Do You Know Why It’s Important To Understand Design Principles?

You’ve probably noticed all the posts here on design principles over the last year or so. Some of you have let me know you’ve been enjoying them and if I haven’t thanked you directly let me thank you here and now.

I thought I’d take a few minutes to explain why I started writing these posts and why I think design principles are important even vital for web designers to learn and understand how to use.

A Learning Designer

I consider myself a designer, not necessarily a great one at the moment, but a learning one. I didn’t go to school to learn design or any visual art for that matter. Like many I entered the field of web design, because I taught myself how to build a web page with html and then later with css and javascript and php/mysql.

My entry point into web design was that point between graphic designer and application developer. I guess the term now is front end developer.

There are so many disciplines that cross into web design and early on I tired to learn as much as I could about any and all of them. Marketing, seo, copywriting, programming, etc. In time it was the visual or communication design aspect that appealed to me the most. I love design and want to do everything I can to become a better designer.

The Current State of Web Design Blogs

One of my first steps in learning to be a better designer was to tap into the current community of design blogs. Unfortunately I found most design posts on the useless side. The talk focuses on trends or the latest set of icons to download. Posts are filled with lists of information no one really needs to know. How does seeing 20 blue or red web designs without any explanation of why the sites were included in the list make you a better designer.

Please understand the paragraph above isn’t meant to criticize most design blogs. In truth I probably subscribed to the majority of the blogs in my feed reader because they offered a list of things I was interested in when I came across it or I appreciated the links to free icons or backgrounds as a solution to something I was working on. If I was working on a design that was going to use blue as the dominant color then a list of blue web designs could be helpful.

I’ve even written list posts of my own.

I think many people entered web design much like I did with more knowledge and experience on the technical side of building web pages and less on the principles of design. When I look through galleries of what’s considered great design I’m often left less than excited. I see one site successful in doing something and then lots of other sites copying that first one.

Certainly not everyone. You can find quite a number of people who have been trained in the art of design or who have successfully taught it to themselves. There are also some great multi-author sites out there teaching design and some experimenting with design on their own sites.

A good design education is out there if you look for it, however for the most part there seems to be a lack of content helping others learn those same principles hence the tendency to copy. Sadly some of the better among us write the least often. Perhaps because they’re working so much designing.

Again this isn’t meant to condemn the current state of web design blogs. I think list posts and free downloads have a purpose and can be useful to many people. They also exist in such great number because we click on those posts and bookmark them and retweet them. It’s just that I don’t think those posts helped me improve my skills to where I wanted to take them. Something was missing.

The blogs were handing out fish instead of teaching us how to fish. When you’re starving you just want a fish. If you don’t want to be hungry again tomorrow you need to learn how to fish for yourself. To learn how to fish you need to learn design principles.

Learning the Language

I’ve often used the phrase visual design when speaking about what we do. I recently came across what I think is a better term; communication design. Our job as web designers is to communicate. You can’t communicate without understanding the language with which you are communicating. For us that language is is visual and can be found in the principles of design.

Ultimately the words on your page will carry the day, but it’s up to us to make sure those words, at least the most important ones, are read and to make sure we’ve put people in the right frame of mind to absorb what those words are trying to convey.

The language we use to achieve this is a visual one. On some level we instinctively understand this visual language and its grammar, but for the most part we aren’t well versed in understanding the language and being able to use it effectively. We miss the nuances of the language. It’s one thing to point to a ball and know it’s called a ball. It’s another to use the word in a sentence and to weave sentences into paragraphs all focused on communicating a single idea.

Teaching as a Means to Learning

Failing to learn the language through design blogs and other sites about design I came across, I turned toward books on design. Much of what you see written here is me reading or rereading one or more books on my bookshelf dealing with a design principle and then researching it as much as I can. In trying to teach it to you I find I learn it better myself. In fact until you can teach it to someone else, I’m not sure if you’ve truly learned it.

When I’m working on a problem in typography, I’ll spend more time reading and experimenting with typography and then writing about typography. When I’m struggling with grids you’ll see me write more about grids. Maybe not every post here gets written that way, but in general if you want to know what I’m learning, follow what I’m writing about.

Web Design is More Than the Technical

I think design is important. I think it matters. I think good design leads to a better experience for users, which leads to a better bottom line for businesses. I think design is something worthwhile to learn and something imperative to do better if you want to be a web designer. Web design is not html and css alone. They’re important considerations as is every other technical aspect of building a website, but they aren’t web design.

In the print world the technical side includes the quality and texture of the paper, the limitations of the ink used in printing, calibration of colors on your monitor so they match the color that finds its way onto the page. Understanding these technical issues alone won’t make you a graphic designer. It’s understanding this technical side in conjunction with being able to communicate with the language of design that makes you a graphic designer.

It’s the same thing on the web. A different medium means a different set of technical problems to solve. The language we use to communicate is still the same and the syntax and grammar of that language is found in the principles of design.

The design principles posts you find here are a way to fill a void many other blogs seem averse to filling. They’re a way to teach myself to be a better designer, hopefully to the point where I can inspire you to learn more and maybe even teach you to be a better designer a bit. I also hope you’ll respond and teach me a thing or two about becoming a better designer and together we can form a community the helps to improve web design for every one.

If you’re willing to invest a little time you can find great design content and communities on the web. I think more sites and communities are needed and hopefully this place can be one of those communities.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

7 comments

  1. Really good post. I too come from a design for print background and the skills I learnt back in my very first design job (in the 90′s) about balance, composition and typography are the foundation to everything I produce now.

    • Thanks Mark. I don’t actually come from a print background. It’s been all web for me. Once I was able to design and build a site reasonably well I realized my education needed more than the technical side of things so I’ve been studying as much as I can about graphic design principles.

      I agree they are the foundation for everything else. Just because we moved online doesn’t mean we should ignore all the principles from the print world.

      • Hi buddy i have some questions. I have many books on design and read many of them. But i think the hard part is implementation of this principles. Can u help me in this matter.:)

  2. There is a lot to consider in website marketing. I thought you’re done when you have site up and running. You’re right. You need an audience for that website. So you need to think of ways to drive people to your website.

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