Why Mock-Ups are the Only Design Skill Non-Designers Need

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Discover why you should make mock-ups for your newest products, and learn how even non-designers can create effective and realistic mock-ups.

Of the plethora of design techniques and tools that are available to showcase your products or services, one of the most fundamental, and widely used, is the mock-up. It’s versatility and appeal are key characteristics that can transform your marketing chops from middle-of-the-road okayness, to “holy cow, take my money” realness.

What is a mock-up?

What is a Mock-UpYou can find mock-up examples everywhere you look.

If you’re unsure what a mock-up is, then fear not. You will undoubtedly see many of them in marketing and branding all around you. Essentially, a mock-up is a high-quality representation of your finished, or near-finished product or service, presented in a way that appeals and captivates your audience. You usually create them at the end of the design process, when you’re ready to take your widget to market. Mock-ups can either be used internally to present to key stakeholders for sign-off, or they can be created as part of finished marketing and advertising materials, finding themselves in everything from TV adverts, to billboards, to the product page of your website.

Apple uses them in their keynote presentations to show off new products and services that they intend to launch. Spotify will showcase new features via mock-ups in their social marketing. Booksellers will use mock-ups to introduce new titles to their audiences.

The key to a great mock-up is not only showing off the widget itself, but also presenting how customers can use it or how they should interact with it. So great is the power of good mock-ups that designers go to great lengths to give their mock-ups flair and individuality. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t create compelling mock-ups yourself even if you’ve never tried before.

What isn’t a mock-up?

Before we dig right in, it’s worth understanding the difference between a mock-up, and two other design tools that sometimes overlap and cause a little confusion—wireframes and prototypes.

Wireframe

WireframeThe wireframe stage is the first step in production.

Think of the design process in four stages, starting with ideation or concept creation—the part where you come up with the initial idea. A wireframe is the next stage, where a designer will take those ideas and create a very simplistic, often hand-drawn outline of how a widget will piece together. You can think of it as the skeleton, or bones of the product.

Prototype

PrototypePrototypes are especially important for software development.

Then comes the prototype, which highlights the behavior of a product. If you’re creating a piece of software, then this is where you’d show off navigation or the key features of the app and how they interact with each other.

Mock-up

Next we come to the mock-up, or the skin of the widget. This is where branding, colors, typography, stock photography, and the general “feel” of the product are brought to life. This is also the step before production. It’s this that we’re looking at today.

Some tips for top-tier mock-ups

When a designer is creating a mock-up, they aren’t just thinking about the widget itself, but also how to show it off in the best possible light. Remember, this is marketing, so it’s all about giving the best impression possible.

To create a stellar mock-up, you need to know the product and its intended users inside and out. Presenting your widget in the wrong context, or without the right “feel” is going to do more harm than good. So, make sure you’re clear on what those things are before going ahead. Too many times, mock-ups look flat or incongruous because the basics of the products or its users weren’t clearly considered.

Context

ContextThink about where your product will exist in real life.

The best mock-ups are presented in situ, ideally in an environment where you would find them in real life. Think of a poster on a billboard, a menu on a table, or an app on a phone screen. If you don’t have the budget or know-how for professional photography of a street or a table in a restaurant, don’t worry. Stock photography is your friend—don’t be afraid to use it!

Color

ColorLearn about the basics of color theory and color psychology.

Combine stock with some basic color theory, and you’re halfway there. Remember, you want to showcase your widget in an environment that makes sense, and one that looks natural and believable. Understand the colors that make up your widget and ensure that whatever surrounds it plays nicely. Otherwise it’s going to look fake or forced; ideally you want to avoid both!

Perspective

PerspectiveTry new angles with your mock-ups.

The enemy of all mock-ups is a lack of perspective—show off the edges! Even if it’s software, which is innately flat, find ways to express it from an interesting angle. Again, you’re trying to draw your audience in, so looking at something face-on is usually, but not always, going to lead to a less enticing experience.

Also, show off the widget from multiple vantage points. Use a combination of macro shots and wide angles to give a feeling of depth, and also to show off the widget’s key features, as well as the whole product in context.

