Here's how to become a better web designer in six thoughtful steps:
How do I become a good web designer? This is the prime question I am usually asked by students who have an interest in this field. They see web design as an interesting occupation and are attracted by the creative nature of this craft. We are all gifted with varying degrees of creativity. However, the essential craft of web design can be learned by developing certain abilities we all share. Here are basic strategies that will help you to cultivate the creative powers needed to become a good web designer:
Web Designers Design Constantly
While some may have an inherent degree of creative talent, the skills needed to be a good web designer can be learned by just about anyone. However, your choice of school or coursework is not the critical factor in your success. The best web designers become such by doing. Driven by a desire to learn, we seek out the needed tools and design constantly. We do not wait for any school to teach us. The tools for this craft are all available online. It becomes our hobby, our pastime. We enjoy the learning curve and challenges and find ways to master our craft with or without traditional secular training.
Where Web Design Happens
Now, let me explain what I mean by the statement, “(Good) web designers design constantly.” This does not mean that we are always in front of the computer trying out different ideas. Design is a mental process. The computer, like the artist’s brush or the pencil, is the tool used to express what the mind conceives. If the first time you think about a design project is when you are sitting in front of Photoshop or Dreamweaver, then you are using the wrong tool for design. The “heavy lifting” of web design occurs in the mind.
Your Mind Is Your Greatest Web Design Tool
The mind is the best tool for creating great web design, not the computer. If you look at the work of great designers such as Saul Bass, Paul Rand, or Milton Glaser, you will discover that ideas, not tools, drives the quality of their work. Thinking about design solutions can be done in any environment. By the time you sit down at the computer, you should be well along in the process of formulating creative ideas. If you need a computer in front of every time you want to “design,” then you are not taking full advantage of the best tool for the job. Design happens in the mind.
I recently watched an online interview with the comedian Jerry Seinfeld. He was asked about the process of creating comedic material. What he stated about his daily routine is also true of good web designers. He keenly observes life as it unfolds before him, taking insights from his daily observations that can be used in a comedy bit. He enjoys the mental rigor of taking an observation and turning it into a polished joke. A joke that may take 30 seconds to say may have been the result of hours of brainstorming, research, testing and refinement.
Develop Your Powers of Observation
This brings up a vital quality that all good web designers develop: Observation. Honestly, web design is not about creating new ideas. Truly original ideas are a rare occurrence in any profession. Rather, you are interpreting visual cues and samples from local culture and community and using them to create a visual presentation. It is your powers of observation, carefully cultivated, that provide the visual vocabulary used in web design. A good web designer, is, first of all, keenly observant.
Learn to see and sample the creativity that surrounds you.
Think about the shapes, colors, and textures you see every day. How do they affect you and why? These visual experiences may be found in nature, architecture, fashion or local culture. If something pleases your eye, try to discern why. Create a mental catalog of these creative samples that you can draw from when creating a website. The more you employ the process of observation, the better you become, and the more you enjoy it.
Good observers have an undying curiosity. They look at things appreciatively. They are drawn to colors, shapes and textures in the way that a child is drawn to candy. They take delight in what is around them and fight the tendency to take their visual surroundings for granted. A bored eye will hinder your development as a web designer.
Here’s something to keep in mind. Give your powers of observation a healthy diet of ideas. Feed your mind with good creative sources. They can be in nature, museums, the media, whatever. Look for inspiration from sources outside of web design. During the spring and summer, I try to visit a botanical garden at least once a week to photograph flora of all types. I find the natural environment of a botanic garden a great source of inspiration for creative ideas (as well as a refreshing break in my daily routine). My flower photography strengthens and feeds my web design. Travel is another way to expand your visual vocabulary. Whether it is the steel edifices of New York City or the hand-shaped Adobe architecture of Santa Fe, New Mexico, use your powers of observation to constantly mine your environment for creative ideas.
Practice! Practice! Practice!
