Strong opinions, weakly held

Becoming a designer

I don’t actually want to be a designer or a usability expert, but I’d like to know more about design and usability. I’m always working on various kinds of Web pages — content pages, listing pages, reports, forms, and so forth. My specialty is server-side programming, but I spend enough time on the output side that I’d like to be better at it.

So where to start? Is Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information the best place to start? What are the other good options? I’m not trying to put anyone out of a job, but I’d like the things I build myself to look less terrible.


  1. I read your first sentence and was going to suggest Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, but then I read the rest of your post. I actually haven’t read that book but I’ve heard praise for it a few times.

    I would like to make one other comment though: like software development, the only way to really learn design is to do it.

  2. It’s not going to hurt to thumb through Tufte, but that’s not where I’d direct you.

    Print Magazine was always one of my favorite places to look for varied examples of design and IIRC, HAH has several issues. I would browse through a few issues and using that as inspiration, work up a redesign for rc3.org.

    And I know that I’m a purist, but… in the spirit of the right tools making a big difference in the work you produce, I’d work that redesign out in Photoshop.

    Then, write a follow-up post here on the blog with some screenshots, whatever explanation(s) you feel necessary and have us readers critique it.

    Take whatever criticisms are valuable to heart, tweak and then implement the design.

  3. I think the best and fastest way would be to find a designer and get professional critique on what you do. Conversation is the best learning method. For me, anyway.

    I do it with the graphic designer at where I work now and it feels great.

  4. If university taught me anything (besides the fact that Information Science is way more statistics and way more boring than it sounds), then it is this:

    *** Usability and design have nothing to do with each other. They have no correlation at all. ***

    You can easily become an expert in one of these fields without having any impact on your skills in the other. I spent a lot of time on testing websites in our faculty’s lab and we were often surprised how badly, subjectively pretty, sites scored when we asked 20 people to accomplish something on them.

    So: I would suggest that you choose one area to improve first :-).

    If you want to start with usability, Joel’s “User interface for programmer’s” makes for good and easy reading, but you probably know it already. What’s best about this book, however, is that it’s written without any reference to the gestalt laws of organization and thus it will be understood by the typical “big-organization” manager when you need to point out why something needs to be changed.

    And that’s the ballgame: being a design and/or usability expert means that you will have to pick a LOT of fights about seemingly nitpicky things, like font-to-background contrast and blue links, so I applaud you, but know what you’re getting into :-).

  5. Browse the Tufte books and if they’re intellectually interesting, plan to read all four. That’s good grounding and won’t steer you wrong. But it’s more like grooming a Bonsai tree than cutting the lawn.

    Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style teaches quite a lot about horizontal and vertical rhythm on the page, using type as the center-point. He won’t steer you wrong. It’s one of my favorite books.

    Lynch and Horton’s Web Style Guide was recently updated. It’s an excellent resource and if you haven’t seen it since the first edition it’s worth reviewing again.

  6. John:

    “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” —Steve Jobs

    Album covers and kitchen appliances are both designed, but the two are very different forms of design, and while you’re talking about the former it’s arguably the latter that interface design is more like.

  7. Jakob Nielsen’s site is probably the best resource on the Web for usability:


  8. Beck’s got a point, just doing it is a pretty good way to get started. Still, I like books, so here are my recommendations:

    For visual design, I’ve been recommended Ellen Lupton’s recent book “Graphic Design the New Basics.”

    To se the mood for the usability side of things, start off with “Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman, then read “Don’t Make Me Think,” by Steve Krug.

    For practical web design, there’s “Web Form Design” by Luke Wroblewski.

    I should probably mention “About Face” by Cooper et al., but it’s a little dry and textbook like. Still, it’s comprehensive.

    Tufte is an information designer, and honestly doesn’t seem to get interactive design all that well. His books are great, but you have to appreciate his approach for what it is.

    See more: http://www.viget.com/advance/a-ux-reading-list/

  9. Oh, and a quick reply to John,

    “Usability and design have nothing to do with each other. They have no correlation at all.”

    While there are beautiful things that are hard to use, and ugly things that are easy to use, usability and design are intrinsically linked. Admittedly, usability is generally an outcome of design, rather than the the goal of design (I’m talking design as process here).

    Even if we limit design to the idea of aesthetics, then the two are still linked. It’s pretty clear now that emotion is closely tied to how much we like using a thing, and usability is as much about enjoyment as it is mechanical efficiency.

  10. Beck, I like your idea and am going to give it a shot.

  11. Beck’s approach actually reminds me of something very funny that Eric Ries said during that workshop, on the importance of showing your design to other people early, and the unimportance of who exactly those people are (i.e. they don’t need to be potential customers) (paraphrased awkwardly by me here since I don’t remember the exact words): “It doesn’t matter who you show the first version to because ABSOLUTELY ANYONE will be able to tell you A WHOLE BUNCH of things that are wrong with that first version which you should fix. Your GRANDMA could tell you what’s wrong with it.”

  12. Hi Rafe

    Came to your site through Google and wanted to comment.

    I found the best way to learn about design was like Hanan said and always look for critique in your work. Nothing in design is ever perfect.

    As long as the people youre taking critique from in your work offer constructive critiscm rather than putting your work down.

    I personally have felt demoralised if someone has told me my work was not that good, they didnt like it or they could have done better but it only took me a few months to realise everyones perceptions are different.

    This is an exceprt from the book It’s Not How Good You Are, Its How Good You Want to Be, by Paul Arden.

    “It is quite easy to get approval if we ask enough people, or if we ask those who are likely to tell us what we want to hear.

    The likelihood is that they will say nice things rather than be too critical. Also, we tend to edit out the bad so that we hear only what we want to hear.

    So if you have produced a pleasantly acceptable piece of work, you will have proved to yourself that it’s good simply because others have said so.

    It is probably ok. But then it’s probably not great either.

    If, instead of seeking approval, you ask, ‘What’s wrong with it? How can I make it better?’, you are more likely to get a truthful, critical answer.

    You may even get an improvement on your idea.”

    If you ever get to read this book. Its fantastic!

    Just my 2 cents

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