Web design can be incredibly frustrating. You'd think that with the infinite possibilities of what-goes-where it'd be pretty easy to land a design that works, yet somehow we've all been stuck before: working hour after hour on a design that refuses to look right. Throwing away pixels like they're going out of style.
These 8 tactics are what I use to get out of that sticky spot.
Design from the inside out
This is some of the best advice anyone ever gave me about web design (thanks Cameron). A lot of designers start off a design by focusing on the header. Often times what's inside the page is what makes it look good; the header is supplementary. Try leaving the header alone for awhile and working on some elements in the body, you'll be surprised at how much easier it is to design a page once you've got a solid body going. The next time you're designing a header with no body imagine yourself adjusting a tie in front of the mirror, but being completely nude. (yikes)
My whiteboard is my salvation. Pencil and paper works too. I read an article years ago by a designer who would draw dozens of little 2x3" mockups in his spiral notebook before even opening up a graphic design program. It helped him identify where elements were going to be placed and what options looked best . The best part of creating mockups this way is the speed at which you can burn through possible layout ideas. Sketch something, scribble it out. Sketch something else, scribble it out. Do this ten times and you've probably got a fairly decent idea of how to the page should come together. I've used a few wireframe applications like Axure, but I've still found myself to be my most efficient while bathed in the saucy aroma of whiteboard markers.
Seek inspiration offline
If you've paid attention to anything design related in the past two years then you've no doubt seen a few of the countless CSS galleries and design showcase websites that popped up. These are excellent sources of inspiration, but sometimes a bit of offline media can be just what you need to spur some fresh ideas. Open up a newspaper or magazine, go to the grocery store and look at the packaging, watch a television ad. Pay attention to things that are applicable to your design such as typography, color, and element placement. Ask yourself questions like "What is it I like about this magazine ad?" and "What is about this packaging that just works?" There's a lot you can learn from observing traditional media. A few years ago a co-worker of mine lent me a book full of Russian posters and print ads from the 1920's. The lessons learned from looking at some of the material were invaluable - I was particularly impressed by how they were able to cram a ton of information into a tiny area but kept it from appearing too "busy."
Learn to let it go
Ever make a button that looks ridiculously awesome but just doesn't belong in your design? You put so much effort into your ridiculously awesome button, you'll go to great lengths to make it work. You'll bend the laws of space and time to make that goddamn button look right in your page.
Learn to let it go. Save the button and file it away. Although you've lost this battle, you'll soon have an arsenal of ridiculously awesome buttons you can use in designs later on.
Step away from the computer
We've all heard this before: If you're having a difficult time with something, leave it alone for awhile and come back later. It'll probably be easier after you've had a bit of a break and your mind has settled. Regarding web design, I've noticed this always plays out in a certain way: If I'm hating a design I'm working on and I shelve it for a few days, a lot of the time my reaction upon returning will be "Holy crap that's fantastic!" On the flip-side, I'll often toil away long into the night working on what looks like the best design I've ever created. The next morning I'll look at it again and cringe at the horrible abomination I've created. The moral here is to give your design some space.
No art is born in a vacuum. Learn to effectively pinpoint what it is you love about other designer's work and incorporate it into your own. Don't steal designs, but don't deprive yourself of external stimuli either. Become better at identifying why you love the way something looks. When I come across a design that blows my mind, I try to pick it apart what aesthetically makes it tick.
The Tangerine Tree is a good example. Sure, it looks wonderful, but why? Personally, I love the way the designer has taken a very modern set of shapes and applied them against a vintage medium: Cartoonish bubbles and clouds that appear to be cut out of distressed paper. When looking at this design I ask myself: What could I do with textures like that? What is it about those shapes and icons that look so remarkable?
Don't be a one-hit-wonder
Try to avoid using the same techniques over and over again, even if you've done really well with them in the past. Gradient rectangles are my crutch - I have a terrible habit of using them whenever I feel like a design isn't working. "This design sucks...I'll add a rectangle with a gradient fill!" The result is usually something that I'm unhappy with because it looks the same as all my previous work. Try imposing yourself with silly rules, such as "No drop shadows today" or "2D elements ONLY." Locking yourself out from certain design habits forces you to learn new ones. My happiness as a designer coincides with my ability to produce something that looks great but is different from anything I've done before.
Seek input from others
This is a tricky one. There are so many ways to ruin a web design, especially when the wrong kinds of people are involved. Be careful who you ask and find people who can provide constructive criticism. I've seen many great designs die at the hands of aesthetically-challenged secretaries who have printed a few corporate bake-sale flyers in the past and consider themselves to EXPERTS at all things design. If anyone ever tells you that your design doesn't "feel right," or that they "just don't like it," you might want to look elsewhere for input. Find someone who can tell you specifically what's wrong and how it could be improved. Grow some thick skin, too. Don't assume every criticism is an attack on your work of art. Roll with the punches.