Self-educate to survive

If you lack a formal design education, you’ll need to self-educate before you can progress in your career, says Ryan Downie. Here's a checklist of the subjects he studied to help him to understand more about web design

Many website designers (and designers in other areas) do not come to the job through a formal process of training and education. They just sort of fall into it. The problem with this is that you start out with no knowledge of basic design principles or what makes a design good.

I started off this way, as did a lot of my online friends. I left my job and ended up designing because I had a computer and there was not much work around in the village where I lived. I just looked around on the internet, found some ideas of what I thought was good design at the time and then created a design. I was not armed with any knowledge about grids, typography, colour, hierarchy and so on that an education would have given me. Even though my design could have been called a success (it got featured in all the galleries and noted as a trend setter for 2008 with its handwritten fonts), I felt I was missing something.

Fast-forward a year or so and I was designing more of the same – browsing around the internet for inspiration and jumping into Photoshop and putting out a layout. It was only when I started to get to know other designers via Twitter and IM that I became aware of what I was missing. I needed to educate myself, and do it fast, if I was to survive in this world of design.

Self-education

New designers need to learn and become self- educated if they want to progress. This means learning design principles, digesting them and coming to understand them over time, just as you would if you were still in education.

The best advice given to me was to question everything. Why this colour? What emotion does it provoke? What else has it been used for? Why does it work? I find that the key to design is to question every element’s purpose. If it is not needed, remove it.

What I learned

Here’s a sort of checklist of the subjects I studied to help me to understand more about design. I hope it will help you.

Grid and layout

The grid helps with the alignment, balance and flow of the design. Mark Boulton has a fantastic book called A Practical Guide to Designing Grid Systems for the Web on this matter. Check out www.designinggridsystems.com for further details.

Colour theory

What makes colour important? Does it provoke an emotional response from the audience and, if so, why? Is there enough contrast? Sites such as www.colourlovers.com and kuler.adobe.com are great tools.

Fonts

With improved web technology, fonts have come in to the limelight and it has never been easier to find information on them. But don’t just pick a font because you like it. Do some research on it. Most foundries have a description of the font and what its purpose is. Use sites such as typedia.com for research. Smashing Magazine also has a great post on principles for readable typography. See www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/03/18/10-principles-for-readable-web-typography/.

White Balance, hierarchy and contrast

These three things are hugely important as they move the eye around the design. Without these aspects, a user cannot be guided. Take a look at what Six Revisions says about this and more by going to: sixrevisions.com/web_design/using-power-structure-and-gestalt-for-visual-hierarchy/.

Design history

Have a look back at design movements from the past and learn what made them great. Look at designs from the great art movements such as Dada, Art Deco, Bauhaus and Pop Art. See how they used design principles, played with them or deliberately ignored them and move on from there.

Design inspiration

Inspiration hits us all in different ways. If you’re planning to design a website, try not to browse around the web. Instead try and get out of the house, go for a walk and clear your head. Look at magazines, the packaging on a product, a film poster or even movie credits from the 60s ... anything to get that spark.

This article originally appeared in issue 216 of .net magazine - the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.