The 5 Most Common UI Design Mistakes

Although the title UI Designer suggests a sort of departure from the traditional graphic designer, UI design is still a part of the historical trajectory of the visual design discipline.

With each movement or medium, the discipline has introduced new graphic languages, layouts, and design processes. Between generations, the designer has straddled the transition from press to xerox, or paper to pixel. Across these generations, graphic design has carried out the responsibility of representing the visual language of each era respectively.

Therefore, as UI Design makes the transition out of its infancy, what sort of graphic world can we expect to develop? Unfortunately, based on the current trajectory, the future may look bleak. Much of UI Design today has become standardized and repeatable. Design discussions online involve learning the rules to get designs to safely work, rather than push the envelope, or imagine new things. The tendency for UI Designers to resort to patterns and trends has not only created a bland visual environment, but also diminished the value of the designer as processes become more and more formulaic. The issue is precisely not one of technicalities, but of impending visual boredom.

Thus, the Top Five Common UI Design mistakes are:

  • Following Design Rules
  • Abusing the Grid
  • Misunderstanding Typefaces
  • Patterns and the Standardization of UI Design
  • Finding Safety in Contrast

UI Design Rule Book

Understand principles and be creative within their properties. Following the rules will only take your where others have been.

Common Mistake #1: UI Designers Follow the Rules

The world of graphic design has always followed sets of rules and standards. Quite often in any design discipline, the common mistakes that are made can closely coincide with a standard rule that has been broken. Thus, from this perspective the design rules seem to be pretty trustworthy to follow.

However, in just about any design discipline, new design movements and creative innovation has generally resulted from consciously breaking said rule book. This is possible because design is really conditional, and requires the discretion of the designer, rather than a process with any sort of finite answers. Therefore, the design rules should likely be considered as guidelines more so rather than hard and fast rules. The experienced designer knows and respects the rule book just enough to be able break the box.

Unfortunately, the way that design is often discussed online is within sets of do’s and don’ts. Top mistakes and practices for design in 10 easy steps! Design isn’t so straightforward, and requires a much more robust understanding of principles and tendencies, rather than checklists to systematically carry out.

The concern is that if designers were to cease ‘breaking the rules’, then nothing new creatively would ever be made. If UI designers only develop their ability to follow guidelines, rather than make their own decisions, then they may quickly become irrelevant. How else will we argue a value greater than off the shelf templates?

Be Wary of Top Ten Design Rules

The issue with design rules in today’s UI design community is they are so abundant. In the interest of solving any problem, the designer can look to the existing UI community and their set of solutions, rather than solve an issue on their own. However, the abundance of these guides and rules have made themselves less credible.

A google search for “Top UI Design Mistakes” yields a half million search results. So, what are the chances that most, if any of these authors of various articles agree with one another? Or, will each design tip that is discussed coincide accurately with the design problems of a reader?

Often the educational articles online discuss acute problems, rather than the guiding design principles behind the issue. The result is that new designers will never learn why design works the way that it does. Instead, they only become able to copy what has come before. Isn’t it concerning that in none of these sorts of articles is something like play encouraged?

The designer should have a tool kit of principles to guide them, rather than a book of rules to follow predetermined designs. Press x for parallax scrolling and y for carousels. Before choosing, refer to most recent blog post on which navigational tool is trending. Boring!

Trends are like junk food for designers. Following trends produces cheap designs that may offer some initial pay back, but little worth in the long run. This means that not only may trendy designers become dated, or ineffective quickly. But, for you the designer, don’t expect to experience any sense of reward when designing in this way. Although working to invent your own styles and systems is a lot of work, it’s so worth it day in and day out. There’s just something about copying that never seems to feed the soul.

Common Mistake #2: Allowing the Grid to Restrict UI Design

Despite my treatise against rules - here’s a rule: there is no way for a UI Designer to design without a grid. The web or mobile interface is fundamentally based on a pixel by pixel organization - there’s no way around it. However, this does not necessarily mean that the interface has to restrict designers to gridded appearances, or even gridded processes.

