If you are just getting started in design, or if you’re looking for ways to improve, there are great resources available to dig deep into the fundamental principles of design. If you have the time I recommend you use them. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have a lot of time, so here’s a list of design heuristics (rules of thumb) that you can use to quickly up your game.
Take a design you think is great, a homepage for example, and try to copy it exactly. When you think you have it right, screenshot the original and place it over yours at 50% opacity. Looking carefully at where the two differ will tell you a lot about subtleties of size and placement that made the original design work. Remember those things and use them in your next project.
Line things up
Most design programs have guides, pull guidelines out onto your design and use them to start lining things up both vertically and horizontally. You don’t have to make a rigid grid system (unless you want to), just line things up, even if it makes no sense, it will give your design a feeling of order and intentionality.
Give it a backstory
Imagine your design is a character in a movie. Describe your characters motivation in one sentence, for example ‘I am letting you in on a wonderful secret’ or ‘Brace yourself, we’re going to do some thinking’. Put the sentence on a note, post it in a prominent place in your workspace, and look at it each time you start to work.
Make your layout a map
Find a block of text in the layout that’s not the largest or smallest on the page, but roughly in the middle, and draw an even 8x8 grid on top of it. Fill one grid square with a color and imagine that square is a car. If you drove it around the white space of the layout would it fit? Could another car pass? Are there awkward intersections? Is there a clear hierarchy eg. highways, avenues, streets, alleys? Try to make the design more ‘driveable’ and you will make it better.
Color things by size
Take a design and make a color palette of it’s five key colors arranged from most desaturated to most saturated. Now identify five prominent elements from the design with as large a size variation as possible. Change the colors of each so the smallest is the most saturated and the largest is the most desaturated. Did the design get better? It’s not a hard fast rule but more often than not this works.
Avoid big changes
Behavioral psychologists have found that people respond well to what’s familiar, and poorly to what’s strange. At the same time people are keenly aware of very small changes in their environment. The lesson is that big redesigns tend to alienate users. If you are redesigning something, don’t start from scratch. Make a few subtle, eye catching improvements and if possible introduce them gradually over time.
Learn your cultural language.
Every design element; colors, fonts, icons, patterns, carries a host of cultural connotations that convey meaning before a user ever reads a word. Pastels say ‘baby’, plaid says ‘Scottish’, Helvetica ultra-light says ‘fashion’. You can use (or subvert) these expectations, but only if you know them. Before you start to design, write out a list of connotations you want your design to have and use they to guide your choices.
Set rules for yourself
Apart from general design rules, give a design its own unique rules, like ‘purple always means premium’ or ‘quotes are never more than 20 words’. The rules can be completely arbitrary, but if you follow them consistently you establish shortcuts the user can rely on to quickly get the gist, like the way stop signs are always red and octagonal.
Get a second opinion
If you’re at the stage where you have a high-fidelity comp or prototype show it to someone who falls within the target audience. Don’t tell them it’s your design or even that you like it, and above all don’t defend it. Just ask their opinion and pay close attention to how they react. Afterward you will likely find yourself making changes that strengthen the impact of the design on it’s audience.
When all else fails, spend money.
The web is full of places to buy great design elements and templates of all kinds. If you are stuck, or pressed for time, don’t be afraid to use them. If you do buy assets, don’t be cheap. Really well crafted fonts, icons, illustration, or photography are expensive, but they pay you back in the time you save not having to retouch, re-draw, kern, or color-correct. It’s also worth noting that cheap design assets are like cheap clothes, people can tell.
Keep in mind that heuristics are shortcuts to a quick solution, but if you know anything about behavioral psychology you know that heuristics can lead to biases. When you’ve got time always go back and carefully re-examine the choices you’ve made, do qualitative and quantitative research (survey users, track analytics), and set yourself some objective goals for both quality and ethics. Be sure you are making good things that benefit the people who use them.