Why Wireframes Are Bad for Creativity

Learn how this common tool boxes in designers, strips them of their creativity, and prevents them from doing their best work.

We don’t believe in wireframes here at Basecamp.

Not because they aren’t useful (they are… sometimes). And not because they are hard to make (they’re not).

No, we don’t believe in wireframes because they have an often overlooked but massive side-effect:

Wireframes rob designers of creativity.

Designers know the drill. If your boss or client hands you a carefully crafted wireframe, the idea is already concrete in their mind. Even with the customary disclaimer, “I want you to re-think this… make it your own!” — experienced designers know that deviating too far from the wireframe puts you at serious risk. It doesn’t matter if you craft a design that’s objectively better in every measurable way, if it doesn’t satisfy the wireframe, it likely won’t satisfy your boss or client.

Wireframes create unnecessary boundaries for designers. And these boundaries rob them (and their projects) of creativity.

At Basecamp, we want our designers to be free to use their full creative potential. Which is why instead of wireframing, we use Fat Marker Sketches.

Fat Marker Sketches

It started back when we shaped our ideas on physical paper (we’ve since graduated to iPads). When mapping out pitches for new products and features, we quickly realized that pen points were too fine, and provided too much resolution. With pen points, it was easy to start debating the little things. Sizes, placements, colors, lines. Without intending to, we’d end up sketching full-blown UI concepts and wireframes.

But we didn’t need (or want) wireframes at this stage. All we needed to sketch at this stage was the idea.

So, we switched to big, fat markers.

With a fat marker, it’s impossible to craft a detailed wireframe. There is no shading. No corner radiuses. No shadowing. No style at all, really. Fat marker sketches keep our pitches in check, providing enough context to share our desired outcome with our designers, but not so much that we strip them of creative freedom.

From Fat Marker to Functioning Feature

To this day, fat marker sketches are used in almost every internal product pitch we make.

For example, we recently launched a new feature for our email service HEY called Bubble Up. HEY already had handy Reply Later and Set Aside functions, but it was missing something tangential: snooze.

Our CEO Jason shared his pitch for Bubble Up with a Basecamp message. He explained what problem it would solve for our users, and why we wanted to solve it, but like all our product pitches, it was purposely vague on the how. Simply a few thoughts on functionality (click a button, access a menu, select a date, etc.), and a fat marker sketch to provide an extra touch of context:

The original pitch and fat marker sketch for Bubble Up inside the Basecamp project
The original pitch and fat marker sketch for Bubble Up inside the Basecamp project

When it came time for a designer to actually create Bubble Up, there was no detailed mapping of how the feature would look or where it would live. They had the freedom to interpret all the finer details. This empowered them to focus on the benefit we were trying to deliver to our users, and not on matching a wireframe pixel for pixel.

Designing in Basecamp

Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore how our Design Team tackled the Bubble Up feature, taking it from a simple fat marker sketch to one of the most popular features inside HEY.

In the meantime, check out how designers and agencies use Basecamp to manage all their projects, and get started for free (no credit card, no commitment):

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