sizes. I had what the smaller widths will look like in the back of my head as I did the large screen design and initial development.

  • Reply Rakel February 24, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    People design right in the browser? That’s news to me. I don’t see how you could create very rich, colorful websites without first mocking it up visually. I wouldn’t even want to try! At the end of the end of the day, if you want to have textures or anything like that you’re going to need to piece it all together in Photoshop. My husband is a developer and he “designs” in the browser, but he’s not a designer. It’s not like what he does is terrible, but it’s definitely not as polished and well-thought like my designs.

  • Reply Jim February 24, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    I absolutely agree with you Sarah. I have the same disconnect too. For me, it is still two separate processes, designing and coding.

  • Reply Grayson Koonce February 25, 2012 at 9:19 am

    Modern web design is done in and out of the browser. It’s very common to use the console to make live changes to a design – in other words, applications like Firebug make it ridiculously easy to prototype ideas live. When you add bootstrap projects like Twitter Bootstrap, it’s possible to get rather far “in the browser”. There is no hard or fast rule, it’s whatever gets the job done. In my opinion, a combination of both techniques ultimately lead to solid user experience.

  • Reply Kyriakos February 26, 2012 at 5:41 pm

    Ever tried ?

  • Reply Ryan Whitlie February 26, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    I don’t think it really matters if you design in browser, photoshop, fireworks or on the ironing board. As long as what you produce does what it’s intended then your designs were successful.

    Designing in browser is just the latest alternative to what’s already widely used. I can’t use fireworks, there I’ve said it. But it doesn’t make me a bad designer. Creating bad designs makes you a bad designer :p, but a good one finds what they work best with and goes for it.

    So if you can’t design as well in browser as you can in shop, don’t bother. Unless it’s in your spare time of course, then go nuts!

  • Reply John Pitchers February 27, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    In browser design is a process that suits some designers. My concern is always the client. Building something in browser that the client can’t see or approve until it’s finished is risky business. Far safer to get a design approved and signed off before coding begins. Or am I just being a bit old school?

  • Reply Stephen James February 27, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    You can’t design well in the browser. You can edit one or maybe even two attributes in a browser if you are using aids like FireBug, in which you can dynamically move an object (arrow keys, up and down inside a CSS rule). The problem is that you are constrained. You can’t move half pixels like you can in Illustrator or another layout program. I have to constantly tell myself not to pick round numbers for margins and padding. It is a much worse problem if you are starting from the browser and if you have to compute math in order to obtain values. Changing an element in code affects other elements unlike in a graphic program (it would be nice though if you could make objects affect each other–one can dream….)

    As someone who is coming from development into graphic design, I have to fight the urge to develop in the browser. Much of this depends on how “perfect” and nuanced you want the site to be.

  • Reply Cristian Pascu February 28, 2012 at 7:47 am

    We’re building a tool ( that will let you code, design and deploy an app/website in the browser. It’s still in an early stage, but I believe it’s doable.

    Webdesigners deserve better tools! :)

  • Reply Weekly Design News – Resources, Tutorials and Freebies (N.122) February 28, 2012 at 9:40 am

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  • Reply alexo February 28, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    you really hit the bull’s eye ;)….i also have to start my design progress on a peace of paper and then go forward thru photoshop and fireworks until i reach the html/css state….

    speaking of fireworks, you should really have a look on that, it’s a kind of indesign for screen projects… as you can read here

    in my case it does not replace photoshop, but its quite helpful to get done some easy changes (as you mentioned with the color..) and provide a mockup/prototype to your clients.

    hope this helps you getting thru new projects,

    regards alex

  • Reply Do You Design In The Browser? | Van SEO Design March 1, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    […] Depends who you ask. Last week Sarah Parmenter published some interesting thoughts about how she can’t design in a browser. The gist of her post is that once she opens a code editor her focus shifts away from the creative […]

  • Reply Do You Design In The Browser? /  Weblog – Hans van Goor March 1, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    […] Depends who you ask. Last week Sarah Parmenter published some interesting thoughts about how she can’t design in a browser. The gist of her post is that once she opens a code editor her focus shifts away from the creative […]

  • Reply Adam Sofineti March 4, 2012 at 12:33 am

    I’m among those that believe that the tool you use will have a mark on your design. Just as the word style is having its origin in stylus, the instrument used by Romans to write on wax and their style changed depending on their stylus, so does the style of a web designer will change depending on the tools she’s using. Some people will dive into PS, others will start out with a pencil and a paper, other will jump directly into CSS and HTML.
    Personally I spend more time with HTML and CSS and less with PS, but my projects still start with a piece of paper and a pencil for the general layout, then I go to photoshop to decide on the colours, than HTML&CSS, than back to PS to work out small details of the UI and back to CSS to finish everything. What’s new for me is this going back and forth, before I would take the Photoshop version really far and than start chopping it off into pieces for the HTML.
    There is nothing to feel guilty about, whatever works for you it’s the best approach you can find.

