In my experience, the single most difficult and important skill for a web designer is: Remembering what you're doing.

It is incredibly easy to get bogged down on the surface level of design, pushing boxes and buttons this way and that around the page until it appears to have perfect visual balance. This is: A Complete Waste of Time.

Before looking at how to design on screen, let's consider how to think like a successful designer.

To be most successful, you've got to know what you're trying to achieve, and take the most direct path to achieve it.

From a Samurai point of view

In the words of the ancients, one should make his decisions within the space of seven breaths. Lord Takanobu said, "If discrimination is long, it will spoil." Lord Naoshige said, "When matters are done leisurely, seven out of ten will turn out badly. A warrior is a person who does things quickly."

When your mind is going hither and thither, discrimination will never be brought to a conclusion. With an intense, fresh and undelaying spirit, one will make his judgments within the space of seven breaths. It is a matter of being determined and having the spirit to break right through to the other side.

From: Hagakure (The Book of the Samurai), Tsunetomo Yamamoto

Stop designing!

Web design takes as long as you give it. The time it takes to design a web site can vary hugely. The main reason for this is that design is so subjective:

  • everyone has an opinion
  • something can always be improved
  • there is an infinite number of possible solutions - how do you know the right one?
  • the more you look at it, your perspective changes!

While I really enjoy diving into a design project, sometimes I can find it extremely hard to stop designing!

I think that those endless projects have been those where I've not been clear what I've been doing. In other words, when I don't know what my goal is.

(Note: "Designing a nice web site" is NOT a goal! It's an activity, and activities can go on for ever...)

You can only achieve what you aim for

If you don't know what your goal is in very clear terms, how do you know when you've achieved it?

What is a goal?

A goal is a state, not an activity. You create your own vision, so when you focus on activity (like 'designing a nice web site'), that's what you'll get - lots of activity!

When you focus on your end point, that's where you'll get. When you focus on the path, that's where you'll stay.

A goal should be described in the present tense, such as: "This site is complete. It communicates a compelling message of capability and expertise."

Sometimes I've spent half a day designing and only rearranged a page design and then rearrange it back again. This is called "fiddling" and it's bad.

The times that I've most enjoyed my work have happened when I've managed to keep a certain professional distance from the design.

The difference comes when I remember my purpose and have a picture in my mind's eye of "what success will look like" i.e. my GOAL.

That's why I encourage you to get clear on what it is you're working towards, and to keep clear.

The Seven Steps of Think-then-do

  1. Recognise your GOAL, write it down, and keep it handy as a touchstone
  2. Refer back to it frequently
  3. If, at any point, you can't see the wood for the trees, it's time to leave it alone
  4. Take a break, forget all about it, rest your mind, come back, read your statement of purpose touchstone again, get the mental picture back, then look at the design as it is
  5. Tell yourself out loud what's right about it and what's wrong about it
  6. Tell yourself what you're going to do, or even better - write it down
  7. Then - sit down and do it.

With a bit of practice, you'll soon be a black-belt in Think-then-do.

How to evaluate your work

The act of designing places you too close to be able to analyse your output with objective clarity. In my opinion, developing this skill is the most important differenting factor for any successful designer or creative worker.

The best way to evaluate a web design is - Get someone else to do it. (Or, develop a split personality.)

Failing that, these steps will help:

  • Do it from fresh - take regular breaks from a job, and come back to it with fresh eyes
  • Ask: "What did I miss? What's hard to look at? What draws my eye?"
  • Trust your first reactions: write down action points without being tempted to dive in and fix anything.
  • Then, do exactly what you've written down, as quickly as possible, without re-thinking.
  • Repeat (from fresh).. In the meantime, maybe work on something else, say another page or section of the site.



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