Using the Grid as a Trendy Tool

Generally, making any design moves as a response to trends can easily lead to poor design. Perhaps what results is a satisfactory, mostly functional product. But it will almost certainly be boring or uninteresting. To be trendy is to be commonplace. Therefore, when employing the grid in a design, understand what the grid has to offer as a tool, and what it might convey. Grids generally represent neutrality, as everything within the restraints of a grid appear equal. Grids also allow for a neutral navigational experience. Users can jump from item to item without any interference from the designer’s curatorial hand. Whereas, with other navigational structures, the designer may be able to group content, or establish desired sequences.

UI Design Rule Book

Although a useful tool, the grid can be very limiting to designers.

Defaulting to the Grid as a Work Flow

Dylan Fracareta, faculty of RISD and director of PIN-UP Magazine, points out that “most people start off with a 12 - column grid…because you can get 3 and 4 off of that”. The danger here is that immediately the designer predetermines anything that they might come up with. Alternatively, Fracareta resides to only using the move tool with set quantities, rather than physically placing things against a grid line. Although this establishes order, it opens up more potential for unexpected outcomes. Although designing for the browser used to mean that we would input some code, wait, and see what happens. Now, web design has returned to a more traditional form of layout designer that’s “more like adjusting two sheets of transparent paper”. How can we as designers benefit from this process? Working Without a Grid Although grids can be restricting, they are one of our most traditional forms of organization. The grid is intuitive. The grid is neutral and unassuming. Therefore, grids allow content to speak for itself, and for users to navigate at their will and with ease. Despite my warnings towards the restrictiveness of grids, different arrays allow for different levels of guidance or freedom.

Common Mistake #3:The Standardization of UI Design with Patterns

The concept of standardized design elements predates UI design. Architectural details have been frequently repeated in practice for typical conditions for centuries. Generally this practice makes sense for certain parts of a building that are rarely perceived by a user. However, once architects began to standardize common elements like furniture dimensions, or handrails heights, people eventually expressed disinterest in the boring, beige physical environment that resulted. Not only this, but standardized dimensions were proven to be ineffective, as although generated as an average, they didn’t really apply to the majority of the population. Thus, although repeatable detail have their place, they should be used critically.

If we as designers choose to automate, what value are we providing?

If we as designers choose to automate, what value are we providing?

Designers Using the Pattern as Product

Many UI designers don’t view the pattern as a time saving tool, but rather an off the shelf solution to design problems. Patterns are intended to take recurring tasks or artefacts and standardize them in order to make the designer’s job easier. Instead, certain patterns like F Pattern Layouts, Carousels or Pagination have become the entire structure of many of our interfaces.

Justification for the Pattern is Skewed

Designers tell themselves that the F shaped pattern exists as a result of the way that people read on the web.Espen Brunborg points out that perhaps people read this way as a result of us designing for that pattern. “What’s the point of having web designers if all they do is follow the recipe,” Brunborg asks.

Common Mistake #4: Misunderstanding Typefaces

Many designer’s quick tips suggest hard and fast rules about fonts as well. Each rule is shouted religiously, “One font family only! Monospaced fonts are dead! Avoid thin fonts at all costs!”. But really, the only legitimate rules on type, text and fonts should be to enforce legibility, and convey meaning. As long as type is legible, there may very well be an appropriate opportunity for all sorts of typefaces. The UI Designer must take on the responsibility of knowing the history, uses, and designed intentions for each font that they implement in a UI.

Consider a Typeface Only for Legibility

Typefaces convey meaning as well as affect legibility. With all of the discussion surrounding rules for proper legibility on devices etc, designers are forgetting that type is designed to augment a body of text with a sensibility, as much as it is meant to be legible. Legibility is critical, I do not dispute this - but my point is that legibility really should be an obvious goal. Otherwise, why wouldn’t we have just stopped at Helvetica, or maybe Highway Gothic. However, the important thing to remember is that fonts are not just designed for different contexts of legibility. Typefaces are also essential for conveying meaning or giving a body of text a mood.

Typefaces are each designed for their own uses. Don't allow narrow minded rules to restrict an exploration of the world of type.

Avoiding Thin Fonts At All Costs

Now that the trend has come (and almost gone?), a common design criticism is to avoid thin fonts entirely. In the same way thin fonts came as a trend, they may leave as one also. However, the hope should be to understand the principles of the typefaces rather than follow trends at all.

