Wireframing is a major step in designing any user interface whether a website, application or software product. Without distraction in the form of visuals, colours, typography, styles and effects you can be more focused on defining content hierarchy and user experience.
Doing low fidelity wireframes and prototypes will help you test and iterate more often and in earlier phases, work faster and develop products that your users will love.
There are a lot of different wireframing tools to choose from in the wild. Which one you choose will depend on your personal preferences and workflow style.
Just like a lot of designers moving to digital design from the print world, I’m an expert in the Adobe applications like Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop. I can use them efficiently, everywhere and at any time (even if someone wakes me up in the middle of the night and refuses to give me a cup of coffee). However, these have also become the tools I use to do web and application visual design. So, for my workflow to be the most efficient I use them for wireframing too.
With every project, I usually start designing by doing very rough sketches on paper, or lately more often, if not near my office desk, on my iPad or smartphone screen. These sketches are there only to focus my thoughts regarding the chosen concept and the client will probably never see any of them. When I feel confident enough that my idea works, I jump right away into wireframing. I usually use Adobe Illustrator and InDesign combined. Illustrator for creating most of the UI kit elements and InDesign for wireframing itself.
In this article, I’ll explain a step by step process of how to incorporate those tools into your wireframing workflow as well. But, before I go into details, let me show you what the strengths and weaknesses are of using InDesign as a primary wireframing tool.
The Pros and Cons of Using Adobe InDesign as a Wireframe and Prototyping Tool
For some time now Adobe InDesign has been not only a desktop publishing application, but it’s also widely used for digital publishing and EPUB creation, and there are also some reasons why it is a suitable tool for wireframing too:
- Master pages – You can quickly and consistently apply global design elements like navigation, headers, footers and so on. You can create as many master pages as you need, and on top of it, one master can be based on another.
- Solid grid support – Allows you to create easily and apply different kinds of grids, complementing columns, horizontal and vertical guides to create modules, and subgrids for greater complexity and precision.
- Alternate layouts – Enables wireframes for multiple devices and orientations in the same file.
- CC Libraries – Give easy access and reuse different assets like commonly used objects, colours, character and paragraph styles. Create assets in InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop or with the Adobe Capture mobile app, whichever you prefer.
- Layers – Provide you the ability to organize, group, show/hide and lock/unlock objects and content selectively in the wireframe. Every page of a multi-page InDesign document has the same number and order of layers. All of the changes you make to layers are reflected on all pages, like visibility, stacking order or deletion.
- Styles and tables – Give complete control over the look of your text, objects and tables through the use of InDesign styles. Styles can be based on each other providing the ability to cascade desired formatting easily throughout the document. Creation and formatting of tables that you can use as wireframe content elements or even helpers for layout purpose is very simple.
- Typekit integration – In high fidelity mock-ups, you can use any of the Typekit fonts that sync to the desktop.
- Interactivity and animations – You can use Adobe InDesign built-in interactivity and animation features to create different states of the web or application design for interaction. Most people use these features while creating magazines for Digital Publishing Solution and fixed layout EPUB export but they can be suited for prototyping as well.
- Export options – InDesign can export the wireframes and prototypes you create in a variety of formats. Interactive PDF will probably be your format of choice in the majority of cases, but you can also use quite new Publish Online Feature to convert your document to interactive HTML that can be viewed in modern desktop and mobile browsers. Unfortunately, you don’t have any control over the export using Publish Online, and exported file is hosted on Adobe servers. You can share the prototype URL to your client, or embed it into your site. For more control and direct export to HTML5 you can use the in5 extension from Ajar Productions.
Adobe InDesign has many pros to be used as a wireframe and prototyping tool, but it also has some disadvantages:
- Lack of predefined wireframe templates and elements – Since InDesign is not meant to be a wireframing tool, you have to create and prepare templates and object assets by yourself. (I’ll show you how to make that preparation step later in this article.) The good news is that most of this work will be done only once and after a few hours of work you’ll be ready to jump start your InDesign wireframing. Also, there are a lot of assets and wireframe kits that you can download from the internet, so there is no need to draw everything yourself.
- Interactivity and animation features are limited and can be time-consuming – Although you can easily connect pages and add some interactivity and animations that process sometimes takes a long time. Some of the simple interactions can not be achieved simply, and you have to figure out how to do it. If you haven’t been using InDesign interactivity features yet, you’ll have a slight learning curve before you’ll be able to apply them efficiently.
