Laura Kalbag

Learning Design

Every now and again someone will email me asking how they should go about learning design. After reading Aral Balkan’s fantastic post on how design is not veneer, a few developers also expressed frustration at there not being many resources telling you how to get started with design. So I thought I’d post a few of my favourite links, books and ways of approaching design.

First off, read Aral’s post. It might seem intimidating. Aral emphasises the importance of considering every tiny design decision you make. There’s no easy-in. But really there’s no easy-in to doing anything well. Development might appear to be something with a low barrier to entry, but in order to do development with web standards, or to any level of efficiency, you need to take the time to learn the best techniques and working processes.

Considering every tiny design decision might also make design seem like a much more arduous process than it needs to be. In truth, if you are considering your users, their experience, and your overall design vision in the back of your mind, every decision you make whilst designing will be considered. It can feel somewhat subconscious at times. If you have the ‘feeling’ that your choice of typography suits the project, then chances are, if you analyse the cognitive and emotional impact on the user, you’ll find your subconscious actually made those decisions for a reason. Design isn’t instinct. This ‘instinct’ is really something that we’ve built up from the experience of millions of different design decisions, and evaluating their success and failure.

Learning how to design

Design is a pretty tricky thing to just ‘learn’; it doesn’t happen overnight. Following a tutorial on how to create a photo-realistic SLR camera in Photoshop is about as useful as following a tutorial on how to create an SLR camera in CSS; it teaches you how to use the tools but not about why you’d want to use an SLR camera illustration in your design. The best thing is to try as many different design tasks as possible to test yourself and gain experience on what does and doesn’t work. I also find looking at other people’s design work and considering its effectiveness really helps develop an understanding of design principles in relation to your own personal taste. This is what a lot of art and design education is built around; interpreting and understanding the work of other people. Blog posts where people tell you about their inspiration and how they designed their sites are the best sources for this kind of learning as you get real insight into the decisions of the designer.

The opposite of this are sites that showcase trends, ‘beautiful’ websites or lists of a particular type of site as ‘inspiration.’ These tend to be examples of what are very aesthetically-pleasing designs, but not necessarily successful designs in terms of a good user experience. Of course convention can be a trend of sorts. If one designer establishes a really easy-to-use type of navigation, then it’s inevitable that those working on similar projects may use that standard as a basis for their own navigation, but only similar projects. It’s so easy to mimic a lovely visual aesthetic to make your project look good, but you really need to consider if that’s an appropriate aesthetic style.



Blog-wise, I prefer the more ideasy and critical thinking blogs, as I find ‘how to design xyz’ is never terribly useful unless you’re working on an identical project.

A List Apart design category

Very few magazine sites curate design content so well. It’s all too easy to fall into posts that are just lists of ‘inspiration.’ A List Apart is one of the most tightly-curated and edited magazines around, and their design articles are always worth a read.

Paul Robert Lloyd

If you’re looking to learn more about design thinking, especially a focus on how responsiveness fits into design, Paul Robert Lloyd’s posts are must-reads.


A very insightful blog focused on usability, often discussing design in terms of successful user experiences. is crowd-sourced by a select group, so has a slightly curated more zeitgeist-y feel to it. The links aren’t always long-form articles on design, but if there’s a good post going around, they’ll pick up on it.

Mark Boulton

Mark has always been talking about more traditional design theory as a part of web design, and his approach has always inspired me.


Twitter is a great way to keep up with good designers. I find these snippets of insight can often provide bite-size inspiration when I really need it.


I’m always disappointed that there aren’t more design theory books with a focus on web design. The few I’ve found are here, but also books on usability and graphic design where you can combine the knowledge to create a great design background.

A Practical Guide to Designing the Invisible by Robert Mills

Understanding design as a language, and how design is more than just the visual decoration. I’ve reviewed Rob’s book in more depth.

A Practical Guide to Designing for the Web by Mark Boulton

A great grounding in many of the different areas of design theory in relation to the web. I’m very eagerly awaiting Mark’s next book on grid theory.

Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design by Khoi Vinh

Pre-dating responsive design, but still a very valuable book for learning about applying grids to web design in a practical way.

The Elements of User Experience by Jesse James Garrett

An oldie but a goodie. These founding principles really molded the way I view design for the web.

Designing for Emotion by Aarron Walter

Considering not just the user experience, but the user emotions. A quick but brilliant read which I’ve reviewed in more depth.

[Edit: How could I forget this first time round?!] Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst

An incredibly in-depth guide to typography, giving you all the basic principles you need and more.[/edit]

[Edit 2:] 8faces Magazine

Not quite a book, but a beautiful typography magazine with new releases a few times a year. 8faces introduces you to great quality typefaces and provides plenty of insight into design with its feature interviews.[/edit]

I’ll try to keep them coming

Resources on learning design aren’t necessarily those I keep a lookout for, but I’m going to make a conscious effort to do so from now on. I’ll post on Twitter and maybe do a round-up post later on, so let me know if you know of any good resources I should check out.


  1. Thank you Laura! This is fantastic :). Happy New Year!
  2. Tushar

    Awesome, Resourceful

    Thanks Laura !!

  3. Sibylle
    Very useful, Laura, thanks! Know/have read most of the books but need to look at some of those online resources and people :)
  4. What do you think about the Smashing Magazine books, especially volume 1&2?
    • I’m afraid I’ve not read them. I shamefully only own Volume 3, and haven’t read much of it yet.
    • Hi Laura, Love what you’re doing here. I myself am a college student and I created [Student Guide Web Design](" rel="nofollow) simply out of frustration with the material I was being presented during my design education. I love helping others because it’s a great way for me to learn myself, but also helps others out who are also trying to overcome the same challenges (because I was there at one point!).

      Cheers from Canada :)