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In the previous article1 in this series, I discussed our ideation and initial prototyping process. We covered details on how to use Adobe Fireworks to set up a responsive design wireframe, reusable components, prototypes and ways to share designs.
In this article, we’ll share how we used Adobe Fireworks in our iterative visual design process, along with other useful tips.
Before diving into details, let’s acknowledge that Fireworks became feature-frozen in May 2013 and that some of the visual results discussed in this article could have been achieved using alternative graphics software, such as Photoshop, Illustrator or Sketch792. But the hard truth is that Fireworks is still used by many designers and offers a unique workflow and integrated feature set, unmatched by any program available. For a good read on why Fireworks is still relevant, I recommend “The Present and Future of Adobe Fireworks3.”
As discussed in the “Creating Wireframes And Prototypes” section of part 1, our choice of a design tool came down to the following:
Speed Fireworks proved to be quicker for directly creating and manipulating visual elements on the screen than other tools, like Photoshop and Illustrator. The combination of integrated vector tools and bitmap-editing capabilities in one package, plus pages, states, symbols, styles and extensions, was something unique and worked best for us.
File size We found that PSD visual design files created in Photoshop for the same screen designs are much larger than those created in Fireworks — sometimes two to five times larger.
Team learning curve When Gabriel Gross (our visual UI designer) joined the team, we had already created a lot of wireframes in Fireworks. He initially considered just translating those wireframes to Photoshop. Because of the amount of work that would have been required, he decided to try Fireworks on a few screens. About a week later, he suggested working directly from the Fireworks PNG wireframe files, instead of recreating the designs from scratch. From this point forward, we’ve been using the wireframe files as the starting point for visual design screens.
Note: Gabriel was also familiar with Adobe Flash and its various features and quirks. The transition to Fireworks was fairly straightforward — the Properties panel that spans the bottom of the screen, navigation of nested symbols, the symbols library and so on are quite similar in Fireworks and Flash.
As discussed in the previous article, the design team decided on a pragmatic approach to creating visual elements. We decided early on in the project that we would only do as much visual layout and style exploration as necessary in graphics applications — the rest would be done through an iterative process in the browser. With this in mind, we ditched any elaborate branding exercise needed just for stakeholder buy-in and opted to create style tiles and a revised logo.
Style tiles are a design document consisting of fonts, colors and interface elements that communicate the essence of the visual brand of a website or application. They help to communicate a proposed common visual language and can be used to discuss style preferences that meet the goals of the stakeholders or client. Samantha Warren8 explains the workflow pretty well in her article on A List Apart, “Style Tiles and How They Work9,” so I won’t go into deeper detail than this:
Websites are so much more than just usable interfaces: they tell a story…
Style tiles are a flexible starting point that define a style to communicate the web in a way that clients understand. A style tile is more refined than a traditional identity mood board and less detailed than a website mockup or comp. When an interior designer redesigns a room they don’t build multiple options of the designs they’re proposing, they bring color swatches, paint chips, and architectural drawings. Style tiles act as paint chips and color swatches for the interface that we can execute on any device or at any dimension. It’s a truly responsive solution to visual design.
To learn more about style tiles, I recommend also visiting Samantha’s website Style Tiles10.
Most designers would agree that their favorite graphics application does not provide an accurate preview of how text will appear in the browser. With this in mind, we did as much text layout as was needed in graphics applications and then explored the finer typographical details in the browser. There, we could also accurately evaluate the effect of responsive layouts on the type as we moved through breakpoints.
We discovered that working with system fonts in Fireworks was faster for our designers, but build was slow because our developers had to interpret fonts and classes, resolve inconsistencies and negotiate font compromises with the designers. Plus there was that pesky problem of comp fonts not always resembling site fonts due to the rendering.
And when we moved to designing with web fonts, it was the opposite problem. It was faster for developers because there were fewer negotiations and less guesswork. But designers were wasting valuable project time stepping through a really repetitious process to get the web fonts into their layouts. You know the deal:
Go to URL → Paste copy → Preview → Capture → Import to comp → Resize → Arrange – Repeat40 → Find typos → Pull hair out → Repeat → Show client comp → Get requests to make bigger, smaller, different → Die a little inside → Repeat20
Both approaches had serious drawbacks.
So, to help us compare and narrow down Web fonts for Mojo Motors’ website, we turned to Typecast’s own solution.
Typecast15 is a powerful browser-based design tool that makes it easy to experiment and design with the actual Web fonts that you plan to use on your website. The application lets you design visually and builds standards-compliant HTML and CSS in the background. Each Typecast subscription also comes with access to Web fonts from Typekit, Font Deck and Google, as well as a free Fonts.com account. Other features include the ability to create style guides and to share projects. Typecast is really a game-changer, and I highly recommend considering it as part of your responsive design toolkit.
