Wireframe Design 101: What Is a Wireframe, and Why Do You Need One?

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Most significant actions require planning. When starting a business, you need to get to know the industry, develop a business plan, and so much more. When saving up for a big purchase, you research what pricing to expect, build a budget, and calculate how long you’ll need to save. And when you’re working on a design project, you start with goal-setting and ideation, move on to research and content, then create a wireframe design before you ever start on the first draft of the design itself.

To achieve great visual communication, you need to understand details. These include best practices, budget, medium, and the project management fundamentals that will lead to success. In production, it’s most similar to building a house. Would you agree to a house design without first seeing blueprints? Probably not. The same goes for your visual content.

What Is a Wireframe?

A wireframe is a lot like a blueprint. It should give you an idea of what’s going where and what the general aesthetic will be.

Like a blueprint, it will involve a basic sketch of the layout of your design, but little design work will have been done yet. Think about it — an architect wouldn’t build part of your house to show you the design they’re suggesting, would they? The actual design of your piece will take a lot of time to execute. It involves creating detailed illustrations, icons, and data visualizations in their final form. So it doesn’t make sense for the designer to spend a lot of time on full execution right away. They should first propose concepts in the wireframe for their client to approve.

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How to Interpret a Wireframe Design

Even though wireframes are not highly detailed, the art of wireframe design is definitely nuanced. Visual communication is proven effective across numerous studies, from its impact on engagement in marketing to its effect on comprehension and information retention. That said, not everyone connects with a wireframe at first. It’s simply easier for some brains to interpret the wireframe than it is for others.

That’s why a visual communication partner should stay in close contact with their client throughout this phase. Most homebuyers aren’t expert blueprint-readers either. They need their contractor and/or designer to walk them through what everything means.

Feedback on a wireframe might range anywhere from, “Looks great to me,” to, “I’m not sure what I’m looking at.” Believe it or not, those 2 very different phrases might actually both mean that a client isn’t sure how to interpret the wireframe!

Wireframe designers should walk clients through their vision in person, by screenshare, or over the phone while both parties view the wireframe. This allows a step-by-step analysis of the layout, visual inspiration, fonts, colors, and other key elements that factor heavily into a final design. It can reduce customer satisfaction and increase costs when a client signs off on a wireframe without being sure of what they’re looking at, or when a designer begins full design without being certain that their client understood the concept. Don’t skip communication. Ask questions and answer questions to the best of your ability, rather than hoping for the best.

Why Are Wireframes Useful?

If wireframes have the potential to cause confusion, why take this step at all? Not everyone does. Some designers and agencies approach concepting by presenting multiple full designs to their clients. This isn’t an incorrect approach, but it comes at a premium.

A wireframe should take just a fraction of the amount of time that a full design takes — something like 15–25% of the total design work. The other 75–85% is done after the wireframe is approved, totaling a 100% complete design. Yet presenting 3 fully designed concepts is 300% of the total design work. And since the client didn’t have a basic wireframe to give feedback on first, edits to that full design will take additional time. Requesting changes on a wireframe — before the full design ever happens — means no “wasted time” scrapping or modifying already-completed design work.

Wireframe Design 101 Design Tips

Bottom line? Even if the provider is able to bake in efficiencies, a client is still paying for considerably more time and effort when presented with fully completed concepts instead of first approving a wireframe. If the client prefers to pay for that experience, it won’t necessarily compromise the project. It’s simply not a budget-friendly option.

When a client and a designer understand and agree on a wireframe design, both can be assured that the first draft of design will take them close to the finish line of a project. Whether wireframing or not, remember that edits are a natural part of the process! Both client and designer should expect and embrace edits on the path to a finished product.

Lucy Todd

Author Lucy Todd

Lucy Todd is the Chief Process Officer at Killer Visual Strategies. She is a Seattle native and Western Washington University graduate. Her degree in Creative Writing and her customer service background both inform her work daily. A Killer employee since 2011 and executive since 2014, Lucy has researched for, written, and/or project-managed over 4,000 projects for the company, affording her key insight into our processes and projects. This experience is invaluable in allowing her to lead and empower Killer’s content and project management teams to success. Lucy enjoys managing the day-to-day at the office, offering a unique perspective when a team or colleague feels stuck, and learning from her peers and clients each day.

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