- InDesign documents can’t export directly as layered PSD files – If you do your visual design in Adobe Photoshop and want to have separated wireframe elements from building your design on, then you have to export your wireframes to PDF first, then open that PDF in Illustrator and export as layered PSD. People working on the Mac can also use a free script written by Rob Day to save InDesign files as a layered PSD.
Good Wireframe Preparation is Half of the Work
Start by fine tuning your working environment. If you do not already have a saved Workspace in Illustrator and InDesign for this kind of work, create one. In Illustrator start with predefined Web workspace and adapt it to your convenience: close panels you will not use often and open the ones you will, then rearrange them to suit your work style. When done, save the workspace by choosing Window > Workspace > New Workspace… Do the same thing in InDesign using Digital Publishing workspace as a starter.
Assembling Wireframe/Mockup/Prototype Kits
Efficient wireframing workflow using Illustrator and InDesign requests that you invest some time in making your user interface assets kit first. Since the introduction of Adobe Creative Cloud, CC Libraries are the best way for storing all your UI kits components.
You can create one or more Libraries for wireframing and prototyping purposes. For example, you can create one Library for websites wireframing, other for iOS application, third for Android applications and so on.
To create library Open Libraries panel and choose Create New Library from additional drop-down menu. Assets you put in libraries can be made and used in different Adobe desktop or mobile apps on all devices you log into with your Adobe ID. That means you can start with the project on your iPad or iPhone, continue on the desktop computer in the office and made last minute changes on home laptop with all the same assets available on all devices. If you work as a part of a larger team, library assets can be shared between team members and you can collaborate on them. Libraries can contain colours, graphics, layer styles (Photoshop only), paragraph and character styles. You add asset in library by clicking on the corresponding button at the bottom of CC Library panel with respective element selected. You can also add graphic assets by dragging them directly from your artboard to Libraries panel. Assets in libraries are organized by categories. To stick with good practices, rename each asset with meaningful name. Libraries are searchable, and finding an asset in a hip by typing beginning of it’s name will save you tons of time, especially when you have many different items in libraries. You can search only current or all libraries created. To change asset name just double click on it and type a new one.
Creating Kits Components
Although Adobe InDesign has some basic drawing tools that are pretty similar to Illustrator’s, Illustrator is a much better choice for drawing different kinds of elements in your wireframe. As a rule of thumb, make all kit elements that request some drawing beyond basic geometric shapes in Illustrator and simpler elements, that contain text you’ll need to change in layout, like simple buttons, in InDesign.
For starters, make a list of all the elements in the wireframe you’ll need, like navigation elements, page elements including images, video frames and text boxes, icons, avatars, form elements and all other interface elements. After your list is completed you can head to Illustrator and InDesign for elements creation. Start by creating a new document for wireframe or mockup kit components. Double-check that you choose either Web/Devices Profile in Illustrator or Web/Digital Publishing Intent from New Document dialog box, so pixels are used as units, and color mode is RGB.
Make wireframe kit assets as simple as possible, because they need to give fast visual cues for what they represent without been too much detailed. You should use very limited colour palettes of preferably a few shades of grey. Visually accentuate elements that are more important by coloring them with darker shades, or by giving them bigger contrast. For higher fidelity mockups or prototypes, you’ll create UI kits with more detailed elements that use each project’s respective color palette. For easy access to color palettes add them to CC Libraries too.
Adobe Illustrator assets in CC Libraries
Assets you add to Libraries from Illustrator are linked by default (since Adobe CC 2015). That means that when you modify a library asset in Illustrator, changes are reflected in all instances used. If you want to add unlinked asset to document press Option/Alt key while dragging it from the panel.
When you use linked Illustrator assets in InDesign they have little cloud icon in the upper left corner when document is viewed in Normal mode and they are all listed in Links panel. If you modify Library asset in Illustrator changes in the InDesign document won’t be done automatically. Cloud icon will be replaced with Modified Link exclamation mark icon, and you’ll have to update these links.
InDesign assets you place in InDesign document are not linked. That means that you can edit instances independently of the original, and when the original asset is modified those changes are not reflected on assets you already put into layout.
Use those properties when creating wireframes on your behalf: add assets to Library from Illustrator when you assume they’ll need to be modified and updated globally or add them from InDesign when you know you’ll want to modify them individually. Note that you can also make graphics in Illustrator and then Copy/Paste them to InDesign, modify if needed and then add to Library as InDesign asset.
If you happen to forgot which graphic asset is created by which application look at the right side of each item in Library panel while using Show items as a list preview more.
