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Learn Web Design: 3 Common Misconceptions

Creative Market March 31, 2021 · 6 min read

So you want to be a web designer. Where do you start? What’s step one? You could dive right into learning HTML and CSS, the code that makes the web function, but you’d be getting a little bit ahead of yourself. Code is a tool that you’ll use to make your designs come to life, but first, you need to learn how to actually design something. That’s where this series comes in. Over the course of several posts, we’ll walk you through the basic principles that are absolutely critical to any designer’s education.


Three Misconceptions About Design

In the next post, we’ll dive into our first basic design principle, but before we do that, it’s important to define our terms and set some expectations. Before you learn to be a designer, you should know what design is, and what it is not. To learn this lesson, let’s look at some common misconceptions about design.

Design Is About Making Things Pretty

Contrary to what your instincts may tell you, design is not simply the practice of making something look pretty. In fact, for some purposes, the best design is a boring one.
Imagine a beautiful website that utilizes a perfectly-balanced color scheme, amazing photography, and enough trendy graphics to make a Dribbble user drool. Now, if it doesn’t meet the goals that the client set out for the project, is it good design? If the users can’t find the content they need, do those pretty pixels even matter? The answer: not even a little.
Aesthetic appeal is one aspect of a design, but always remember that valuing form over function will get you a portfolio full of attractive failures.

You Either Have It or You Don’t

Another lie is that design is purely intuitive; you’re either born with it, or you simply don’t get it. This one is dangerous because it’s aimed right at your self-esteem. Countless people have passed on what would be an immensely fulfilling career because someone once convinced them that they’re “just not creative.”
Are you terrible at drawing? Did your teachers yell at you for coloring outside the lines? Do you lack basic hipster designer necessities like a cool vest, a rustic pair of Oxfords, a trusty Moleskine journal, and a can of mustache wax? No problem. You can still be an awesome designer!
Design is a discipline, one that can be learned, just like reading and writing. You weren’t born with these skills, you had to learn and practice them for years before perfecting them. The same goes for design. Like a good wordsmith always looking to increase the breadth of his lexicon, the best designers know they still have a lot to learn and eagerly seek out new challenges.
Most design principles are pretty straightforward, so whether or not you consider yourself to be a super creative person, you can be a designer. You just have to be willing to put forth the time and effort that it takes to learn.

Good Design Is Easy

The final misconception about design is that it’s a fairly easy process. Sure, there are a few basic principles to learn, but after you figure them out, you’ll be the next Milton Glaser in no time.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. I remember being frustrated as a new designer that I could follow all the rules and still constantly come up with designs that, well, sucked. Hard. After a decade of experience, this hasn’t gone away, but I’ve realized that it’s ok.
Great design is almost always a struggle, and that’s how it should be. You should be second-guessing yourself, scrapping your first idea, second idea, third idea, etc., until you arrive at a solution that accomplishes the goals you set out to achieve and looks great while doing it. Sometimes you get lucky and knock it out of the park on the first swing, but don’t get discouraged when that isn’t the case. Most of the time, it won’t be.

So What Is Design?

Design is a pretty abstract term. Ask ten designers for a definition and you’ll get ten different answers. You’re more than capable of looking at’s definition on your own, so I’ll spare you that cliche. So where does that leave us? With a few important lessons about design.
Good design is…

  • Goal-oriented: It sets out to complete a very specific set of tasks and is successful only if it achieves those goals.
  • Functional: Art can be abstract, interpretive, and even occasionally without any specific purpose. Good design always does something. It turns a complicated and dangerous machine into something a teenager can drive. It helps a billion people from all over the planet converse and connect on a single site. It can even take a bunch of boring, ugly data and turn it into something that helps researchers save lives.
  • Earned: Most people aren’t born with the ability to make a functional and attractive website layout. It’s a learned skill that never ceases to take time and effort, even after years of experience.
  • Not always beautiful or unique: Original design is rightfully hailed as impressive, but sometimes the absolute best thing for a client is to give them a website or app that’s familiar and doesn’t break any new ground. Familiarity and standard conventions reduce learning curves for users. They’re the reason most people instinctively know to click the site’s logo to go back to the home page or to look for a “log in” link at the top right of the page.
  • Powerful: Good design can partner up with art, technology, and nature to make the world a better place. Sometimes it’s beautiful enough to make you cry, groundbreaking enough to change everything, or even dangerous enough to destroy lives.

Be a Designer

I’m a lot of things: a writer, photographer, videographer, musician, the list goes on. If you only give me one word to describe who I am though, “designer” is going to be at the top of the list. Being a designer is empowering and fulfilling. It makes me a better photographer, a better thinker, even a better writer.
Join me. Make your world better. Ignore everyone who ever said you’re not creative or artistic. Be a designer. Hopefully, this series will help you get started.

Header image created using Suarez, Festivo Letters, Brite Script, 120 Retro Banners & Ribbons, Texture Pack Vol. 2 Canvas, and 20×24 Canvas Mockups.

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  • A lot of interesting thoughts here. You maybe didn't say it, but you meant it: design, like other skills, must be practiced. A lot. My Creative Market shop is not just a shop: it's sort of a playground that lets me practice and hone my design skills. This is a great series, @Josh Johnson ! I'm looking forward to the next installments. 8 years ago
  • I think that is the biggest thing I missed when starting as a designer. And the reason so many people redesign products/applications and get hate. They see it as a "beautification" thing rather than a UX and usability standpoint. Great tips here Josh. 8 years ago
  • Thank you, Josh. You're awesome! 8 years ago
  • Anonymous
    Thank you for nice post. In fact I've been experiencing some lack of design inspiration and so but you just helped me a little bit. :) 8 years ago
  • Can't wait for the next series! 8 years ago
  • Thanks all! 8 years ago
  • Great video! Lots of helpful advice and encouragement. Looking forward to the rest of the series. 8 years ago
  • Great write up @Josh! You touched on several points that are just not clear enough to the average client, most especially the point about making things pretty—that's spot on! 8 years ago
  • Could not agree more! 8 years ago
  • Inspiring! As someone who has always put myself into the "I'm not creative enough (can't draw a straight line with a ruler kind of gal) I really enjoyed this. Thank you! Now, off to practice, practice, practice. :) 8 years ago
  • You hit the nail on the head with this one Josh! After 35+ years experience in the business of graphic design, I know I am not the most creative person but I am an excellent designer and I put that at the top of my qualifications. I look forward to the rest of the series! 8 years ago
  • I loved this piece and it came just at the right time. I created a 16m x 4m psd composition for a Univesity based on a Broadway theatre ally with poster displays. They loved it. However, the vice chancellor didn't get it so the project is at an impass while they have meetings about. Experience tells me this will end up as a horse designed by committee looking like a camel. Design can be as functional and as beautiful, but if your client doesn't get it, it counts for nothing. You then end up trading your integrity to put a meal on your table. 8 years ago
  • Anonymous
    JICS Tech is a leading Dubai web configuration organization represent considerable authority in offering Web application improvement and Website planning results in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Middle East 8 years ago
  • Anonymous
    Thought provoking and motivational at the same TIME. 8 years ago
  • Thanks for the great thoughts. Looking forward to more! 8 years ago
  • A good design is like poetry on electronic media. "Naaseha! tujh ko khabar kya ke muhabbat kya hai Roz aa jaata hai samjhaata hai, yun hai, yun hai, Yun hai" 8 years ago
  • I agree with the points mentioned. Self motivation is also an important ingredient in the mix I feel. 8 years ago