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Web Design Tips for Aspiring Designers (or anyone looking to upscale DIY)

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In the age of website builders and drag-and-drop design, suddenly anyone with a laptop can start a website and open themselves up for business. This is huge in terms of access and removing barriers to entry, which I of course support 100%.

Still, it's worth stating that there is a huge difference between designing the family newsletter and professional-level web design. Style matters. Communication matters. What you don't say matters as much as what you do say. How you communicate it (or don't) makes an impact.

As a web designer with 23 years of experience coding and creating pretty things for the Internet, I've seen a lot of trends come and go. I've coded full sites from scratch, and I've used content management systems like WordPress (which is what I now design for exclusively). In short, I have a pretty good handle on what works and what doesn't, what is really important to know heading into things, and what honestly doesn't really matter that much.

And because I really want the Internet to be a prettier place, visually and energetically, I'm sharing the foundations with you.

1. Choose a platform to house it all.

WordPress and SquareSpace are the big two. Please, for the love of Athena, do not use Wix. (Wix is entry-level; you want executive status. Trust me on this.)

I created a post breaking down the differences between the platforms here.

(Both WordPress and SquareSpace are solid choices for different reasons; it's mostly just a question of what is most important to you and what kinds of costs you're comfortable with.)

2. Learn design best practices.

You don't have to become an artist overnight, but brush up on some design principles if you want to look professional. Here is where I would start:

  • Utilizing size/shape/visual hierarchy
  • Color theory
  • Text readability (fonts, alignment, sizes, etc.)
  • Avoiding images of text whenever possible
  • SEO - image optimization, keywords and descriptions, metadata, inbound links, internal linking (psst, the WordPress plugin Yoast makes most of this suuuuper easy!)
  • Take a quick look at what's trending and what's out in design circles--this can help you avoid overused elements, or anything that looks outdated (in other words, amateurish)

I use my Pinterest as a treasure trove of design and web inspiration. Check my design-related boards to see some of my picks for design styles and elements that feel very current.

Learn the basic tech aspects of putting together a site too. This includes setting up domains and hosting, things like redirects and forwarding, DNS settings, and SSL encryption.

This is especially important if you're designing for others; it'll keep you from making basic mistakes that cost time and money, and are generally just poor form. If you're only designing for yourself, it still helps to know these so you're not lost and having to hire tech help for something that is honestly pretty simple if you're at all familiar with computers.

3. Think like a designer, not a programmer.

A lot of people are intimidated by the idea of web design because they assume it demands all kinds of technical knowledge. In reality, a good content management system (like WordPress) eliminates most of that hassle, and plugins like Elementor make it super easy to create custom pages with zero coding knowledge. You'll only need to get into coding if you want to make major changes to your site layout--and unless you're making a career out of it, you probably won't need to do that very often.

So don't focus on the coding side, unless you truly want to develop those skills.

Instead, focus on strategy and problem solving. You're using design to communicate and convert, which uses an entirely different area of expertise. Think: prioritizing the right content using visual hierarchy, streamlining the flow of the site and overall navigation, hearing clients’ needs and goals, and finding ways to use design and copy to communicate a bigger vision.

A website, ultimately, is about communication more than anything else. Resist the urge to do too much. Clutter overwhelms and muddles the message. Focus on the most important pieces, support with details, and leave out anything that doesn't really make an impact on what you're prioritizing.

4. Coding is important. Know the foundations.

I know, I just said coding wasn't that important. Don't throw things at me! If you're designing for yourself, it's not. If you're planning to design for clients, you probably won't be able to get away with ignoring this piece for long, especially if you're going for creative, original design.

(Side note: I offer development and tech services for designers who have the vision but need support bringing it to life for their clients. Get in touch with me if this is you!)

You should have at least a working knowledge of CSS and HTML. As long as you go start by understanding the syntax and what kinds of things each language can do, you can continue to learn specifics as you go.

5. But you can still design for web while learning.

Don’t think that because you haven’t mastered coding, you’re not fit to take on clients. As with any other industry, there are snobs and purists who think that their way is the best way. I'm here to tell you that there are best practices and proven methods, but there is always room for innovation.

Good design is good design, whether it was hand-coded or you used a theme framework. You don’t get extra points for doing the heavy lifting yourself, and most clients won’t know the difference. In fact, many clients don’t actually have needs that are specific enough to require super customized functions. They’re generally looking for basic features which are often variations of the same kinds of things.

Learn to create an informational site first, then move onto ecommerce, membership sites, etc. Each new type of site will require some new systems and a different workflow. And you won't necessarily know how to navigate that until you get there. But you don't need to have all the answers ahead of time.

If you're interested in web design as a career path, get comfortable with learning new things on the fly! That's really what this job is truly about. To do this work, a willingness to constantly grow and adapt along the way is one of the most useful traits you can have.

I started doing paid projects about 10 years ago, and I definitely did not have my current level of knowledge back then. In those early years, I learned something new or built upon my skills with each project. When I started designing for WordPress circa 2014, that was a whole system I had to learn. Despite having almost two decades of coding experience at the time, it was still something different, and I had to figure out a process that worked for me.

Each time I learn a new language, I pretty much just dive in and start working with it to see what happens. That's the way I learn best, and it's worked out well for me. Every now and then, I'll still Google a code snippet to help me with whatever new thing I'm trying to achieve.

As long as it works for you and gets you the result you want, it's all good. Truly.

And there is rock-solid, loving support available to you if you get stuck or need a little help!

I love working with other creatives to bring gorgeous design to life on the web.

Reach out to me if you need a bit of support from a fellow creative who totally gets it.

xo Elizabeth

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I'm on a mission to help creative entrepreneurs navigate the realms of tech, design, digital media, and business systems and processes, without the "uggghhh" factor.

...And to make the internet a prettier and more integrity-filled place, too, while I'm at it.

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