Adobe InDesign Flexibility with Texts
Since you’ll probably want to be able to easily change texts and its formatting create text based assets in InDesign. InDesign has a nice feature for filling text boxes with placeholder text. When you draw text box just make a right mouse click on it and choose Fill With Placeholder Text. You can easily add text box to Library like any other graphic element just by dragging. When you use those text assets later as a part of your wireframes layout you can modify text box itself or text it contains however you like.
Consider to make button UI elements in InDesign too. To create a button, make text frame first, type respective text in it and then use Object > Text Frame Options to define Inset spacing. Adjust Vertical Justification of text inside a box by choosing desired option from Align drop-down menu. Switch to Auto-Size tab and choose appropriate Auto-Sizing (that would probably be Width Only), and convenient reference point. If you do not want let InDesign break your text in more than a one line check No Line Breaks option.
Give Yourself a Hand
There are lot of Adobe Illustrator wireframing and prototyping UI kits available on the internet you can buy or even download for free if you want to fasten your wireframing preparation phase. Maybe you already have lot of those elements drawn that you can dig from your achieved projects. Open those documents, tweak any previously made elements if needed, and put them into respective Libraries.
If you are designing for a particular platform, for example iOS or an Android application be sure that you carefully read their human interface guidelines and use appropriate assets. Don’t put pressure on yourself that every asset possible has to be in your Libraries before you start with actual wireframing process because you can also add assets to your libraries later and on the go.
Creating InDesign Wireframe Templates
There is another important preparation step left that you also need to do: create InDesign templates you’ll use for making wireframes. Start by creating a new document with Web or Digital Publishing Intent and define appropriate page size for the screens you are designing for. Since it is recommended that you use some kind of a grid for laying out your wireframe elements set up the margins and create column grid by setting number of columns and the gutter space. You can change those settings later from Layout > Margins and Columns with respective master page (or pages) selected in Pages panel. If you need horizontal guides and complementary vertical guides, create them manually or make additional grid by using Layout > Create Guides… When creating grid you can help yourself with one of the online grid calculator tools like the Gridulator.
You can also create additional templates for presentation purposes with device mockup as a frame for your wireframes. Since one InDesign document can be placed into another, you can create wireframes in one InDesign document and then place it into another one for presentation purposes. Although it might seem complicated at first it is actually very simple and offers effective workflow. Keeping actual wireframe in separate document makes it easier to continue building from approved wireframes to polished visual design. On the other hand, you have presentation ready template to place wireframes into, add labels and comments and you are all set up to show your best to the client. When you make modifications on wireframe file just update it like any other link in presentation document, and ta-daaa! all changes are in your presentation too.
In the Layers panel you can prepare separate layers for different kind of the content: user interface elements, interactive features, gestures, labels or notes. If you’ll need more layers for a specific project you’ll be able to easily add them anytime during the wireframing process.
When you are done with creating save your templates as InDesign .indt template files. After all the templates you need are saved you are finally ready to start with wireframing efficiently.
First things first – start with the Master page. Drag all elements that will be the same on all screens of your project from Library. If you are designing website those are usually headers with logo and navigation and footer. Since you can make more than one Master page and they can be based on each other don’t forget to take advantage of that feature. For example, depending on the project, you can create a Master page for one website category, then make new Masters based on the first one and change on them only elements that need to be different for other categories you’re also having.
You can’t select, change or delete Master elements on regular document pages unless you click on them while holding Command/Control + Shift to override the master. Once your element is overridden you can change any of its parameters or completely delete it from layout. Keep in mind that even when you override the element, it’s parameters that you haven’t change are still dependent on the Master. For example, if you override an element and change it’s color, it’s size is still connected to Master’s and if you change it on Master page it will also be modified on that element you previously overrided. When inserting additional pages to your wireframing document remember to base them on the respective master. If you need to change the Master for pages already in layout, select them in Pages panel, make a right click and choose Apply Master to Pages… When you are finished with Masters, move along with pages for all screens of your project. Use Library assets and arrange them using Smart Guides and Align options to create final UI wireframe layout.
If you are making design for more than one screen size, make alternate layouts from Layouts > Create Alternate Layout or Pages panel. You can use liquid layout rules when creating alternate layouts to automatically or semi-automatically adopt page elements from one size and orientation to another or you can manually control them. For applying and testing Liquid Layout Rules use Page Tool or open panel: Window > Interactive > Liquid Layout.