Materials

MaterialsThink about what materials you will choose for your final product.

When designing mock-ups, keep in mind the materials that the widget is made from, and by consequence, where the light source is and how that light would interact with those materials in the real world. For example, an app mocked-up on a phone is likely to cast a shadow on its surroundings. Equally, light will likely rebound off the screen, causing reflections or areas that appear lighter than others. Understand how that happens in the real world so that your mock-ups feel just as convincing.

The human touch

The Human TouchHumanize your mock-up designs.

Finally, mock-ups can sometimes look a little lost without some form of human connection. Make it more personal with some human interaction with the widget directly and your mock-up will automatically level up.

Tools of the trade

If you’re feeling confident to giving mock-ups a go, then Photoshop is a great place to start. If that sounds scary or is out of your budget, then Adobe also produces some great free apps for iOS and Android that can perform much of the functionality outlined below. However, you may find that the process is slightly different dependent on what you choose.

Process

Process

Open your background shot, which can be stock or a photograph or texture you’ve created yourself. Easy.

Choose Where the Widget Will Go

Choose the place where your widget will sit within the background. Then, draw a basic shape that will cover the area in that place. It doesn’t have to be perfect at this stage. So far, so good.

Convert to Smart Object

Convert that shape into a Smart Object. Don’t worry, it’s easy—right-click the shape you have just drawn and click “Convert to Smart Object.”

Shape Your Smart Object

Now you want to shape your newly formed Smart Object so that it fits perfectly within the background image. Here the Free Transform Tool is your friend (more on that below), or you can perform simple adjustments by heading to Edit > Transform > Distort.

Drag and Drop Your Image

Now for the magic. Locate your Smart Object in the Layers panel and double-click on its icon. This will open the layer in a new tab. Now drag and drop your widget image onto the layer and make sure it covers the shape you created. Click Save and close the window. Ta-dah—you’re on your way!

Taking it next level

If the basic process has inspired you, then don’t stop there! Here are three tools and techniques to level up even further. (This is in no way an exhaustive list. Plus, how much they will help really does depend on the type of mock-up you’re creating.)

Drop shadows

Drop ShadowsUse drop shadows to add realism and depth.

Immediately give your mock-ups some sense of depth with an artfully placed drop shadow. Be careful, as drop shadows are massively overused and can make something look more fake than realistic if you’re over-zealous. That said, they’re a perfect tool for casting simple shadows and lifting the overall aesthetic of a design.

Freeform transform tool

Free Transform ToolThe free transform tool will allow you to alter your images at will.

This tool is a game-changer. Use it to manipulate any aspect of an image’s dimensions, allowing you to fit perfectly your widget into any angle. Or, create some interesting perspectives.

Gradients

GradientsReflections, shadows, and more will make your mock-up more believable.

Whether you want to add reflections, texture, sheens, or shadows—essentially an added depth of believability—gradients are a great starting point for giving your mock-ups that extra dimension.

And if all else fails

Look, I get it, not everybody has the time or the patience for all of this, but they still want the results! If that’s you, then you can (almost) have your cake and eat it by starting out with some readymade mock-up files. These simply require you to place an image of your widget in the file, and it will do the rest in terms of shaping, sizing, and adding shadows and effects. Many of those are available right here on Shutterstock and are super-easy to use. Or, they’re a great reference point if you want to understand better how to piece together a high-quality mock-up before giving it a whirl yourself.

Conclusion

Whether you’re a designer or not, mock-ups are a powerful and endlessly flexible tool to have in your kit. Use your mock-ups to encourage buy-in from key stakeholders, or to market your finished product or service to the world. Mastering them is a process, but once you get to grips with what you’re trying to achieve, it’s something you can replicate no matter the situation. You now have a fundamental skill that will take your marketing prowess to the next level.

Unlock more design secrets with these articles:

Ways to Use 3D Mockups and Renders to Market Your Artwork Online10 On-Trend Background Ideas for Your Next Design9 Fresh Ideas for Designing Creative Business CardsInDesign Secrets: 10 Hidden Features and Little-Known Design TipsHow to Make a Brand Book for Your Small Business

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