Becoming a web designer doesn’t have to be difficult. If you want to know the basic fundamentals, we’ve put together this guide that covers everything you need to know to get started.
What is web design?
Part artistry and part science, web design taps into both the creative and analytical side of a person’s mind.
Web designers take what’s conceptual and translate it into visuals. Images, typography, colors, text, negative space, and structure come together offering not only a user experience but a conduit for communicating ideas.
A good web designer understands the significance of each piece of a design. They make choices on a granular level, styling each element, while never losing sight of how the elements will come together and function in delivering on the design’s greater goals.
No matter how spectacular the visuals of a web design, it’s meaningless without organization. Logic needs to guide the arrangement of ideas and visuals on each page, as well as direct how users will travel through it. A skilled web designer creates designs that deliver in the least number of clicks.
Web design can be broken down into several subdisciplines. Some designers make their careers specializing in areas like UI, UX, SEO, and other areas of expertise. As you begin your journey as a designer, you should know a little bit about all these different facets of web design.
Web designs are powered by the back end
You’re going to come across the terms back end and front end as you are learning. Most beginners mix these up, so it’s important to know how they’re different.
The back end is everything that runs behind the scenes in displaying a website. Websites reside on servers. When a user makes a request like navigating to a specific section of a website, the server takes this incoming information and in turn shoots out all of the HTML and other code so that it displays in the user’s browser correctly. Servers host the data a website requires to function.
Web developers who specialize in back-end development are often programmers who work in such languages as PHP, might use a Python framework like Django, write Java code, manage SQL databases, or use other languages or frameworks in making sure that servers, applications, and databases are all working together.
In becoming a web designer, you don’t need to go too deep in learning about what happens on the back end, but you should at least understand its purpose.
Know what the front end is
Recognize good visual design
Though the best web designs look effortless in execution, they’re all based on the guiding principles of visual design. Though there are those rare web designers who have an innate eye for visual design, for most of us, this is a topic that we must learn on our own.
Understand how visual design works. Know the rules of composition and understand how elements like shapes, space, color, and geometry come together.
A great starting point is our post about visual design principles for web designers. Studying concepts like reification, emergence, and invariance will allow you to incorporate these principles into your work. Learning how to be a web designer also means understanding the history of design. We’ve put together this in-depth graphic design archive to show you all of the major developments in design that have brought us to where we are today.
How to learn web design (in 9 steps)
1. Understand the key concepts of visual design
Every letter, border, and division in a layout is made up of lines that make up their greater structure. Learning web design means understanding the applications of lines in creating order and balance in a layout.
The three basic shapes in visual design are squares, circles, and triangles. Squares and rectangles work for blocks of content, circles work for buttons, and triangles are often used for icons that accompany an important message or call to action. Shapes also have a sense of emotion, with squares associated with strength, circles with harmony and comfort, and triangles with importance and action.
Texture replicates something in the real world. Through texture, we get an idea of whether something is rough or smooth. Textures can be seen throughout web design. From paperlike backgrounds to the colorful wisps of a Gaussian blur, be aware of the different kinds of textures that can make your designs more interesting and can give them a sense of physicality.
To create designs that aren’t an eye strain, you should educate yourself in color theory. Understanding the color wheel, complementary colors, contrasting colors, and the emotions that different colors are tied to will make you a better web designer.
Grids have their roots in the earliest days of graphic design. They function so well in bringing order to images, texts, and other elements in a web design. Learn how to structure your web layouts using grids.
2. Know the basics of HTML
Hypertext markup language (HTML) provides the directions for how the content, images, navigation, and other elements of a website display in someone’s web browser. Though you don’t need to be an expert in HTML, it still helps to have some familiarity with how it works, even if you’re using a visual-based design platform like Webflow.
HTML tags are the instructions a browser uses to generate a website. Headings, paragraphs, links, and images are all controlled by these tags. You’ll especially want to know how header tags like H1, H2, and H3 tags are used for content hierarchy. In addition to affecting layout structure, header tags are important in how web crawlers classify a design and affect how they show up in organic search rankings.
To learn more about the basic concepts of HTML (there’s also a section about CSS), check out this lesson we put together in Webflow University.
3. Understand CSS
CSS (or cascading style sheets) provides styling and additional instructions on how an HTML element is going to appear. Doing things like applying fonts, adding padding, setting alignment, choosing colors, and even creating grids are all possible through CSS.
Knowing how CSS works will give you the skills to create unique looking websites and to customize existing templates. Let’s go over a few key concepts of CSS.
A CSS class is a list of attributes that come together in styling an individual element. Something like body text could have the font, size, and color all a part of a single CSS class.
CSS combo classes
A combo class is built on an existing base class. It inherits all of the attributes like sizing, color, and alignment that may already be in place. Attributes can then be changed up. Combo classes save you time and let you set up variations of a class that you can apply wherever you need to in a web design.
Knowing how CSS works is essential when learning web design. As mentioned in the section about HTML, we recommend that you head over to Webflow University to see more about how CSS works.
4. Learn the foundations of UX
UX is the magic that brings a website to life, transforming it from a static arrangement of elements into something that engages with the emotions of someone scrolling through it.
The color scheme, content, typography, layout, and visuals all come together to serve your audience. User experience design is about precision and evoking feelings. It offers someone not only a smooth journey but an experience that connects them with the entity or brand behind the web design.
Here are a few UX principles you’ll need to know.
