Pixel perfect web development means “coding a website to match the web designs pixel by pixel”. In reality, this is achievable only for a fixed set of screen resolutions, so the general meaning of the term is “web development that follows the web designer’s intent perfectly”.
“Pixel perfect” has been widely criticized as a concept because it sets an impossible standard for responsive development. What looks just like the designs on one screen or device may look different on another. But it’s still a useful term to express that you expect a perfect result from your web developer, so it’s better to explore the implications of it than to abandon it.
5 steps to achieve pixel perfect web development
Follow these 5 steps to achieve pixel perfect web development:
- Choose a design tool that supports design symbols/components
- Select screen resolutions to design for
- Discuss non-obvious responsive behavior
- Follow a design system when coding the site
- Test the result with the PerfectPixel plugin
In this article, we go through each of these steps. The first three steps are covered in the first section on how to prepare the web designs correctly, and the last two are covered in the section on how to develop for pixel perfection.
Preparing pixel perfect web designs
Before asking your developer for pixel perfect web development, you need to ask yourself whether your designer prepares pixel perfect web designs. Otherwise, the developer will struggle to turn your web designs into pixel perfect front-end code. We know this for a fact, since this stage is our specialty at White Label Agency. We’ve performed Photoshop to WordPress theme conversion for agencies about 3000 times at the time of writing (including a growing number of Adobe XD to WordPress projects).
Some web designers pride themselves in never having a pixel off. They make sure the typography is correct everywhere in the designs, and each element is sized and placed consistently across the site. However, far from every professional web designer checks their work with that rigor. Why? It’s too time-consuming, and often not even necessary to get a perfect result.
If developers were asked to literally follow the web designs with pixel perfect development, they would copy all the mistakes made by the designers through the use of unique CSS classes. For example, to set a margin to 22px instead of the 20px used across the rest of the web designs.
But since web developers use HTML and CSS rules to place and style elements, they can correct all small inconsistencies in the designs. It saves time for both web developers and web designers to agree on how to read the “mistakes” of the designs.
“Since web developers use HTML and CSS rules to place and style elements, they can correct all small inconsistencies in the designs.”
Step 1: Design tools that support design symbols/components
A simple way to improve design consistency, and save time, is to make use of design tools like Sketch and Adobe XD. They have features to design pre-styled elements called symbols or components that can be reused across the designs.
If you style a button or card as a symbol, it will have the same look everywhere in the designs and can be changed in one place instead of having to change each instance of it.
The reusable components are referred to as a design system. A design system typically includes:
- Button design
- Card design
- Bullet lists
- Styles like shadows & radiuses
- Spacing between elements
- Pseudo-classes for links: Active, Focus, Hover, Visited
Step 2: Select screen resolutions for your web design
If you change the size of your web browser window, the website will adapt. If you change your web design tool window, the elements will not change size or move around. This difference is the source of one of the main gaps in the communication between a web designer and a web developer.
Note: This is true for most websites that get built today but web design tools are improving fast. I know Figma has a feature that lets you set “constraints” and see how the design adapts responsively and Adobe XD now has that too. But since most web designers don’t use features like that yet, this article assumes the traditional workflow is still in use.
Design grids and CSS frameworks help to set standards for responsiveness, but a lot is still left to the developers’ judgment when setting up responsive behavior.
If mobile design is a priority, web designers can create two versions of the design files: mobile and desktop. To cover the most common smartphones and desktops, you can use 1440px wide for desktop (with the main content container that is 1140px) and 375px wide for mobile. We sometimes see tablet designs as well, but it’s not so common. If tablet is important on your project, 768px is a good resolution to use for it.
Setting the correct size of the main container is important and too often forgotten about. Many designers choose to design desktop layouts that are 1920px wide, which can be problematic on smaller desktop screens if not done right. If they fill the screen with content from left to right with 16px font size, the developer will have to play an advanced game of Tetris to squeeze them into a 1024px screen.