    • Reply Rob Levin July 8, 2013 at 4:47 pm

      I’m pretty late to this thread but was doing research on this whole DIB thing and landed here. So I agree with the general sentiment being expressed here that there will never be one silver bullet way to do things. We do, however, have to adapt to the rapidly increasing number of form factors and some of that adaptation will mean designing in the language of that medium sooner than later.

      @Adam, I was looking at your process…perhaps you could use my tool instead of PS for the general color step? You say you’re spending more time with HTML/CSS so check it out:

  • Reply Trem March 5, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Ever tried Fireworks?

    It has much more powerful page/smart object and style support than Photoshop.

  • Reply Radrad March 8, 2012 at 10:39 am

    Like you and a good number of the community, I tried designing inside the browser. But I often find myself arguing with myself. It’s left brain vs right brain. and more often than not, left brain always wins hence, the aftermath of my works tend to look somewhat similar.

    I went back to the ‘ol photoshop mockup (as my guide) and the code it up on Coda.

    Though showing clients an actual live website is an actual plus rather than giving them a jpeg, I still feel that creating a website is still a 2-(simplified)-step process, mock it up in your favourite bitmap editor and then churn out the code.

    So don’t fret, you are not alone. :)

  • Reply Designing in the browser versus graphics editor « TwoLittleFishes Web design blog March 9, 2012 at 2:35 pm

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  • Reply Designing *with* the Browser | March 20, 2012 at 3:55 pm

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  • Reply #7: Designing for iOS with Sarah Parmenter » The East Wing March 29, 2012 at 4:49 pm

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  • Reply Nick Toye March 30, 2012 at 10:25 am

    I tweeted something similar last night, basically I do get the whole design in the browser methodology and how it can solve problems that Photoshop can’t, etc….

    For me though I enjoy designing in Photoshop. It’s a massive part of my creative process and I enjoy it.

    Why would I not want to enjoy doing what I do?

    I open up Espresso and then I have to consider so many other things that I don’t when I am creating in Photoshop.

    I am aware of the restrictions of the web, and I consider these when I am designing.

    The moment my job becomes less enjoyable is time to choose a new profession.

  • Reply Style Tiles and Responsive Web Design March 30, 2012 at 2:10 pm

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  • Reply Mark April 1, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    I too agree with your methods and opinion on the design process; from PS to the browser. I take both approaches, depending on the type of site and requirements I’m designing within. Sometimes I’m able to go for a clean and minimal design, in which case I build / design directly in the browser. Other times, most of the time, I create design mockups in PS which go through an iterative process by getting feedback from my client throughout steps of the design.

    Both ways work, depending on the project, but I feel much more in control and guided when I’ve first made a design in PS.

  • Reply Why Photoshop CS6 is going to rock my ‘web designer’ socks off…hopefully! | April 4, 2012 at 1:09 pm

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  • Reply Brian Smith April 5, 2012 at 5:24 am

    I have to say I am honestly shocked by all the creative minds posting comments here, who cannot wrap their head around working in-browser design into their workflow.

    I have been using photoshop for over 10 years daily as a professional graphic artist and front end developer. However in the last year I have not developed a single design in photoshop. I do them 100% in browser with no issues and no limitations to the richness or creativity I put in the sites look and feel. I currently use a grid system for better control, sass for speed and ease of editing variables in my CSS (not to mention being able to leverage reusable styles without them looking canned or even remotely the same from on site to another, again with variables and mixins)…

    I do mock up a wireframe using an online tool just to help the client invision where things will “live” on one of the breakpoints. After that I work in browser. If the client doesn’t like something (color, corners, general feel, gradient choices, etc) then I edit a few variables and show them a new version. Remember, they already approved a wireframe, so placement of item locations is not a shock for them.

    I have successfully removed anywhere from 12 to 30 hours from my project budgets (depending on the project). You can think of it as removing hours converting a design or removing hours from the design portion. In the end, I show the client a final design, if they like it, it is done. Unlike comping in photoshop and the having to explain why a PS drop shadow looks different in their browser (one example). What they see is the way it will look. Why? Because it is already done.

    If you haven’t given the approach a fair shake, I’d suggest thinking the workflow through a little more and try it again. Of course, there is an assumption that you have strong front end design skills so you know what you are about to do is going to look like before you do it. And that you are not a designer that’s not sure where things should be and make a bunch of elements and move them around for hours before settling on anything.

    In closing, I agree 100% with everyone that says it doesn’t matter what you use or your process as long as the end results are of the best quality you can produce.

    I just wanted to share my side and explain how the process, if done with a plan and a solid workflow, can actually save you a lot of hours on your projects.

