How To Stop Ruining Your Designs

Although I go by the title of developer’ I actually have a background in design. I went to college several years ago to get my degree in traditional print design, but I just didn’t enjoy designing for clients as much as I did coding.

That being said, I’m still a fan of beautifully designed pieces of work, and it’s disheartening to see so many terrible designs out there today. While the community has definitely gotten better in terms of quality, we all still have a long way to go.

If you’re new to the web design world, or if you have no formal education in design, it can seem a daunting task to get started. After all, its one of the hardest things in the world to please both a client and yourself design-wise.

There are several common mistakes I see designers do that can really hamper their design quality.

Designing for trends

We’ve all seen the recent backlash against the horrid “Web 2.0″ type of design. During the past few years, gradients, shiny buttons and rounded corners became a trend on almost every site. Instead of designing for the client’s audience, these designers were designing for trends instead.

The problem with designing for trends is that by the time you’ve done yours, the trend is already overused and outdated. Instead of trying to keep up with the trends, you should instead be focusing on balanced, meaningful designs – and perhaps your work will eventually become the trend!

Copying other designs

I’m guilty of this one myself. Since I don’t design very often, I’m a bit rusty (especially when it comes to content/UI layouts), so my natural response is to look at other sites with designs I like to see how they did it.

While there’s nothing wrong with getting inspiration (not copying) from other sites, this practice can actually influence our work too much and hold us back from doing our own layouts. For example, if you like the way site A’s call to action button is designed and decide to do something similar, you miss out on coming up with your own, and potentially better, design.

Listening to your clients

This may go against most conventional freelance advice, but you really should stop listening to your clients – at least you should stop listening to them so much. While it’s important to physically listen to what they’d like and to take note of it – the reality is that they came to you for dsign work. You’re a designer, not a pixel pusher, and it should be your job to figure out what the clients and the client’s intended audience really need.

Just like looking at other websites for design inspiration, designing solely based on what the client says he wants (or thinks he wants) can hold back your quality. Yes, its important to do something they like, but isn’t it also as important to exceed their expectations? While you can certainly get by with giving the client exactly what he wants, will he come back to you for more work? While it be something you’re proud of?

So how should we go about designing?

Eveyone starts their designs off differently. But we should also focus on beginning the projects off the computer first, which includes sketching, brainstorming and research. I learned this the hard way after launching my first web app, I had focused on getting the designed down first, instead of working on the UI and the layout. Now when we realized we missed some features, it’s that much harder to implement into the current design.

You should also try to focus part of your free time in learning new things. Read books and blogs, watch movies with great cinematography, listen to podcasts, go to parks or visit a bookstore. All of these things actually influence your creativeness and are a big help when starting a new project.

What makes the great designers great?

What makes the great designers great? Is it their knowledge of typography and how they use white space? Quite possibly. Or is it because they go their own way in the design world? What would Elliot Jay Stock’s or Chris Spooners’s designs look like if they decided to follow trends, base their designs off of others or listen fully to their clients? Would we still be calling them great?

Your thoughts

What do you think distinguishes mediocre designers from great ones? How can we improve our designs?

  1. June 15, 2010

    It’s good advice, but really really hard to keep to in the real world. We designer’s aren’t thought skills in negotiation or getting our point through thick headed clients. but its good advice. πŸ™‚

  2. Eric
    June 15, 2010

    Rule #1: Be Yourself.

    In the immortal words of Cameron Crowe, from his great film, “Jerry Maguire,”

    “That’s how you become great, man. Hang your balls out there.”

  3. June 15, 2010

    Great post Amber πŸ™‚
    And I agree, some designers design some sites without ever thinking that there is going to be someone who has to do the developing part of it :S Finding that balance is always key to any project πŸ™‚

  4. June 15, 2010

    i think that if we have a truly great client they will tell us what they want and leave the designing to us. i am currently going through this. too many cooks, everyone know what they don’t want, nobody can tell me what they do want. oh they want to look like everyone else, what good is that?


  5. June 15, 2010

    I am more of a designer then developer and to you made the right points here. The one I want to add from my side is that designers should design with people and search engines in mind. There is no point in just designing for one or the other. You need a search engine for people to find your site, but at the end of the day it’s people visiting your site.

  6. June 15, 2010

    This is a great article. It’s amazing how often designers of all levels of experience and ability fall into at least one of these categories at different moments. I know I’ve been guilty of a couple of these once or twice. I think what happens is you learn a new skill but don’t really understand what it is you’ve learned so you can’t manipulate to it’s fullest potential. I think great designers, like Chris Spooner, Obox, Aaron Irizarry and others like these guys, can take things to that next level and produce something better than what the rest of us thought possible. They take the time to completely understand what they can do with their skills and improve on them. We could all take a few lessons from them.

  7. Mares
    June 15, 2010

    The main thing that distinguishes mediocre designers from great ones is originality. Also, very important is the experience which the designer had before. A young, unexperimented designer might create a great design, but if after that work, It doesn’t appear a greater one, the he’s not a great designer. A great designer is the one who can push himself over his limits.

