The design advice that's meant the most
I started designing for the web in 2006, maybe 2007. I had my share of GeoCities projects before then, but the mid-2000s are when I started getting interested in the actual craft of building websites. Much as changed since then: it was before the iPhone uprooted everything about how we use (and design) the web.
But as I've transitioned gradually from hands-on design work to leading teams of designers, I've been thinking a little about the guidance I could have used as a younger designer: practical, specific, evergreen advice that isn't about a particular tool or language. Here are some things that have stuck out to me. It's hardly comprehensive, and some of it may be obvious to you — but maybe you'll find something in it useful:
1. Understand your constraints
Nearly every project you make is bound by time, budget, and resources. It sounds obvious, but it's easy to ignore one or all three when you're about to sink your teeth into a gleaming blank Figma document. Nine times out of ten, spending a couple hours to stop and grok any possible pitfalls will save you time and heartache down the road.
Consider anything that could sink on the voyage from mockup to full-fidelity design. Look at your timeline and check in early with anyone who needs to be involved in development, so they know to expect it. And if there's even a slight chance that something could be weird to build, ask about it. (True story: I once had to throw out a design for a form page midway through development because we discovered that our old, legacy tooling wouldn't support checkboxes.)
If you're designing anything that has an interactive element, don't settle for a static mockup. Prototype your idea and the major flows through the design, in any state of fidelity you can. A low-fidelity but comprehensive prototype will tell you infinitely more about the success of your design than a pixel-perfect static mockup.
3. Push your designs to their limit
Our designs are often used in unexpected ways. A headline can grow to three lines long, that table could suddenly sprout two extra columns, or that button that fits perfectly in the lower third of the screen might disappear under the weight of 10 paragraphs of text. Embrace this in your process by going through the edge cases that your design could face. You may not be able to tackle all of them, but stress-testing your design will at least reduce the number of issues that come up later.
4. Let go
Raise your hand if you've been here: you come up with a particularly inventive piece of design. You triumphantly incorporate it into your mockup or prototype, enamored by its potential. But as you review or test it, it becomes evident that — despite how hard you worked on that idea, how clever it is — it's not gelling. In fact, it's causing all sorts of problems.
It's a bummer to throw out a good idea that you worked hard on. But it's the mark of an experienced designer to know that a good idea isn't necessarily the right idea. The point of design is to serve the people who will be interacting with it, and that will help guide you to the right idea. Don't worry: your career will be full of opportunities for clever ideas that are also the right ones. (And who knows: maybe that idea you're putting on the shelf will come in handy someday.)
5. Know what to leave be
Web designers and developers are used to moving fast. You can set your watch by the emergence of a new framework or UI kit, its sudden ubiquity, then decline as the next hot thing supplants it.
But there's a reason every computer still has a menu bar, a mouse, scrollbars, and windows. Most of what we do on our phones is still tap and swipe. The vast majority of sites on the Internet are still just pages connected by hyperlinks. The plain truth is that frequent interface changes are neither inevitable nor always welcome, especially by people who aren't as close to the bleeding edge of interfaces. Consider what in your design has a perfectly good precedent out in the world before you assume you need something new. That's not to suggest you won't; if you think you will serve your users best with something new, by all means, try it — as long as you test it with them. (More below.)
6. Test, test, test
As above, the point of design is to serve the people who will be interacting with it. So, make sure you get your designs in front of real users to find where the rougher edges are. (And don't assume there aren't any: none of us are infallible.)
Usability testing can help uncover critical usability issues; other forms of testing, like A/B testing, can help evaluate if a new design is improving on an existing one. There's lots of good literature out in the world on how to conduct good design tests. It's an illuminating part of the job, and will teach you a lot about your assumptions and how to validate them.
7. Understand your choices
Lots of designers are advised to develop their ability to "sell" or "defend" their work, usually to a client. This is a valuable skill. But defending your work isn't just about having a pitch deck or a value statement. It's preparing yourself to answer any question about why you chose this design, made these decisions. It's about assuring yourself that you've thought about the problem from every angle.
The point isn't to be harsh, or self-negative. It's because you're duty-bound by your users to ask yourself: Is this truly the best possible way to solve the problem, given the constraints? Having an answer, even if I'm not 100% confident, is something I try to do before I present my ideas.
8. Remember: it's just a job
It's gratifying when our design successes are also creatively satisfying. But anybody who's had to create an email template or watch their thoughtful, toiled-over idea shot down by a client knows that design can also be creatively stifling, too.
There is an inherent creativity in any kind of design work: that's part of why we do it. But when I was younger, I struggled with wanting design to be my primary source of creative fulfillment. I spent years working under the assumption that your creative outlet should be something you can make a living off of; ergo, design work had to be creatively fulfilling. That led to a lot of turmoil that not only prevented me from being happy, but also from becoming a better designer.
So, before you go, let me add this:
As a human being, you have a natural need to express yourself creatively, and you deserve to have that fulfilled. But you don't need to get paid for something that fulfills you. Our capital-driven world makes it devilishly easy to assume that's true, but it's not.
Don't get me wrong: there's nothing wrong with trying to cut it doing full-time creative work. Lots of people are willing to throw everything at making those dreams happen. But if you're more like me — someone who wants a little balance and a steady paycheck but maybe doesn't always have that creative itch scratched by their day job — ask yourself: is that really the right way to think about it? Can that ineffable longing only be satisfied through a job?
Our lives are short, and there are absolutely no rules around how you can be creative. Embrace the opportunity to play and try things. Go take that guitar lesson or pottery class or improv workshop, even if you never want to be a musician or artist or comedian. The journey will make your heart happy — and the designer in you will thank you for it.