    (PS. I do use photoshop for elements. Sprites, textures, fallback gradients, etc. I just don’t design the layout in photoshop)

    • Reply Terry May 18, 2012 at 9:39 am

      Strong words, but no link to a portfolio to see your theory in practice. Any chance of a link sir?

      • Reply Brian Smith August 29, 2012 at 10:24 am

        @Terry, sorry for the late reply… Guess I’m not subscribed to the comments here. I just happened back across the article.

        I don’t keep a portfolio online unless I’m looking for a new job. I also don’t keep a personal site up and running on a regular basis. However, if you are really interested to see some of my work, the following sites were designed in browser.


        All designed from wireframe, to in-browser without mocking up anything “layout related” in photoshop. Did I use photoshop? Yes, for element not done in SASS/SCSS/CSS directly. These are all Drupal sites. Two ecommerce and two desktop sites with mobile versions.

        Keep in mind these are CMS sites and the clients can update their own content …and we all know how that works out sometimes.

        Hope that helps show I’m not just blowing smoke.

        • Reply Phill September 12, 2012 at 4:26 am

          Christ, they’re horrible. Perhaps you should stick with Photoshop.

          • Mike April 14, 2013 at 12:04 pm

            I second that.

            Sorry, but these are a perfect example of the lack of creativity that those struggling with design-in-browser are worried about.

            I don’t want to be rude, but these look a lot like they were produced by a developer (I’m sure a very competent and successful one) with little understanding of design basics.

            The fact they’re so similar also compounds fears that you design ‘what you can’ once you switch to design-in-browser, instead of the freedom of photoshop (or other graphics apps) an then challenging yourself to code your design.

  • Reply Xananax April 13, 2012 at 9:19 am

    I don’t see where the problem is.
    I don’t think anyone can actually design in browser.
    But you don’t have to waste time doing an actual mock-up either.
    You don’t need to fire photoshop.

    This is how I do it:
    First do your research, probably clip things you like, colors, buttons, icons, layout, keep them in a folder for later reviewing. Or not if you don’t want to be influenced, it depends on the project.
    Get away from your screen.
    Use paper, and quickly (very quickly, to keep the momentum) sketch your website. Reiterate. Spend an hour or two. If you are thinking of a color scheme that can clash, then do a quick trial using a loose brush on paper or on PC to find the right combination.
    Then, you are supposed to have the design in your head…Fire up the browser and your text editor and start hacking.

    • Reply Xananax April 13, 2012 at 9:22 am

      This should be an edit, but it seems I can’t edit, so here goes, just a remark about what @Brian Smith was saying: using a CSS compiler such as less or stylus helps tremendously to remove most of the tedious part.
      (And if there are newbies reading this, don’t attempt to use those before knowing your CSS like the back of your hand, you’ll only make things more messy…Sorry, but really, don’t).

  • Reply La conception dans le navigateur serait-elle un frein pour la créativité ? » Webdesign Friday (#wdfr) April 20, 2012 at 2:34 pm

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  • Reply Designing in the browser isn’t the only way | welcomebrand April 22, 2012 at 10:49 pm

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  • Reply Graham Miller May 3, 2012 at 11:08 am

    Have you changed your mind yet? Here are fifteen reasons to design in a browser:

  • Reply Trevor Minton May 31, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    I love the idea of designing in the browser… I just don’t have the coding chops to pull it off efficiently. The budgets and deadlines I work within dictate efficiency – no complaining there, they should.

    I have found a happy medium that is working well in our studio of designers and developers – I’ve moved on from Photoshop as the design tool and begun creating static layout in InDesign.

    The benefits of InDesign as web design tool in my experience:
    – using master pages for creating each screen break when designing responsively, each with its own representative grid
    – style sheets! I can design with global styles for paragraphs, characters and objects. This allows me to give my developers page layouts that I add notations calling out the specifics of each style that I see as an individual necessity. They make the final decision on what their styles are called, but that’s their territory – my territory is all the design decisions about type selection, size and how all those things change at each screen break.
    – This is specific to me, but working in InDesign is a huge time-saver. InDesign has always been my favorite environment in work in. I think the fact it is built around type and the basic mechanics of layout helps make it ideal. But that’s just, I would have to guess there are plenty of web designers who have never used InDesign because they didn’t have to, and can probably blow my doors off with Photoshop.

    I don’t work alone, and I have the immense luxury of being 10 feet away from smart web developers all day long. But, I suspect this process would help any designer who is collaborating with another person to actually build the design, whether remotely or in person.

    Sarah, thanks for throwing down the gauntlet for all us non-coding designers. It’s frustrating because if I could code like mad I would; I want to focus on collaborating with those that do code in the best way possible.

  • Reply Ryan June 1, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    I completely understand and have felt the same way. I feel as though my brain goes into lazy design mode if I start in the browser and skip the design session. But, I also tend to over do it in Photoshop if I don’t stop myself. I generally switch over to HTML/CSS once I have a good grid system and solid visual element “system”, for lack of a better word/phrase, in place.