  8. Zlatan Halilovic
    June 15, 2010

    Thanks for the great article. You just gave me the initiative to stop designing sites according to current trends in the design industry! πŸ˜€

  9. June 15, 2010

    Nicely written article.

    One thing I’d like to add, is to ask better questions.

    When designing for the client’s audience, the world view or paradigm of these people maybe completely alien to you. Some of their ideals may provoke or even challenge your design ideals.

    Two years ago, I met Heather, a sales representative of a chipset manufacturer for a Fortune 500.

    Her clients are electrical engineers. She wanted to produce a product flier with a lot of words and statistics. Heather was adamant that all this text must be on the flier. Naturally, I am a minimalist and so I was about to advise against it. But instead, I asked her “What is the mindset of your customers?”

    She replied “They don’t like the buddy-buddy salesman, see through most flashy marketing, and advertising tactics. They want the cold hard facts, numbers, statistics, industry jargon, and case studies. This is what drives their emotions to buy or become interested. Theses people are very intelligent and you can’t dupe them.”

    I decided to integrate her answers into flier despite my stubborn minimalist mind yelling “No!” What I also integrated was legible type face that was pleasing to the eye and carefully laid out the text. Also, I redone the graphs and charts so the data was presented in a concise manner.

    A couple of months had passed and so I decided to follow up with her. Heather told me that her clients were a lot more interested because the information on the flier was a lot more legible. She also explained that most of the graphs and charts engineers look at are presented hastily in Word or Excel.

    Problem solved.

  10. June 15, 2010

    Design is probably the hardest thing for me. And my biggest crime is probably looking at things for inspiration and emulating things people seem to like instead of understanding the reasoning behind those design choices (it doesn’t help that so many people copy copies, and you start seeing the same formats over and over, just look at the web UI gallery on DeviantArt). As someone who is college educated in business, systems analysis and programming, designing and building systems both physical and data-based is fine, but the graphical design thing isn’t my fortΓ©.

    Since the late 80’s I’ve been more of a tech. Troubleshooting, building, fixing, programming. Then I studied computers in college. So it’s lifelong experience + college. With design I’m 100% self-taught, and it’s only been over the last three years or so at most. I’ve mostly just read dozens and dozens of articles like this, tutorials, and befriending a few designers to ask for help. But I’m making progress. I take it seriously and I try not to rush designs. It helps that I’ve been on the web for over 15 years, so I’ve seen how a lot of websites have evolved, and I’ve at least cultivated some natural sense of what people seem to like/hate in terms of UI.

  11. June 15, 2010

    Thanks for your responses, guys! It’s a really difficult industry we have, as I don’t think any other competes as much as we do (outside of star stuff like actors, atheletes, etc)

  12. June 15, 2010

    Id like to disagree with you up to a point. There is no real design that is “your own”. If you look around the world long enough you’ll find someone who’s doing something that looks just like what you thought was your own unique design.

    This is why design is the only field where there can be many specialists because little things like local culture, trends in your locality and even client demands and how you respond to them in design can make you look like you are doing something else someone hasn’t done before.

    The real truth is that we are all copying something even if we don’t realize it. Even the “Chris Spooners”. The question is how wide is the base of human knowledge from which you’re pooling these resources. Some people think they can only get inspiration from looking up other web designs when sometimes natural elements around you might also give you a new idea about a web site or a poster.

    In summary the aim isn’t to tell people not to copy or follow trends but (1) to first know why those trends are in vogue and decide whether they help his or her client communicate their brand essence more effectively and (2) to widen the scope of their knowledge base from which they are inevitably copying even though we’d prefer to call it “finding inspiration”

  13. June 15, 2010

    I think Jae Xavier really hit the point for me. A great designer solves problems. Making something eye catching and beautiful is part of that but if that’s all you do you might as well call yourself an artist. A designer, and developer for that matter, will ask questions, listen to the client’s needs, bounce ideas off other people, and come up with a solution that solves the problem.

  14. justin time
    June 15, 2010

    agree with all the points other than
    “What makes the great designers great?”
    the truth?
    …the truth is ‘they’ do have talent (much as 1000s of other poor unglamorous souls) but reality is that articles,linking, cross posting on blogs…landing 1 or 2 big clients…essentially ‘who you know’ is what makes them great. Like or hate it…it is the truth of any business. Marketing, Sales and Who you know will beat your PS/CSS/HTML skills any given day. Groupie bloggers help as well πŸ™‚

  15. June 16, 2010

    Ya.. This is very useful article.. and Plz can you add link to share with social networking..Now a days it’s very useful to share…

  16. June 16, 2010

    As a webdesigner i know the importance of running the design, i have ruined my own blog design and not able to get the enough time to make changes in it because of the projects i’m having will sooner improve it. Thnaks for the share of this valuable article

  17. June 16, 2010

    These are great tips, i think taking inspiration from other peoples designs but making sure you develop your own ideas is crucial, as sometimes its just a platform to propel your own ideas.