Web design means understanding end users. You should learn how to do user research and how to create user personas. In addition, you’ll need to know how to utilize this information in creating a design that’s optimized for their needs.
Without clear organization, people will get confused and bounce. Information architecture and content mapping provide a blueprint for how the website and each section will work together in providing a clear customer journey.
Constructing user flows may come into play when you work your way up to more extensive design projects, but you’ll be better off in the future if you start thinking about these and building them out for your early designs. User flows communicate how people will move through a design. They help you to prioritize the most important sections and make sure that people can access them.
Wireframes show where on a web page headings, text, visuals, forms, and other elements are going to be placed. Even if you’re building a simple one-page web design, mapping out a wireframe will give you a solid guide to work from. As you move on to more complicated websites, wireframes are essential in creating a consistent experience, structuring layouts, and not missing anything that needs to be included.
Prototypes can have different levels of fidelity but act as a representation of a functioning design. Images, interactions, content, and other important elements are all in place and replicate the real-world design. Prototypes are used to get feedback and fine-tune a design throughout the process.
5. Familiarize yourself with UI
A user interface is a mechanism that puts a piece of technology into action. A doorknob is a user interface. The volume control on your car radio that your significant other won’t stop messing around with is a user interface. And the keypad that you enter your PIN into at an ATM is a user interface. Just as buttons and other mechanisms in the real world allow someone to interact with machines, the user interface elements on a website allow someone to put actions into motion.
Let’s review two key UI principles: intuitive design and simplicity.
How to create intuitive interfaces
Interacting and engaging with a website should be consistent and follow repeatable patterns. People landing on a website should immediately understand the systems that are in place in navigating through it.
Make UI simple
UI exists to optimize usability. This means to make the controls easy to use, as well as obvious in their functionality. Whether you’re minimizing the number of navigational options, making the checkout process quick, or integrating other interactive elements that increase accessibility, understanding UI will help you streamline someone’s experience in interacting with a website.
Of course, UI is a vast subject that can’t be captured in just a few paragraphs. We suggest you check out the blog post “10 essential UI (user interface) design tips” as a primer to UI.
Related reads: UX vs UI: key differences every designer should know
6. Understand the basics of creating layouts
Our eyes latch on to certain design patterns automatically, making for an easy route through a web design. We intuitively know where to look because we’ve seen these same patterns over and over as we’ve consumed media throughout our lives. Knowing design patterns will help you create websites that have a smooth flow to the content and visuals. Two common web layout patterns you need to know about are Z-patterns and F-patterns.
For layouts with an economy of words and images and generous amounts of negative space, the Z-pattern makes for an efficient way to cruise through a website. When you start paying attention to where your eyes are going through a design, you’ll recognize right away when a Z-pattern is in place.
Designs heavy on text, like for an online publication or a blog, often follow a distinct F-pattern. On the left-hand side of the screen, you’ll see a list of articles or posts, and in the main body of the page, you’ll see rows of related information. This pattern is optimized to give people all the information they need, even if they’re quickly glancing through it.
7. Learn about typography
Fonts can impart different tones or emotions as well as affect readability. If you’re learning about web design, knowing how to use typography is essential.
Typography serves several purposes in web design. First, it serves the utilitarian purpose of making content legible. But it can also serve as decoration, and the tasteful use of stylized typography can add to the overall aesthetic.
Here are three basic typographic concepts you should know.
Serif typefaces have minuscule lines known as serifs that grace each letter. This typographic style can be traced back to print.
As the name implies, sans serif typefaces lack the identifying lines of serif typefaces. These typesfaces are found through the digital realm of websites and apps.
Display typefaces are often used for headlines and can be either large and impactful or made of sharp, thin lines. They usually have sophisticated letterforms and are meant to grab someone’s attention.
Related reads: Typographic design: font styles and resources for designers
8. Put your knowledge into action and build something
You can watch tutorials, read blog posts, enroll in online courses, and absorb all of the theory and information you can about web design, but the only way to become a web designer is to begin web designing.
Start with a simple project. Maybe someone you know needs help in creating a portfolio or has a side hustle that is lacking any sort of web presence. Offer to design them something for free.
A blog is also another great beginner project. This will give you practical design experience in learning how to use things like a CMS, as well as providing a showcase for your writing skills.
Building a website for a fake company or business is another fun creative exercise in developing your design chops. Plus, you can add it to your portfolio.
9. Get a mentor
Mentors are valuable because they’ve been where you are — at the very beginning — and have the desire to help you out through the hard-earned lessons they’ve learned. They have a deep well of expertise and knowledge. They’re a great resource in getting feedback on your work and finding what you’re doing right and what needs improvement.
In searching for the appropriate mentor, make sure you find someone who does the type of design you admire and specializes in what you want to learn. Mentors can give you a clear path from years spent in the field so you don’t have to stumble through learning web design.
No code provides an easy entry into web design
There was a time, not that long ago, when you had to have a deep understanding of HTML and CSS to manually write the code behind a web design. Today, with no code tools like Webflow, it’s possible to put together a website and launch it in a short amount of time. What took days or weeks can now happen in hours.
Of course, so much goes into creating a good web design. Learning the fundamentals behind visual design, the basics of UI and UX, and knowing how the front end and back end function will make you a more well-rounded designer.
Whether you’re just starting or are an expert, Webflow offers an intuitive visual-based platform to empower you in realizing your creativity. Along with an easy-to-use way to launch websites, Webflow has an entire community to give you advice and to help you level up your skills. We look forward to seeing you work in our Showcase.