As part of the website redesign, our team was also tasked with rethinking the company’s logo. All of the logo explorations were done in Illustrator, which is better suited to this type of work. Using Illustrator made more sense because it enabled us to create and output both CMYK files for print and RGB files for the screen.
The key to using an existing Fireworks wireframe file for visual design work is to set up the application and the files properly. As discussed in the previous article, we did this up front so that we could take advantage of the application’s pixel-precise layout capabilities and increase our overall efficiency throughout the project.
One thing that can speed up the completion of tasks in Fireworks is mastering the keyboard shortcuts. For someone transitioning from another Adobe application, Fireworks provides the option to customize the keyboard shortcuts to closely match those of Photoshop, Illustrator or InDesign — or any variation you may need, for that matter. Our team settled on Photoshop’s shortcuts because they were the most familiar.
Changing these settings in Fireworks is easy. In Windows go to Edit → Keyboard Shortcuts, or on a Mac go to Edit → Fireworks → Keyboard Shortcuts. Then, select “Photoshop” or another shortcut set from the “Current Set” dropdown menu, and click “OK.”
To customize further, open the “Keyboard Shortcuts” dialog again:
In the “Commands” field, select a specific Fireworks menu command or tool.
Type a new shortcut combo in the “Press Key” field, and click the “Change” button;
When you are done editing the shortcuts, save the shortcut set as a variant of the set you selected previously (e.g. “My_Custom_Set”).
Now you can work faster using the keyboard shortcuts that you are familiar with!
The great thing about carefully setting our responsive design grids during the process of creating a wireframe is that all of the grids and guides that we needed were already in place for the visual design process. Below are some of the options that we enabled when setting up our initial files.
Rulers are really handy for orienting yourself visually and are required for working with guides on the screen (in the menu, View → Rulers).
We set our visible horizontal and vertical background grids to 10 pixels. Grids and of some their options can be accessed by going to View → Grid → Show Grid/Snap to Grid/Edit Grid… or by going to Edit → Preferences → Guides and Grids.
This setting works well also because it matches the pixel increment (10 pixels) when objects are moved on the screen (for example, when we nudge an element using the Shift + arrow key shortcut). We often toggle this setting on and off as needed when drawing.
We typically add guides to match the responsive grid layers and other objects as needed; guides are then toggled on and off while drawing. Guides in Fireworks are page-specific and don’t automatically appear on all pages unless placed on a master layer.
Here are a few useful tips:
Position unlocked guides precisely in Fireworks by clicking on a guide and entering the position directly.
Check guide’s spacing by placing your cursor between two guides and holding down the Shift key.
If you move a guide while holding down the Shift key, you can also precisely dial in the spacing.
Guides and their options can be accessed via View → Guides → Show Guides/Lock Guides/Snap to Guides/Clear Guides…. You can also use keyboard shortcuts to speed up these operations.
Note: To do more with guides, I highly recommend the Guides25 panel extension by Eugene Jude, which enables you to create guides from selections, copy and paste guides, etc.
Smart guides are really helpful and enable you to visually align objects on the screen without having to use the Align panel. Turning these on (by going to View → Smart Guides) will allow you to see the precise adjustments to the location or size of an object when performing a free transform operation.
Useful tip: If you find yourself creating a lot of responsive design grids, then you might also want to consider the Insert Grids32 extension by John Dunning4233.
Unlike the rest of Adobe’s Creative Suite, Fireworks does not require any particular color management settings for you to get started. The application was designed from the ground up for screen design, and it is set to the RGB color space out of the box.
Note: The Color Palette panel, in addition to the RGB, HSV and HLS color spaces, also shows a CMYK option, but it is not recommended for print work.
The popup color picker is quite easy to use and is one of the best ways to specify colors for a user interface. It supports RGB and HEX color selection by default, as well as the more flexible RGBa specification that is supported by all modern browsers. Another useful feature is the one-click color copy feature. (As of the time of writing, Sketch is the only other app that has similar RGBa capabilities. Also worth mentioning is that Adobe has just added color-picker options for fills and strokes in Photoshop CS6 and CC.)
To bring in the color palette from our exploration, we saved an RGB .ASE file in Illustrator and imported it into Fireworks with the help of the Swatches panel. Once imported, the color scheme became immediately available in the color picker.
The Color Palette panel is a great alternative to using the Swatches panel or color picker to specify colors. The panel is broken down into “Selector,” “Mixer” and “Blender” tabs.
“Selector” tab This allows you to choose between different color models and select colors using an Adobe-like color picker, instead of the default color cubes swatches. The available options include HSV, HSL, CMYK and RGB38; for most of our redesign work, we used the RGB model.
“Mixer” tab This is great for recoloring artwork and creating color tints. We relied on this greatly for stretching the range of our color palette. To try two different palettes in your document, follow these steps:
Click “Palette1” on the left of the panel to set the base colors for the first palette.
