Web Design, Where Do I Start?

A guide for novices interested in web design

It’s a pretty loaded term. Web Design… whoof. Let’s dissect this, because it encompasses a very wide range of disciplines. Heres’ just a sampling of what is expected of a typical web designer in no-particular order:

  • Overall Website Styles (style guides, typography, uniformity, continuity, etc.)
  • Wire-framing / Prototyping
  • Components Styles (UI such as forms, headers, buttons, templating, etc.)
  • Website Layout (how do these components fit together?)
  • Writing CSS and Javascript (most, if not all web designers can write CSS)
  • Cross-browser testing
  • Designing / Developing email templates
  • Designing / Developing web banners
  • Animations (CSS, GIF, or even video)

Crazy right? That’s a lot to ask of one person yeah? Well, that’s what happens when you work with hypertext. What is hypertext? Wikipedia has a great one-liner about what hypertext is.

Documents that are connected by hyperlinks.

When your work focus across multiple disciplines via hyperlinked documents — things get complicated. Despite the challenging chaos, it is very rewarding making anything that lives on the web. Be it a webpage, banner or even this post.

So where do you start as a novice?

 

Learn to plan.

Planning takes many forms. Draw diagrams. Draw blueprints. Sketch out wireframes. Make your drawings as granular or as defined as you like. Do this. Over and over again. Many times. Get comfortable using an eraser. Get comfortable starting over. Learn to plan. Looking to make your first web design project for a portfolio? Some ideas:

  1. Start REALLY small. Design a simple landing page, with a Z-Layout hero. Very common nowadays. Head over to BriefBox for inspiration or ideas.
  2. Don’t know how to draw? Use what you know. Microsoft Word? Pen and paper? Draw on your iPad? Photoshop? Doesn’t matter. Like at all. Just get your blueprint written down for later. More on Tooling below.
  3. Take notes, document your process, and question everything. Can this be simplified further? Will this be on every page? What devices are we planning to see this on? Is the client/brief married to these colors? How will photography be handled?

 

Know your tools.

When your sketch/blueprint design feels like it’s in the right place — it’s time to move your design into production. 

Literally you’ll be producing a refined visual representations of your design. But what needs to be in this representation? How do you get from your blueprint into production? Most would argue that a Photoshop file is a good document for production. Mainly because you can group layers not unlike components. You can also export artboards as images which is handy for presentations or gathering feedback from clients. I would say, use what you know. I typically use Photoshop or Sketch. Other times I utilize UXPin or InVision as well — which are great for prototyping larger web projects.

Photoshop is a great go-to tool for designers. Just know that it is rapidly becoming out of date in response to other tools such as Figma and Sketch. Photoshop is a dope photo-editor, but it also produces massive file bloat. Just four artboards filled with assets can be nearly 150mb large if you’re not careful. Also, Photoshop etiquette really is a thing and it doesn’t just apply to Photoshop. Some tips (assuming you’re designing in Photoshop):

  • Watch tutorials on designing in PS
  • Download example files, and starter kits and templates (starting from scratch is ambitious, no need to re-invent the wheel on your first project)
  • Name all your layers properly as components (header, button, footer, main-form, container, etc.)
  • Use high quality assets when possible
  • Design based on viewport max-width, not per device
  • Don’t be destructive. Use linked artwork, icons and photography
  • Hand-off a file that is organized neatly
  • Write a README document that communicates additional design notes (such as hover events or interaction)

 

Gathering feedback and refining.

Once you have your Photoshop file produced and you feel it’s in a good place — take the file, share it and gather feedback. How can it be improved? Refine the edges, add that extra layer of gloss. Iterate your design further. Iteration is a very healthy step in the design process. If you skip this part, it will be painful later on.

The real truth of design is, no one can tell you what is bad or good (despite the fact many will continue to voice a opinion on what is good or bad). In design, all that really matters is effectiveness. No one cares about your style, your flourishes or your ego in design. An effective design is timeless and useful. Obviously there are trends in design, and from time to time I even indulge in partaking. Just don’t go overboard. Check yourself on trends you see on sites like Behance and Dribbble.

 

Move your design into development.

Development is the stage where your Photoshop artboards are transformed into actual code. A typical web designer should be able to write CSS and HTML. But, not all designers can do that and that’s okay. If writing code isn’t your bag, you can always shop it out to a front-end developer. You may not need a back-end dev for your project but it should be noted the two can be different.

A front-end developer is a developer who focuses primarily on CSS and front-facing technologies (could be PHP or HTML or even Ruby).

A back-end developer primarily focuses on server maintenance, provisioning, database management, and more.

Not all front-end devs have back-end experience, and vice versa. But, some do.

Pro-tip: Do not waste your time on PSD to HTML companies. The code they produce is awful, not well maintained, and good luck if there’s documentation. Take your time and find the right front-end dev to make you something beautiful. You can for example, hire me. Can’t afford a freelancer? Head to Reddit or even try visiting your local university or junior college. There’s always someone looking to make something cool for their portfolio.

If you aren’t satisfied with any of those options, you’re left on your own bud. So if you’re looking to learn how to convert your artwork files into CSS / HTML, you’re going to have to take some time off to learn. I’d recommend visitting Codecademy and enroll in a course today! It’s totally free and it’s a great place to find mentors as well.

 

Wrapping up

So all-in-all, your process for getting started in web design looks like this:

  1. Learn to plan, figure out your first web project
  2. Know your tools, produce artwork files
  3. Iterate, improve your design
  4. Get into development, make your artwork come to life (become a CSS master!)

 

Appendix

A few great resources for front-end development:

  1. CSS-TRICKS : probably the best resource for all things CSS and front-end water cooler topics
  2. Codepen : a menagerie of web things
  3. DesignersList : vast resource list of brushes, sites, themes, stock photos, inspiration, etc.
  4. Muzli : Design inspiration, news, and trends.
  5. Hacker News : the pulse of computer science and the web, skeptical vibe and breaking tech news
  6. Reddit – /r/web_design : probably the most annoying place to read about web design

Some recommendations to follow on Twitter:

  1. @conrfrmn : my personal mentor and friend, web developer at Apple (shoutout thanks for all the late nights hacking and showing me the ropes 🍻 )
  2. @adamselby : another friend of mine, designer and partner at 88oak
  3. @levelsio : creator of remoteok.iohoodmaps.com and much more
  4. @vanschneider : creator of , and has a dope-as-fuck newsletter
  5. @taramann : designer at @basecamp, and pretty much offers the best comedy relief from #DesignTwitter
  6. @chriscoyier : creator of CSS-TRICKS
  7. @davatron5000 : 1/3 of Paravel, also podcast hosts with Coyier on shoptalkshow.com
  8. @trentwalton : 2/3 of Paravel
  9. @raygunray : 3/3/ Paravel
  10. @paravelinc : the company Dave, Trent and Raegan runs, alway tweeting good things
  11. @sarah_edo : contributor at CSS-TRICKS, Senior Dev Advocate at Microsoft
  12. @brad_frost : web designer, speaker, consultant, cool guy
  13. @littlenono : visual design lead at @ustwo
  14. @smpetrey : the guy that wrote this article, overall good dude, enjoys the web

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