Natural talent or ability is nice to have, but it’s deliberate practice that matters most. I remember a story I read about basketball legend Michael Jordan after he lead the Chicago Bulls to yet another of six championship seasons. It was noted that only a week after the season was over, when most pro players would look forward to time off, Michael was back in the gym, running drills and practicing his game. Scientists have discovered that what distinguishes the expert from the average performer is not talent, but a life-long deliberate effort to improve performance. Elite performers simply practice more than others. This applies to web design as well. You probably already own the tools needed for this craft. Practice! Do what you want to become.
Practice! Practice! Practice!
When I first began as a freelance web designer over 15 years ago, I was building personal websites purely as a pastime for myself and friends. I enjoyed the creative process and had an interest in computers. In 1999, one of my websites, a personal travelogue of a vacation spent in Paris, France, started to attract an enthusiastic following. It was selected by Netscape as “Cool Site of the Day.” As a result, “Paris, My Love” was receiving more than 60,000 visitors per day, and generating a ton of emails. The tag line from my website had its 15 minutes of fame: “Can a man love a city the way he loves a woman? I can. I do. My Love, My Beautiful Paris!” People were asking if I build websites professionally. Of course, I said yes! I eventually left my career in advertising to start a new small business as a freelance web design consultant. The clients kept coming and my Web Design Portfolio & Guide was born. I was ready for those clients largely because of many hours of practical experience I accumulated in building personal websites (along with a background in advertising and marketing).
In those days, I would devour anything design related, on subjects ranging from architecture to fashion to expand my visual vocabulary. Calligraphy, another hobby of mine, enhanced my typography and page layout skills. I enjoyed the learning curve required to master this new craft of web design, and I practiced nearly every day. Practice taught me how to create solutions to design and coding problems, and refined the quality of my work. It was a thrilling time. I worked with some of the largest names in the business including Priceline, and a number of large hotel chains and banks using skills that were largely self-taught. The truth is, if you really want to be a web designer, you should be creating websites. Enjoy the learning curve, and take pleasure in seeing the improvements along the way. Practice! Practice! Practice!
Good Taste and Communication Skills
It may seem odd to bundle these two skills together. But they work quite closely with each other, and can contribute greatly to your success as a web designer. The communication expert and author Frank O Milo once observed: “When you care enough to present yourself at your best, then people will care about you.” That is the essence of good taste. Good taste is showing that you care about yourself and your work. If you do so, others will as well. Good taste does not needlessly offend. It takes into consideration the feelings and attitudes of an audience. It makes the best presentation possible. It is the ability to choose what is appropriate for the occasion. In design disciplines, styles may change, sometimes not for the better. But enduring good taste can serve the web designer well in any season.
I spent a number of years working in the Fashion District in New York City when it was quite common to see noted designers such as Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and others on the street or just having a pizza at lunch. Although fads changed from season to season, I always admired the consistent good taste many of them demonstrated in their personal attire. They stood out for it. It was such an uncommon and refreshing quality. Likewise, good taste will make your work as a web designer stand out. It is a quality that is sensed and appreciated universally. Acquiring good taste as a web designer is a combination of observation and good judgment. Choose who you imitate carefully.
Along with good taste, good communication is one of the best business tools you can bring to your career as a web designer. Good taste is the visual presentation of yourself and your work. Communication is your verbal presentation. When the two are working in close concert, the effect can be powerful. Web design has its own language, a cryptic vocabulary that other designers and coders speak and understand. But that technical language is not readily understood, nor very pleasant to the ears of the general public. Your ability to talk about what you do in clear, everyday English will help you to sell your work. This is an area where many web designers fall short. They expect business executives, small business owners, and other potential clients to understand everything they say. More often than not, they don’t. Your ability to converse about your work and the needs of your client in plain English can spell the difference between success and failure.
How to become a web designer? Hopefully, this discussion will encourage you to cultivate your love for design! -Don Peterson