Click “Palette2” on the right side of the panel, and then select the base colors for the second palette.
To switch back and forth between the two palettes, select the palette to recolor with and then click the “Replace Color” icon.
“Blender” tab Here, you can create a color gradation series, which is really handy for exploring gradients. All you have to do is this:
Fill the color boxes at the bottom of the panel to select the beginning and ending colors.
Use the “Steps” slider to select the number of steps in the series.
Exporting Exporting any palette out of this panel requires saving it as an .ACT39 swatch file, which can be shared with other Fireworks or Photoshop users. Unfortunately, Illustrator cannot open this swatch file format. To share with Illustrator, consider exporting an .ASE40 file via the Swatches panel, which will work across all Adobe products.
Note: The most recent versions of Fireworks (CS5, CS5.1, CS6) all natively support both .ACT and .ASE swatch formats. Earlier versions of Fireworks (CS4 and older) support only .ACT.
Setting Up The Document For High-Resolution Displays Link
Another decision we had to make before starting the visual design process was how to set up our files for high pixel-density (or “Retina”) displays. We could approach this in a few ways:
Start with standard-resolution files and scale up for Retina graphics. We opted for this because we were starting from standard-resolution wireframes.
Start with high-resolution files and scale down for non-Retina graphics.
Both conversion methods should be quite seamless and yield the same results. Objects in Fireworks are created as vector shapes by default, and any effects applied will also scale (assuming, of course, that you have not created any shapes using filled selections, which were popular in Photoshop prior to the more robust shape layer option available today). All text objects in Fireworks will scale without problems, too.
Any bitmap images can be replaced with a higher-resolution versions. The key is to always start with high-resolution images where needed and scale down. Below are a few other options to consider:
Image symbols An alternative to replacing your images (and one I highly recommend) is to turn your high-resolution images into symbols (Modify → Symbol → Convert to Symbol, or F8) and scale down their placed instances in the layout. Once you turn a raster image into a symbol, you can scale it down to any size and then back up to the original size as many times as you’d like without any loss in quality. If you choose this method, you won’t have to replace your images!
Linked images An option I discovered recently is to link images. This requires installing the free Linked Images41 extension by John Dunning4233. With this option, your layouts will be refreshed with the high-resolution images upon being scaled up (the images are stored in a folder outside of the Fireworks file). For a detailed overview of this method, please check the “Linked Images” section of “Fireworks Extensions for a Better Design Workflow, Part 25843.”
Note: For layout purposes, we used the first option to set image symbols of cars as placeholders. The final car images are generated dynamically on the server and rendered on the live website. We won’t cover this production process in this article.
Just as when we were creating the wireframes, we frequently had to check how the mockups looked and scaled on real devices, such as the iPhone and iPad.
For quick previews while designing, we turned again to the LiveView45 app (check out my previous article46 for details on our process). Alternatives to LiveView are Skala Preview47 and Xscope48, which provide similar functionality but integrate better with Photoshop. Skala Preview is also compatible with Android devices.
Once the file was set up, the next step was to add pixel precision to the interface and content. This is also when we applied brand elements such as color, typography, iconography and the logo from our style tiles. Putting the pages for each breakpoint in one working file made it easier to transpose screen elements between mobile, tablet and desktop layouts (see part 1 of this series for details on pages, states and symbols in Fireworks).
Favorite Fireworks Features During The Visual Design Stage Link
In this next part, we’ll cover some Fireworks features, tools and workflows that really came in handy during the visual design stage.
A lot of great features in Fireworks make creating screen graphics fast and efficient, but the single most powerful UI feature for us was the contextual direct editing of objects, available via the Properties panel (also called the Property Inspector (or PI) panel). This powerful panel changes contextually based on the type of object selected on the canvas.
The Properties panel is normally found at the bottom of the screen when a document is first opened in Fireworks. It allows you to manage all attributes, such as fills, strokes, gradients, patterns, textures, size, position, scale, opacity, blend modes, live filters, text properties, masks (and masks properties), symbols and much more, for any selected object or group of objects.
Once you understand how the Properties panel works, quickly inspecting and changing the properties of all types of objects with pixel-level precision become really easy. You might also find that making changes is a lot faster than in any other graphics application (including Sketch!).
Creating gradients is quite simple and intuitive. Adjusting and changing the fill type can be easily done at any time. Fireworks also offers 12 gradient types out of the box. And the dither option reduces banding when images are exported.
Olawale is a User Experience Designer and Digital Strategist with over 13 years experience leading, designing and developing standards based digital, web and mobile interactive products. He was Head of UX at Mojo Motors in 2012. Prior to Mojo Motors, he served as the User Experience Lead for Comcast mobile work for digital agency HUGE.
He is currently Principal, User Experience at @WalmartLabs. He is very passionate about mobile and multi-channel content consumption.