Forget design 'inspiration' - just stick to the basics 6 August, 2007 — 11 commentsStuart Brown

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A lot of design tutorials tend to focus on the aspect of 'inspiration' - without much emphasis on the design process itself. For all the showy gradients and web 2.0 gloss, truly good design comes from an altogether different approach.

Emulating a design you like is perfectly acceptable, but you can't create a great design by solely cannibalising other sites - a modicum of the design process is needed. Here's how to get started on the road to design nirvana.

Planning

Before you even think about writing HTML, or opening Photoshop, you should cement the foundations for your design on paper - or whatever sketching medium you're most comfortable with - first.

Planning is the first step on the road to a great design, and starting to sketch out what the final production will look like will help you gain a stronger overall concept.

Simplicity

The overwhelming trend for design recently has been a shift to run the gamut in regards to choices in colour, in tone, and in form. Gradients, multiple colours and swirly vector effects are very much 'en vogue'.

Effective design is never gimmicky. If you wish to design something that's easier to maintain, more legible, and more future-proof then simplicity is the key.

That doesn't mean you can't use vectors, gradients, and a large palette of colours - but the effects, forms and colours you do employ should be deliberate.

If an element or an effect has no net gain on the overall design, remove it. Take away the superfluous parts of a design and the core components will stand out stronger, making for a more cohesive identity.

Typography

Typography is critical in information design. If you don't know your Helvetica from your Arial, then you're in real trouble.

Thankfully, there are many, many books on the subject of type - Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works is a good overview, and a cursory search for 'typography' returns over 16,000 results. There is plenty of material out there.

Unfortunately, there's no overnight method to learn typography - you just have to immerse yourself in it, read the books, take a course if you're particularly serious - and with time you'll become a typophile like the rest of us.

I can also recommend Typographica. It's a superlative typography blog, although sadly not updated nearly frequently enough.

Usability

The sad thing about so many of these glitzy, overwrought designs so lauded these days is that usability is usually left abandoned on the wayside.

Usability is design. It's not just about how your site looks, it's about how it works. Both of these qualities interoperate, and the best designs couple visual attractiveness with an interface that just feels 'right'.

Google is a great example - Facebook, too. There's nothing outstanding, visually, but the functionally-led design makes both sites great.

Be aware of how your site works, and be aware that the design runs deeper than the look of a site.

Refinement

Good design takes time. Deliberate over your work every chance you get, ask yourself questions - how could this be better? Is it obvious how this works? What does this represent?

The entire design process is little more than the conception of an idea - your initial sketches - and the continued refinement of that idea into the finished design.

When you've written the last of the CSS, tidied up all the parts you intended, take a step back. Look at what you've created. Don't be afraid of making tweaks.

The final stages of a design are the most decisive - don't give up on good when you can achieve beyond.

Practice

Sadly, there are not often any shortcuts that pay dividends, and design is no exception.

Practice is an important part of any learning process, and with so many aspects to modern design - from the backend programming to mastering the software, and the core design aspects underneath - time is critical in understanding the art.

The good news is, at least, that there's no such thing as bad practice - as long as you keep self-critiquing, keeping up good design practices and always challenge yourself, then you'll continue to improve.

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