  18. June 16, 2010

    Nice post Amber. I might also recommend subscribing to some design magazines, even if you just glance at them here and there when you’re bored. It can really help to keep your mind thinking creatively. Anyways, keep up the good work!

  19. some guy
    June 16, 2010

    Taste is subjective, as is art. What someone might think as ‘bad design’ the client might love – and it’s the client we need to keep happy, not this ‘community’ of stuck up designers.

    Ps: I don’t know where you’re looking, but Spooner is one of the biggest trend followers!!! But it works for him, and he produces nice designs!

  20. Illusiveforces
    June 16, 2010

    Wow, it’s amazing to stumble across a blog author with exact same background – BFA in Communication Design with a heavy influence on print. I too, turned from print, to web design, to web application dev and design. Great write up. It seems we share a very similar background and philosophy. Keep up the great work and I look forward to future entries.

  21. Aaron
    June 16, 2010

    Couldn’t agree more with all of these sentiments. A lot of designers I work with in our studio will just look at a trendy new video and copy elements from it.. They continue to do this despite their pitches never going anywhere. Also one of my superiors is consistently trying to appease what he expects the clients to say and he dulls down his content by anticipating bad client feedback. It can be frustrating working under him because he allows client interference with quality design, whereas one of my other bosses is better at picking and choosing his battles with clients.

  22. Robert Dundon
    June 16, 2010

    Two typos, my friend. ‘While’ instead of “Will,” and ‘designed’ instead of “designed”.

    Otherwise, good article.

  23. June 16, 2010

    All great points, another rule that I follow closely, and sort-of piggybacks on not following trends, is to design based on your client and their customers needs, not simply to show off your own artistic flair. To put simpler (and how I have it in my mission statement), I design sites so its memorable to my client’s customers for what they offer, not what I offer.

  24. June 16, 2010

    very good post, copying other design sometimes make me frustrating, never satisfied, cause not my original design

  25. June 17, 2010

    I think the hardest thing for designers to learn is to listen to what their clients want/need. They often don’t have an artistic eye, and you may feel you know better than they do, the result may however not be what they want.

  26. June 22, 2010

    All great points – I couldn’t agree more, especially with following the horrible Web 2.0 trend!

  27. August 10, 2010

    Great piece. I completely agree. In any profession, those that don’t follow the crowed tend to be more original, more successful, and/or more respected. The problem is most are afraid of the criticism and the risk of failure.

  28. August 15, 2010

    great designs thanx for sharing

  29. August 19, 2010

    I wrote an article myself recently talking about this kind of thing. We design for ego’s sometimes our own (depending on your level of arrogance) but also for the ego of the client, who generally has no handle whatsoever on what the customer/user wants.

    Personally I believe if your not prepared to be more stronger in your own theories and opinions, then you really should seek alternative employment – being a Web Designer shouldn’t be just about paying the bills – because if it is, then you should work in a factory and have less hassle.

    Good article though, I like.

  30. justin time
    August 20, 2010

    @Nick Toye
    Then just be prepared for people to call you out on your ego trips and critique you for it πŸ™‚
    Word of caution, if the client is happy but their customer/user is not…then you will be held responsible for failed design & traffic/sales expectations not your client. Clients will forget how you made Them happy really quick….
    Good luck.

  31. August 20, 2010

    @justin time – not sure what you mean? I don’t design for myself. I design for how I believe the customer and end user will interact with the product.

    It’s true over the past 12 months I have had to put aside my values and take the money, but that was whilst I was working at an agency and it was easier for me to not bother. But if I have control, more control – and a client comes to me for advice on how best to do something – then I will tell them.

  32. January 30, 2011

    Being your own best counsel is key. Every one else has their own agenda and will tell you what they like best. You must be true to you!

  33. justin time
    February 2, 2011

    @Nick Toye
    Oh I was just saying that when one is letting ego drive the design to be prepared to have that ego hurt. Ego designs are just that …designs for oneself…meaning chances are most people will hate it. πŸ™‚

    I hear ‘web agency’ and I tend to run…recently, I have had a privilege of being a recipient of work of rather large marketing ‘agency’ that also ‘does websites’. I viewed the source code and laughed at tables based designs made in no more than 2-3 hrs worth of work using dreamweaver. They got paid regardless.
    I see you like symphony….take a look at ExpressionEngine.

    Anyhow, good luck with your ventures.

  34. May 6, 2011

    I have similar issue with my current stuff. This is not issue but attraction of different work. I am Java coder but working as a webmaster. Now, I am thinking to be web designer which can help me lot to satisfy my mind as well as work. What you think about it? Can anyone change work?

  35. July 19, 2011

    I totally agree. I work with a lot of start-ups and professionals, who need both marketing and design advice. It is important to find that balance between what the client wants and what they actually need. When designing and finding marketing avenues, I start with a basic plan for everyone and then tailor it to the client’s needs — even if I’m working with more than one client from the same industry. Each is going to have their own needs because of their target market and that’s who we need to determine who it is first and then design and market to them later.

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