Back when I first became a web designer, it was a career path I fell into by chance. One day I decided to play around with HTML and created a personal site. From there, I sent an email out to a local newspaper in hopes that they would promote it. They never did bother to promote my (admittedly horrible) site. Instead, they hired me to take care of their own website. More than 20 years later, here I am.
For me, this was more a case of being at the right place at the right time – and maybe a little dumb luck. Design wasn’t something I’d studied in school and so I never had a grasp of any specific principles or philosophy. And it was the same with code. HTML was fairly simple to learn, but best practices were learned mostly through trial and error.
In some ways, this was a bit of a blessing. It meant that I didn’t necessarily feel boxed-in when it came to design. No, design was just a matter of creating something that looked cool (at least to me).
But there’s no question that I’m miles better now than I was back then. Why? Over the years, I have picked up on some of the foundational aspects of designing and building a website. And it has led me to a better place.
The Basics Are Important
Have you ever been excited to learn about something, only to find yourself bored to death because you’re still stuck going over the basic stuff? I can recall my daughter feeling this way when she first took dance lessons. She was tired of doing the same few movements over and over. Learning both design and code can feel a little bit like that.
For example, years of hacking away at other people’s PHP code can give you an idea of what edits you may need to make. But, until you have the proper background information – you’re going to be stuck in the same old rut. Something like code syntax can seem boring at first, but you absolutely need to know it before you can be at all productive. It only took me a couple of decades to fully realize it.
Unlike code, design is a bit more subjective (and one forgotten character won’t crash your entire site). But your work will be better when you have at least working knowledge of elements like typography, spacing and color.
Some of these items become apparent to us by looking at both our own mistakes and other’s successes. But overall it requires a real desire to study them.
In web design, we often look for shortcuts. Whether it’s a helpful code snippet or a framework, we just want to satisfy our need for something that works in that moment. I’m just as guilty as anyone. But I also think that we would be better served by learning how and why something works, rather than just copying and pasting.
Understanding Leads to Creative Solutions
It stands to reason that, the more you know about something, the better you’re able to navigate any related challenges you face. In our line of work, that means we will have a better chance at providing clients with a means to achieve that certain look or functionality they’re after.
Not only does knowledge have an effect on the end result of a project, it also changes the very way you approach it. For instance, knowing a little bit about how WordPress works could lead to you writing your own bit of code rather than installing a plugin.
Code, in particular, is a great catalyst in these situations. Even a basic knowledge of a language lends itself to a change in thinking. Instead of seeing a challenge as this monster you have to slay, it becomes more of a series of small tasks that can more easily be tackled. You think about the steps you need to take rather than being overwhelmed by the depth of it all.
In design, having a solid foundation helps you make sense of what someone else is looking for. Clients who aren’t designers by trade may have a difficult time explaining what they want. So it’s our job to look for clues and translate that into something that is both beautiful and functional. I’d argue that’s incredibly hard to do without at least some basic knowledge of design.
Web design is all about problem solving. And the answers to those problems do not appear out of thin air.
Where to Start
If you’re reading this and wondering if perhaps you should brush up on the foundations of design and/or code, you’re not alone. Even as I write this, I realize that there are still plenty of items regarding both that I simply don’t know enough about. None of us have all the answers. So there’s no need to be embarrassed.
With the amount of quick fixes available to us, we can get away without knowing an awful lot. But eventually it makes sense to dig a little deeper.
But where should you start? The amount of material out there is overwhelming. The good news is that you don’t have to learn every single thing. You just need to find something relevant to your specific specialty.
On a personal note, I was really captivated by Jeremy Keith’s web book, “Resilient Web Design”. It covers both design and code in a way that really provided a different perspective on web design than I had ever really considered.
But what’s great about web design is that you don’t necessarily have to dive in to a book to get foundational knowledge. There are just oodles of articles and tutorials on a variety of subjects that can help introduce you to these principles. One great place to find a weekly roundup of these resources is our own Designer News area and newsletter.
If you’re into more formal education, there are plenty of great classes you can take both online and in-person. It doesn’t have to take a major commitment, just a willingness to start.