5 Web Design Tips You Probably Haven’t Heard Before

by Tom Kenny (@tkenny)

Here on Inspect Element, I don’t want to just give you standard advice that you’ve heard before, although there is value in that. I still refresh myself on things I learnt years ago. Alongside that, hearing advice multiple times helps it settle in more as it takes 7 times to retain new information. Saying that, I don’t want to give you “standard” advice, I want to go above and beyond with advice that will help you get more out of your web design career.

1. Design for the Extremes

Too many times, I’ve seen content breaking designs. It looks sloppy and can happen if you don’t account for it at the design level.

For example, what happens if someone adds 75 characters of text into a title for an item and you only had 20 in the design? It looked great with your example text of 20 characters but does it break the design completely or will it stand the test of someone entering in more text than you expected? Expect the unexpected and design for it.

Forgetting about the extremes leads to more work as you now have to go back and come up with a solution to fix this problem, likely taking you away from another project you are supposed to be working on.

There are ways around this. For a previous client, we set a limit of 30 characters which was agreed with the content team. They know the “extremes”, so it was best to work with them and find out what would be a good amount to limit the titles to.

2. Benefits are More Important than Code or Techniques

The web design world has an obsession with learning code and techniques. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to a certain extent. It’s tempting to gravitate towards the latest and greatest shiny thing but is that really the best use of your time for completing a project?

Invest more time into what actually helps clients improve their business unless the latest and greatest shiny thing does just that. One great example of this is responsive web design. When it was first discovered and shared with the world by Ethan Marcotte, everyone knew it was code and techniques you can learn to improve any website.

Clients, bosses and business owners don’t care about your great code unless you can link it to benefits for them. Sure, it helps you to do your job better but don’t sell yourself and your work on technical abilities alone. You need to give a good reason why it will benefit them and their business. With this in mind, which designer below would you hire?

  • Designer 1: “I design and build websites in HTML and CSS with efficient code using CSS3, the latest javascript techniques and responsive code.”
  • Designer 2: “With proven design techniques and performance optimised code, I will help improve conversion rates to get you more customers and sales.”

Why oh why, designer 1? I own a business and I come across your website but I have no idea what that all means and how does it help me? I have no idea. I’m off to find someone who can help me.

Designer 2 relates their skills directly to benefits for the business they are working for and doesn’t talk about technical details because there’s no need. Businesses are taking a risk hiring you, so you need to make sure you seem like less of a risk than everyone else. Very few designers do this, so you will almost certainly stand out if you do.

Bonus tip: Don’t create a chart of your skills where you give each skill a percentage score. Are you only 30% good at jQuery? Does that mean 70% of the jQuery work you do is terrible? Most importantly, it doesn’t relate to how you will actually help a business.

3. Writing Improves Your Design Work and Career

You may have heard of this one before from me. I’ve written about this before but it’s worth bringing up again, even if you’ve already read it. Most designers don’t write at all, yet improving your writing can help your design career and work, not to mention other areas of your life too.

Improving my communication skills has given me more confidence to reach out to others. I’m a classic introvert, so this doesn’t come easy to me but now I can much more easily communicate my thoughts and ideas to people than ever before. Less time is wasted and it feels great.

Writing can even help you overcome creative block. Getting my ideas down onto paper means I don’t forget them but also allows me to develop them. If I purposely write about my ideas, it leads me to refine them much more easily than if they were just in my head and laid out in Photoshop. I also don’t forget them when I write them down which has saved me on more than one occasion.

I am constantly surprised by how much writing has helped me in my design career. It’s not something I thought would help as it isn’t advice you’ll normally hear but it’s one of the best skills you can improve.

Read more about how writing can help you.

4. Don’t Take Criticism Personally

You created the work. It’s your design, your baby. You believe in the work you do because you’re a good designer but when someone else comes along to make some suggestions, it can be hard not to take it personally. It’s one of the best skills you can develop. That’s right, it’s a skill. It’s something you can build up and get better at over time. I know because I used to be terrible at it but now I understand people just want to help. They don’t hate you or your work.

Truth is, it’s much easier for someone stepping into the problem fresh to see where designs can be improved than it is for you. You’ve had your head stuck in your work for hours, so it will be more difficult for you to see what others will notice.

You’ve probably done this multiple times yourself. It can be difficult to use the web normally as a web designer because you’re continuously scrutinising every design you see. You can see improvements you would make on every site you visit. You can see how much easier it is to suggest improvements if you see others’ work because you do it all the time!

Take a moment to think it’s nothing personal when someone expresses an idea. They’re only trying to help. If you don’t think they’re right, you can always use your expertise to explain why.

5. Learn from Other Industries

James Clear gives this excellent advice about learning:

Read books outside the norm. If you read the same material as everyone else, then you’ll think in the same way as everyone else. You can’t expect to see problems in a new way if you’re reading all the same things as your classmates, co-workers, or peers. So, either read books that are seldom read by the rest of your group or read books that are outside your area of interest, but can overlap with it in some way. In other words, look for answers in unexpected places.

For example, learning about how architects approach a certain problem may just spark something in your mind that can help your design process or researching how artists in other fields get past creative block can help you approach problems from different angles to come up with better solutions of your own.

For me photography has been beneficial to the way I approach design for a number of reasons. It has given me the freedom to be creatively expressive in a way that I wasn’t doing with web design. I now don’t worry as much about what others think and have more confidence in the work I do.

Photography also improves my composition work. The composition of a photo is key and can completely change a photo. First impression are key in the world of web design and plays an important role in photography. Composition has a starring role in making a good first impression.

Don’t limit yourself to learning only about web design. Here are some areas you could explore:

  • Movies and TV shows
  • Architecture
  • Book and magazine design
  • Music
  • Writing
  • Photography
  • Interior design
  • Animation
  • Product design

I’m sure you can think of more areas to explore but hopefully it should be a good starting point.

Don’t Take the Easy Route

Some of these tips aren’t easy, or just isn’t the typical advice you normally hear but you know great design isn’t easy and if you follow what everyone else is doing you’ll end up doing the same. Taking the easy route will only lead you to mediocrity but you’re better than that.

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by Tom Kenny

I’m a freelance web designer and front-end developer with 9 years of experience designing for the web. Follow me on Twitter here.