Adobe InDesign has a bunch of interactivity features that you can take advantage of when creating wireframes or prototypes. Which features you’ll include depends on the final format you plan to save your wireframes, prototypes or presentation into. If you are exporting as PDF, interactivity is limited but you can at least make links between screens work. You’ll use Hyperlinks panel to create them. Select the item you want to behave as a link and click on New Hyperlink icon. From Link To drop down menu choose Page and enter desired page number. Repeat that action on all items you want to behave as links between the screens. You can also add hyperlinks to objects residing on the Master pages, and that can be a real time saver: create links on Master page once and they will work on all screens of your document.
Another interactive feature that you can use in interactive PDF format is button with Show/Hide action and that you can use to build all kinds of pop-up content.
You can create button from any graphic, text, image or a group. To create a button from a selected object use Window > Interactive > Buttons and Forms panel and click on the Convert to Button icon. Buttons can have different states created for Normal, Rollover and Click appearance. To add rollover or click state to button click on them in Buttons panel to activate and then edit button appearance for that state the way you want it to look. To add an action to a button, click on a plus sign and choose it from the list. Take into account that actions under SWF/EPUB will not work in interactive PDF. For creating popup elements choose Show/Hide Buttons and Forms. To hide buttons until triggered check Hidden Until Triggered option. You can include multistate objects in interactive PDF, but only if you export them as SWF first and then place those SWFs back in InDesign layout for PDF export. That workflow is tedious and those PDFs can not be properly seen in all PDF readers so you better avoid doing this unless really necessary.
If you want to convert your document to HTML prototype using InDesign CC 2015 Publish Online feature you can use much more interactive options like animations, multistate objects, multiple button actions, including all those intended for SWF/EPUB export.
You can add simple animations using Animation panel and choosing one of the built-in Presets from drop-down menu and setting its properties. One object can have only one animation applied, but if you need to add more of them, group your object with empty box and use the new animation on that newly created object. And repeat that few times if needed. For objects you need to show different states create multi state object. Create object for each state. Object can be a single element (picture, text box, graphic) or a group of different elements. Open Window > Interactive > Object States panel, select all objects you created for multi state object and click on the New button at the panel bottom. After your multi state object is made you’ll need to create buttons to go from one object state to another. Go To Next State or Go To Previous State actions reveal the specific object state with Go to State action.
If you want to have scrollable frame in your wireframe/prototype easiest way to create one is by using Universal Scrolling Frames extension from Ajar Productions. After you download and install extension you can use it as InDesign panel. For scrollable frame you’ll need to make content and one frame for container. Content can be text frame, picture, or more elements combined. If using more than one element as a content don’t forget to group them. When you are finished with making content and container box select the content and do Edit > Cut. Then select container and paste content inside by using Edit > Paste Into. Select container and using Universal Scrolling Frames adjust desired scroll direction.
By combining buttons, multistate objects, animations and scrollable frames you can achieve rich interactive experience.
To test interactivity in InDesign use EPUB Interactivity Preview panel. You can preview single page or whole document. Enlarge preview panel to your convenience.
If you haven’t being using Adobe InDesign interactive features yet be prepared that they have some learning curve, but with a little practice and few trial and error attempts you’ll quickly master them.
Exporting finished documents
When you are done with the wireframe and presentation file making all that is left is show your great ideas to the client in best way possible. For that purpose you’ll need to export your wireframes in one of the formats your client can preview. Although InDesign files can be exported in variety of formats you are probably going to use the most common Interactive PDF, or Publish Online feature if testing functional low or high fidelity prototypes. To save as interactive PDF choose Adobe PDF (Interactive) from Format drop-down menu in Export dialog box and adjust properties as needed. Do not forget to tick Forms and Media if there are interactive elements that you want to include. Clients can view PDF wireframes in free Adobe Reader and write all their comments in that same file.
You can also use PDF document you export from InDesign to create InVision (or some other tool that supports PDFs) prototype. If your standard prototyping tool, perhaps Marvel, can’t import PDF export your InDesign wireframe pages as JPEG or PNG images.
To export interactive HTML prototype that can be seen in modern browsers on different devices go to File > Publish Online or click on the Publish Online button from Application Bar. After the document is prepared to be published online and then uploaded you can copy document URL to share with all the stakeholders and start with reviewing process. You can also embed that published prototype on your site.
Downside of Publish Online feature is that it doesn’t have any additional control over the export and files are always stored at Adobe’s servers. Also it’s still preview feature and you can’t be sure in which direction Adobe is going to develop it or even discontinue.
Once your wireframe/prototype is exported it’s time for testing, reviewing and iterating process to start.