    Can I ask, at what point you decide to make the leap to HTML/CSS?

  • Reply Markus Reiter June 4, 2012 at 11:47 pm

    Most of the times I have finished designing in the browser I think: “This looks too structured.”

  • Reply da June 18, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    Add some fb, tw (…) buttons please!
    I’ve just read your post and loved it. Keep going!

  • Reply Matija Marohnić June 20, 2012 at 1:23 am

    I’ve been trying to tackle this problem also, Photoshop was a good method at first, but the process started to get so damn repetitive (CS6 made it better, though). Designing directly in the browser didn’t work for me also, because when you’re writing code, you cannot write it nearly as fast to keep your continuity, which kills your creative process every time.

    What currently works for me the best is to SKETCH. Sketch it on paper, the basic layout, se what works, what doesn’t, then start replicating that layout in the browser and tweaking the design where necessary. Sketching is the extremely fast and productive way to go, I suggest you give it a try :)

  • Reply Prowess Web Solutions June 22, 2012 at 10:21 am

    I perfectly agree with you Sarah. I someone the one disconnection too. For me, it is ease two tell processes, designing and coding.

    2d and 3d animation

  • Reply Dimi July 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    I always start in Omnigraffle for IA and wireframes then Photoshop no matter what the project, thats my sketchbook. It allows me to explore ideas fast and come up with an overall style and direction. Then I start playing in the browser. I think it’s crucial to work within a process that allows you to start with a solid foundation, be creative and solve problems, everyone is different.

    One thing that has changed in my workflow however is the fact that I don’t obsess so much with the final colors and fonts in my designs as much as I used to while in Photoshop, since I know I will be taking the concept to the browser and those things are much easier to play with in code.

    Designing in browser early on in the process has had its benefits for me as well, it will often reveal problems with my initial design and will help shape the final design concept and ultimately the product, which I like.

    I think there is a balance between both (Photoshop and Browser) you just need to find it. Never sacrifice creativity for workflow ;)

    Great post, cheers.

  • Reply Responsive design, development en content in één flexibele aanpak - onestopbit October 22, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    […] Sarah Parmenter, spreker, user interface designer en eigenaar van You Know Who wijdde hier een artikelaan. Zij zegt: My creative brain switches at the point when I open my HTML/CSS editor (Espresso), […]

  • Reply dezi December 26, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    Most of you may be aware of this, for those who aren’t Dreamweaver has a “Tracing Image” function that loads your bitmap image (i.e. Photoshop) into the background and allows you to adjust its transparency level. Useful for conversion to from shop to code.

    I’ll ignore the archaic ‘religious curse’ … as for the sneering, nasty criticism of Brian Smith’s work…his clients are happy, the sites work as responsive sites on my mobile devices in both landscape/portrait modes. Some are fully functioning eCommerce sites. They may not have been “designers designing for designers” sites but they were designed for clients not design snobs. They may not win design awards but the clients are satisfied and they suit their functions well.

    • Reply Iain Campbell August 26, 2013 at 4:49 pm

      As other have echoed, a great article and some really great comments too. I’m coming to web from a 12 year hiatus (working in print). Right now I can see how some would advocate designing in the browser as every man and his dog jumps on the flat design/ metro bandwagon but in time I can see things going back to some sort of skeuomorphic slant and for that sort of design I think you’d really struggle not comping things up in a graphics package first.

      Right now I tend to work on wireframes, sketchbook, then onto style tiles and some rough comps in Photoshop then its pinging between PS and the browser (using Live Reload to update my browsers on the fly as well as dealing with LESS/ SASS). I’m torn between PS and Fireworks but my issue is that if you end up being proficient in Fireworks (a dedicated UI design tool) you’re probably going to be bitten on the ass when you join a new studio and no one else uses it. Over the last few days I’ve read a lot about Sketch (all vector based) and again its a similar thing; the dominance in the industry of Photoshop kinda holds me back from trying new graphical UI apps.

      One ray of sunshine could be This is a new app being developed by Alan Musselman who is formerly a developer of Fireworks. Details are sketchy at the moment but who knows.. covers a lot of comparisons between Photoshop/ Fireworks and Sketch.

  • Reply CSS 3 & HTML 5 Links und Infos » So, You’re a Web Designer, Right? October 3, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    […] Sarah Parmenter – I can’t design in the browser […]

  • Reply Amit Das December 9, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    I extended on this article here:

    :) Would love to get your thoughts on this.

  • Reply Do We Still Slice PSDs? | April 18, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    […] best work utilizing this method. Sarah Parmenter recently addressed this problem in her post, “I can’t design in the browser” in which she reveals the “guilty secret” that even though Photoshop isn’t a good way to […]

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