Ask thoughtbot: Design for Developers

Matt Jankowski

A blog reader asks…

I am nearing completion on my first web site, which I am creating alone. However, it is lacking a crucial part—a beautiful user interface. I am trying to learn how to create one using some of your web sites as guide, but am having trouble doing so (probably related to my lack of stying skills). Are there any tips/pointers you could share on what tools or processes you use in designing?

Thanks for the question….which I’ve realized is actually at least three questions. Why don’t I give you some sections of answers.

I’ve got a project “almost done” - it’s just missing design

The process described here is fundamentally different from how we actually work – we start with design first, and everything else builds from that. The idea of being “near completion” and only then thinking about design is a little foreign (and, we think, wrong). So, if you’ve been building things from the database up towards the UI - I’d say put that all aside and just start over working in the other direction.

I’ve got a prototype that I made, and I need it polished


All that being said about design-first, I certainly sympathize with the plight of having created a usable prototype of an application, only to arrive at a point where you feel it’s more or less complete, but clearly lacks visual polish and well executed design. I think any solution here requires some “back to the drawing board” approach: it’s very hard to retroactively “add design” to something. The design is the thing, it should be there from day one.

I would suggest that you don’t actually try to do this work yourself. Try to meet a designer who can do it for you. Especially if this is something you are trying to “productize” – take advantage of skill specialization and find someone you can borrow or hire to help you out with design. Maybe help this person out with some development tasks on a project of theirs in return.

I want to become better at design, in a pretty general way

In regard to longer term learning and picking up design skill, I think it’s really something you will only get from experience. Kevin Burg says…

10,000 hours is probably the best advice – no one with zero experience can expect to make something beautiful on their first time out. All designers’ work should be a progression of increasing quality and sophistication, so by that reasoning a designer’s first design will likely be his least successful one, but it could be the one he learns the most from.

…which I think is accurate in that your work will get better over time. Fred Yates says…

I get this question a lot. I don’t even know where to start, it’s like asking a mechanic how to build a car.

…which I think reflects the large task that you have in front of you.

So what do I do

Short term – I’d suggest finding a designer who is interested in your project, and working with them to make it happen. Longer term – there are tons of classes in most cities that are perfectly legitimate for people with little design experience to wet their toes and see what things are all about.

Quick plug: we are offering a design for developers course in a few weeks, right here in Boston.