“A lot is still left to the developers’ judgement when setting up responsive behavior.”
Alternatively, if the font size is 24px to make use of the 1920px widescreen, the developer will need to adjust the font size for smaller desktop resolutions. Otherwise, the typography will look overwhelming and few characters will fit on each line of text.
Another approach for handling desktop resolutions is to design for 1024px and instruct the developer to code all elements to scale proportionally from there and up using “rem” instead of pixels. It’s not always appropriate and it forces the developer to do a lot of ratio calculations, but worth mentioning.
Step 3: Discuss non-obvious responsive behavior
A sidebar is a typical example of an element that doesn’t translate easily into a predicted responsive behavior. You need to inform the developer if the sidebar should be placed on top of the main content on mobile, below it or disappear completely to know what the result will be.
Decorative images and background graphics could also take up unnecessary space on condensed views. Think through if you want them to scale down or be hidden on smaller screens.
Repeating elements such as cards displaying team members should preferably be designed with an odd number of elements to show developers what the behavior should be when new items are added. Should the next card be centralized or left-aligned if it falls on a new row?
Tables with data are also challenging for small screens since their purpose is to arrange information both vertically and horizontally. For example, on Wikipedia, you’ll see that tables scroll horizontally on mobile screens.
How web developers achieve pixel perfection (or get close to it)
Step 4: Analyze and implement the design system
Before starting development, developers should review if they understand the design system and if it’s complete for their needs. Analyzing which styles will need to be set up, where they are used and how they might differ from page to page will help the developer make a plan for the project.
It’s great to have a simple sample page for all basic typography and elements (like links, lists and buttons) to review and confirm that all the CSS styles have been prepared. Add this as a default page that you reuse on all projects. If the designs don’t have any bullet lists, for example, this page will remind you to style them anyway since they are likely to be used at some point on the website.
Both for increased speed and for avoiding human error, developers should use the tools provided by the web design software for copying the CSS styles straight from the designs. Photoshop has an extension that lets you do this, while Sketch, Adobe XD, Zeplin, Avocode, and other software have it out-of-the-box.
“It’s great to have a simple sample page for all basic typography and elements (like links, lists and buttons).”
A small but important tip is to ensure you have installed your premium fonts right away with valid licenses. If you don’t have the license, you’ll need to develop with a temporary font and that will have all kinds of effects on how the page looks. Adding the right font later will force you to go back and adjust pages, especially responsiveness, costing unnecessary time.
If you as a developer find that something in the design doesn’t look right, make sure to ask the designer about it if it’s not obvious that it’s a design error. If an element is 2px off the grid it’s probably a mistake, but if there’s something bigger it could be intentional.
“If you as a developer find that something in the design doesn’t look right, ask the designer about it.”
Step 5: Pixel perfect quality assurance
After a page has been developed, you want to check it against the design files on the provided resolutions. There’s a great browser extension that we use for this called PerfectPixel. It allows you to overlay your designs on the page with transparency so you can see where it doesn’t match up.
You also need to check difference browsers, devices, and screen resolutions. In our quality assurance process, we check the following by default:
Before asking for pixel perfect web development, ask yourself if it’s worth the effort and if you have taken the right measures to prepare for it.
You’ll want the website to look great, but if you have a few pixels off here and there I’m sure only fellow designers will notice. Pixel perfect standards will increase the time needed for both design and development.
To give the developer a good chance of succeeding, designers can prepare web designs that reuse symbols and components across the site with tools that allow developers to copy-paste the CSS styles.
Even with all the measures taken, it’s possible that some discussions are needed to decide on the direction for non-obvious responsive behavior. And even with the best developer and designer on the project team, thorough quality assurance will help guarantee that nothing important was overlooked.
“Close to pixel perfect web development” is our default as a more affordable option than pixel perfect, but we offer additional precision for those who prefer.
What are your standards? Send us a note to share your thoughts on the importance of pixel perfect development and how you achieve it.
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