Design of a Design
October 16, 2010 9:49 PM   Subscribe

What makes a design good? And how do I create it?

I've read a lot of old questions on web design. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) And I've discovered a lot of good resources on HTML, CSS, and UX. These are useful, but I'm having trouble coming up with designs and knowing what's good about a design.

I've created web sites before, but they're not very polished. I'll sketch out something basic (navigation and content). I understand the HTML and CSS necessary to create it. But it'll end up looking boring and plain.

What makes a design good? What makes a web site look polished? Fonts? Colors? Images? Other stuff?

I guess my question is like this, except that I have no background or history or theory or experience, and that's what I'm looking for.

What are some good resources to help me learn? Books are nice. Class recommendations are okay, too. (I'm in NYC.)
posted by aloysius on the mixing boards to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I got some very good answers in this similar question.
posted by Memo at 9:59 PM on October 16, 2010

Best answer: Good design comes out of peer critique. It's universal. Every profession, no matter the subject, will put certain issues into play when deciding if work is good. The key is critique from a peer. I am a producer and I hate critique. But I need it. You need it. Peer critique is the only way to figure out growth factors.
posted by parmanparman at 10:29 PM on October 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Generally speaking, "clever" code is bad code. Optimization comes from a clean design, not from microscopic tricks.

Good code is well documented. Good code is straightforward and uncluttered. Good code can be understood, and if necessary enhanced, by someone other than the original author.

Good code is well documented.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:05 PM on October 16, 2010

Best answer: A good place to start are Gestalt Principles (not the psychology branch). There's lots you can read up on and study and many differing views on what makes design "good", but these are fairly standard first year design lessons and should get you started on the right foot.
posted by girlalex at 11:44 PM on October 16, 2010

Best answer: In case non of those previous threads mentioned it, I liked Robin Williams' "Non-designer's Design Book". It laid out some fundamental principles and gave me rules to follow.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:21 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One thing I have that found helps me a lot as a non-designer is making lots of iterative passes, taking my time in between. This helps with my most common mistake, which is getting hung up on some aspect of the design at the beginning of the project and not realising it just doesn't work. This is often compounded by the fact that I tend to think in terms of the behind-the-scenes code while designing, and naturally trend towards designs that fit well with the way the code is organized.

The other thing is that good design is just a lot of work, and does not come to the designer as a vision from heaven: My impression is that people with a technical background often underestimate the amount of work that needs to go into trying out different approaches, tweaking all the little details and things like that, in the same way that a non-technical designer doesn't understand why you can't turn a spiffy photoshop layout into a fully-functional, standards compliant website in a couple of hours.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:29 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There's all good points above here. But before you start designing, as yourself AND your client what the goals are that you have to achieve. Don't accept generalities or easy assumptions. Define the answers for the website as a whole , but also for every single page and define them really tight. That way you can measure if you designed it right or not. Don't be surprised if this process takes up as much time as the actual designing itself.
posted by ouke at 3:13 AM on October 17, 2010

Best answer: When you say design, do you mean design like the user interface and how easily people navigate it?

Or design like "wow, that chair is really designed well?"

To the latter, no clue. To the former, a good understanding of what information you have and how the users will need to interact with the site, and who those users are, is key.

As an example: metafilter's design is great for people who already know what's going on. This would not be such a great design for a site that was trying to lure and engage brand new users. How would they know what all those things at the top meant? If that was the goal, you'd need a front page that explained everything. And then a great tweak would be for logged in users to have the option of turning off that front page and just getting straight to the recycled Reddit and Slashdot links.
posted by gjc at 6:28 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Elements of what's been said above.

Understanding the goals so you can prioritize the information as well as the emotion(s) you want to communicate. I hate to sound to corporate but asking yourself (in this case, if I read you right, the client) "What does success look like for this project?" and "Who is the audience?" are important considerations. Is it important they sign up for X, do you want to move them to Y, etc. Does this need to speak to Grandpa who still lives in Japan? Does it need to grab the attention of young Sally in second grade, Stockton CA? Nailing these definitions will help with the visual design of course, but it also helps shape the understanding of what "makes a good design" in a different way. And it helps make success measurable.

Principles of visual design. There are a ton of resources out there. Here are a few books that haven't been recommended yet (who knows what's going to come along before I'm done):
  • Wallschlager/Busic-Snyder's Basic Visual Concepts for Artists, Architects, and Designers
  • Armin Hofmann's Graphic Design Manual
  • Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style
  • Josef Müller-Brockmann's Grid Systems in Graphic Design
  • Ellen Lupton's Thinking with Type
  • Spiekermann's Stop Steeling Sheep & Find Out How Type Works

The list goes on. You'll begin to see that there are different levels of design to take into account and learn about.

You are in a great city for design. Keep your eyes peeled. There are plenty of places to see great design both at specific design museums and places like MOMA that have dedicated wings. Check out AIGA-NY. And, take a class. I think you would get a lot more out of an intermediate class so I linked to that page for SVA continuing education. Check out something like "Design Procedures". Why intermediate? Because as someone said above peer critique and conversation is super valuable in design. In an intermediate (and advanced, obviously) class you're more likely to find working designers as well.
posted by safetyfork at 7:15 AM on October 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I highly, highly recommend the book Transcending CSS which explains the technical aspects of CSS as well as covering the aesthetics of good design.
posted by jeremias at 7:42 AM on October 17, 2010

Response by poster: Looks like answers have settled down. Thanks everyone.

For the record, there's no client other than me (for now anyway). Right now, I'd really like to make web sites (for myself) that look awesome. That's all.
posted by aloysius on the mixing boards at 7:39 PM on October 18, 2010

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