Inventure-backed Froont has launched in public beta today with a web-based tool that aims to make it easy for designers to create, prototype and share responsive website designs, without the need to code. Using a visual, largely drag ‘n’ drop interface that creates responsive CSS/HTML on the fly, it aims to replace the somewhat arcane process where a designer hands off a Photoshop mockup for a developer to interpret. In fact, Froont offers the potential to leave developers out of the design (and even prototyping) process altogether, which in some cases may be a very good thing.
Responsive web design — where a single version of a site is designed to adapt in size and layout depending on the device that it’s being viewed on — is particularly in vogue right now. And with the proliferation of various types of mobile devices (smartphones, tablets etc.), alongside the traditional desktop, it’s easy to see why. A responsive approach to web design offers an attractive solution to reaching as wide an audience as possible without necessarily degrading their experience, even if it does make some compromises.
But the old way of designing websites, and the traditional division of labour, doesn’t necessarily scale well if you’re jumping on the responsive bandwagon. Trying to represent a responsive design in a series of static Photoshop mockups to show how a site will adapt when viewed on various screen sizes involves quite a lot of compromise. One solution is to have the non-coding designer work hand in hand with a front-end developer to prototype their Photoshop designs in HTML/CSS, thus making them viewable as is and to get a feel for how the responsive design will work in practice. This approach, however, can involve a lot of unnecessary back and forth as the design gets lost in translation.
Instead, Froont wants to hand control back to designers by letting them visually create working responsive designs that, because they are built using HTML/CSS and hosted in the cloud, can be viewed and shared instantly in a web browser, on any device being targeted. And when it’s time to hand off the design to a developer, instead of a static PNG file or something similar, in theory they’re given “nice, clean HTML/CSS or the ‘face’ of the website already made,” says the company.
The tool itself, though only in Beta, appears to be quite easy to get to grips with without being overly restrictive. It’s primarily WYSIWYG, employing a palette of tools and lots of drag ‘n’ drop, making it easy to add text, import graphics and tinker with typography and layout. Obviously, the aim here is to create a responsive design and in this respect Froont has some nice touches, such as a sliding ruler at the top of the page that adjusts the targeted screen size on the fly, instantly updating how your design changes as it responds. You’re also able to set “break points” to denote when the layout of your content shouldn’t simply reflow as the target device’s screen size differs but should change altogether.
Although there are lots of visual web design tools that target different stages of the process or a finished site entirely, in terms of tackling responsive design at the initial HTML/CSS stage, Adobe’s Reflow probably comes closest. The main difference, says Froont, is that its tool runs in the browser, which means that its output can be shared instantly with team members, clients or developers for feedback and testing. Also, however subtle a difference, Froont isn’t so much aiming at simplifying coding but providing better tools for design.
Froont’s team of six is spread across San Francisco, Finland and Latvia. The company is founded by Sandijs Ruluks (designer/CEO), Andris Silis (CTO), Anna Andersone (operations and marketing) and Eli Altman (PR), and originally graduated from the Finnish accelerator Startup Sauna, giving it an avenue to raise €100,000 from Finnish VC fund Inventure. Froont also appears to at least be a partial pivot. The same team is behind the content management system Berta, which although described as a side-project, is still operational and I’m told is profitable.