Tips on Getting Started With Web Design

Designing and creating websites is not difficult. As with anything else, with enough practice, experience and knowledge of the basics anyone can be a “web designer”. The important thing is to start somewhere and work from there. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Learn basic HTML. HTML is not a programming language. Writing HTML is not programming. Disavow yourself of this idea immediately. It only creates a mental barrier for people like me who are intimidated by math and programming. While HTML has some things in common with classic programming languages (like the use of its own rules and syntax), it is better to think of it as a formatting language since you’re just using HTML to change the appearance of what would normally be just text and pictures. The great part is HTML is super simple. Really. If you’re a total newb where HTML is concerned bookmark They have great beginning tutorials and even little sandboxes where you can write and render (view the output) HTML all in one place.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Build your own starter website. Volunteer to build one for someone else. This is how everyone starts out. It’s fun, low pressure, and it’s for yourself. Make a website where you can putter around and change things any time you feel like it. Don’t hold yourself to an unrealistic standard by comparing your site to everyone else’s. Remember, you’re just a beginner, and you have a lot to learn. You’re going to make a lot of crap before you make something halfway decent. When we’re kids, we all start out drawing stick figures and sausage-headed people. Then gradually, with practice, you start filling in the blanks and progressing. It’s the same thing here. Don’t start out comparing yourself to the people who’ve been doing this stuff for 15 years. If you stay after it, you can be be better than 90% of people within days or weeks.
  • “Plus it.” The biggest thing that will help you progress with designing and building web pages is knowing when something does or does not look good. I’m not talking about having good taste. I’m talking about knowing when something looks like crap. If you have high standards for how something should look, it will drive you so crazy when something does NOT look good that you will push yourself to figure out how to make it look better. This sense of dissatisfacton is central to the learning process. Walt Disney had a standard phrase he used to squeeze the best work out of his artists. He would tell them to “Plus it.” Even if you think something looks pretty good, “plus it”. Push it a little more.
  • Steal Learn from other people. As the old saying goes, good artists borrow, great artists steal. Everything you need to learn, someone else has already learned. Use their knowledge and benefit from their experience. Don’t just borrow what other people know, steal it and make it your own. If you see something cool someone has done, right click their webpage and “View source” to see how they did it. This shows you the unrendered source code, which is the blueprint for how a website is put together. Acquaint yourself with every good resource you can get your hands on and soak it up. I’m a big believer in mental osmosis. If you listen to other people talk and write about something long enough, you’ll gradually pick up little lessons and bits of knowledge and experience. Here are a few places that will speed your education: Webmasterworld (a great place to ask questions and lurk), StyleGala (check out what the cool designers are building), A List Apart (the unofficial academic journal for ‘web designers’). There are tons of other equally good places. Just start reading and cribbing from your fellows. 99% of the ‘web designers’ out there are unremarkable (myself included). Do not be intimidated.
  • Know a few good tricks. Most web designers have a bag of tricks they use over and over. Little things like how to build a website that looks good, but is actually very simple. For example, check out Cameron Moll’s pretty website. As a well-known web designer, he knows how to make things look pretty sharp, but if you look closely you’ll see that his site is actually not that complex. It’s basically a header image, a background, and a two column CSS layout. There are a few complexities, but it doesn’t get much easier than that. If you look at this project he did recently, you’ll see that he uses many of the same tricks. While the site looks very nice, the actual architecture is not that difficult. It’s a navigation element, a large header, and three columns beneath the header. Cameron’s most effective trick is that he’s a whiz with Photoshop, which makes everything else he does look pretty snazzy. Most good designers are very good with Photoshop. I highly recommend spending lots of time in that application as it can account for 60-75% of your success with clients and projects. In my experience, most of the actual ‘designing’ is concepted and performed within Photoshop anyway. I don’t even mess with the HTML part of a project until everything is created in Photoshop. This guy has a similar workflow, which he outlines here. Buy, borrow, or steal a copy of Photoshop if you don’t already have one. It’s a necessary tool that everyone uses.
  • You don’t need books or classes. You need to work. Some people will inevitably disagree with this, but I think books and classes (especially on web design) are almost universally worthless. Why? In any class, you are usually either way behind or way ahead of everyone else. This is a bad place to be. The teacher’s job is to make sure everyone gets through the class together, so you’ll usually only end up learning the very basics. Someone else is always more stupid than you are and holding everyone back. Furthermore, most people who write books and teach classes are not that great. The great designers are out designing and creating. Writers on the other hand are not paid to simplify and teach a subject. They’re paid to trick people into buying massive, expensive books that have no resale value. Most truly great designer / writers freely part with their pearls of wisdom to any with the ears to listen. They’re not interested in foisting more unreadable, unnecessary garbage onto the world to further confuse people who just want to learn. There are a few good classes worth taking, but try very hard to learn on your own first. If you spend 1-2 hours a day just playing around building webpages and graphics, you will eventually learn everything you need to know.

I hope you find some of these tips useful. Remember that you can do anything anyone else can do. Do not be afraid to make mistakes or ask questions.


  1. Thanks so much for your realistic and encouraging article. I’ve scoured the net looking for tidbits like this. Trying to get out of the corporate gig and into my own private home office…thanks bunches! ~Sharon

  2. My pleasure. I’m so glad you found this useful.