How to use HTML & CSS style tiles to kickstart your design

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April 14, 2015
How to use HTML & CSS style tiles to kickstart your design.
It’s been a while since Style Tiles were brought into this world by the genius of one Samantha Warren. For those of you who might have looked at them once, and then forgotten what they are, here’s a quick explanation: Style Tiles are a sort of template that allows you to quickly test and preview various colors, fonts, textures, and other aesthetic style-related options for your designs before you create a high-fidelity mockup, but after the wire-frames are made. They’re meant to be presented to clients, stakeholders, or any other interested parties fairly early in the design process. That way, you can get past concerns about the font choice, and questions like “Can we have a ‘flashier’ red?” Simply put, you should be using them, even if only for yourself. It might seem like a lot of trouble to add yet another step to the design process; but I can tell you from personal experience that it’s worth it. I design in the browser: staring at a blank Photoshop canvas can be daunting; staring at a blank browser window seems to hit that much harder. The sense of direction provided by creating a Style Tile makes designing the rest of the site so much easier. It’s nothing so complex or constricting as a style guide; thus, it gives both a place to start, and the freedom to adjust things as you go along. This does bring up a small problem with the original Style Tiles, however. They’re PSDs. Browser-based designers like myself will want browser-based Style Tiles. We want to see how this stuff is going to look in the Web, after all, and on as many devices as possible.

Pre-made options

Several people have already gone way ahead of us on that front. There are pre-made templates for people who want to get started with making Style Tiles in their browser. Check them out:

The Style Prototype

The lovely people at Sparkbox created a responsive Style Tile template based on HTML and Sass. It’s one of the simpler options, as seen in the demo, but the code is well-commented. They even went and included optional scripts to make it compatible with IE 7 and below, in case your client hasn’t updated their browser in... forever.

Webstiles

Created by Namanyay Goel, Webstiles have a lot in common with the other solutions on this list. What makes them different is that they were built with the lesser-known (some would say underrated) Stylus CSS pre-processor.

Compass Style Tiles

If you work with the Compass framework, along with things like Ruby and Sass, try this one on for size. It can be installed like any other Ruby gem, so it should drop quite neatly into your work-flow. Interestingly, body copy can be “generated” via a Sass variable and the content: attribute. The whole thing’s designed so you never have to touch the HTML.

Responsive Boilerplate for Style Tiles

The Responsive Boilerplate for Style Tiles brings some rather harsh drop-shadows with it, but it’s responsive, and uses nothing more complicated than classic HTML and CSS. No frameworks, no pre-processors, nothing. It’s a good starting point if you just want to open it in a text editor and go.

Make your own

With this many pre-made options out there, why would you want to build your own HTML/CSS Style Tiles from scratch? Seems like a waste of time? Well, yes and no. If you’re making a simple site, and you don’t have all the content planned out yet, or the client hasn’t sent it, one of the pre-made options will do fine. However, if you’re building a complex web app, or a very large site with a lot of distinct content types or UI elements, you might want to make a Style Tile template from scratch. The existing ones just don’t account for the sheer range of possible content and element types out there. Thus, you might want a Style Tile that includes an embedded video, audio player, or map. You might want one that showcases a tabbed interface, or an accordion menu. If you’re building a site that depends on certain uncommon user interface elements, you might want to make a Style Tile template that includes those features. It doesn’t have to be that hard. Just set up a simple two-three column layout, and start including the visual elements that will be most important to your design, based on the content/functionality. These will include:
  • color, pattern, and/or texture swatches;
  • typographical elements (headings, paragraphs, list elements, perhaps a blockquote);
  • image styles (if you plan to include image galleries, for example);
  • most commonly used form elements;
  • any extra UI elements you deem important to the design, based on content and site structure.
There’s generally no need to make it production-ready code for all browsers. Keep it simple, keep it to HTML5. Unless you're using a non-standard UI element that has to be coded from scratch in HTML and CSS, don’t bother with JavaScript. The best part? You get to refine and re-use all of the relevant CSS as you start coding your browser-based mockup!

Conclusion

Style Tiles are more than worth looking into if you’re not already using them. Show them to clients, keep them to yourself, use the pre-made options, or roll your own... it doesn’t matter. Just having that sense of stylistic direction will make filling in that blank browser window so much easier. Featured image, design studio via Anne-Sophie Leens

Ezequiel Bruni

Ezequiel Bruni is a web/UX designer, blogger, and aspiring photographer living in Mexico. When he’s not up to his finely-chiselled ears in wire-frames and front-end code, or ranting about the same, he indulges in beer, pizza, fantasy novels, and stand-up comedy.

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