Some say that they’re impossible to read or untrustworthy between devices. All legitimate points. Yet, this represents a condition in the current discussion of UI design. The font choice is only understood by designers as technical choice in regards to legibility, rather than also understanding the meaning and value of typefaces. The concern is that if legibility is the only concern that a designer carried, would thin fonts be done away with entirely?

Understand why you are using a thin font, and within what contexts. Bold, thick text is actually much more difficult to read at length than thinner fonts. Yet, as bold fonts carry more visual weight they’re more appropriate for headings, or content with little text. As thin fonts are often serifs, its suitability for body text is entirely objective. As serif characters flow together when read in rapid succession, they make for much more comfortable long reading.

As well, thin fonts are often chosen because they convey elegance. So, if a designer was working on an interface for a client whose mandate was to convey elegance, they might find themselves hard pressed to find a heavy typeface to do the job.

Not Enough Variation

A common mistake is to not provide enough variation between fonts in an interface. Changing fonts is a good navigational tool to establish visual hierarchy, or potentially different functions within an interface. A crash course on hierarchy will teach you that generally the largest items, or boldest fonts, should be the most important, and carry the most visual weight. Visual importance can convey content headings, or perhaps frequently used functions.

Too Much Variation

A common UI Design mistake is to load in several different typefaces from different families that each denote a unique function. The issue with making every font choice special, when there is many fonts, is that no font stands out. Changing fonts is a good navigational tool to establish visual hierarchy, or potentially different functions within an interface. Therefore, if every font is different, there is too much confusion for a user to recognize any order.

Common Mistake #5: Under/Over Estimating the Potential of Contrast

A common mistake that appears on many Top UI Design Mistake lists is that designers should avoid low contrast interfaces. There are many instances in which low contrast designs are illegible and ineffective - true. However, as with the previous points, my worry is that this use of language alternatively produces a high contrast design culture in response.

Defaulting to High Contrast

The issue is that high contrast is aesthetically easy to achieve. High contrast visuals are undeniably stimulating or exciting. However, there are many more moods in the human imagination to convey or communicate with, other than high stimulation. To be visually stimulating may also be visually safe.

The same issue is actually occurring in sci-fi film. The entire industry has resorted to black and neon blue visuals as a way to trick viewers into accepting ‘exciting’ visuals, instead of new, creative, or beautiful visuals. This article points out what the sci-fi industry is missing out on by producing safe visuals.

Functionally, if every element in an interface is in high contrast to another, then nothing stands out. This defeats the potential value of contrast as a hierarchical tool. Considering different design moves as tools, rather than rules to follow is essential in avoiding stagnant, trendy design.

Illegibly Low Contrast

The use of low contrast fonts and backgrounds is a commonly made mistake. However, rather than being a design issue. This could potentially be discussed as a beta testing mistake, rather than a design mistake.

How the design element relates as a low contrast piece to the rest of the interface is a design concern. The issue could be that the most significant item hierarchically is low in contrast to the rest of the interface. For the interface to communicate its organizational structure, the elements should contrast one another in a certain way. This is a design discussion. Whether or not it is legible is arguably a testing mistake.

The point is that in only discussing contrast as a technical issue resolvable by adjusting a value, designers miss out on the critical understanding of what contrast is principally used for.

Conclusion

As with the previous 4 mistakes, the abuse of patterns will rarely result in a dysfunctional website, but rather just a boring one. The mistake is in being safe. This overly cautious method of design may not cause the individual project to fail. However, this series of safe mistakes performed by the greater web community can mean greater failures beyond the individual UI design project. The role of the designer should be to imagine, thoughtfully experiment and create - not to responsibly follow rules and guidelines.

The original article is from Toptal. Find more UI resources here

Top Ten Front-End Design Rules For Developers

As front-end developers, our job is, essentially, to turn designs into reality via code. Understanding, and being competent in, design is an important component of that. Unfortunately, truly understanding front-end design is easier said than done. Coding and aesthetic design require some pretty different skill sets. Because of that, some front-end devs aren’t as proficient in the design aspect as they should be, and as a result, their work suffers.

My goal is to give you some easy-to-follow rules and concepts, from one front-end dev to another, that will help you go from start to finish of a project without messing up what your designers worked so hard on (or possibly even allowing you to design your own projects with decent results).

Of course, these rules won’t take you from bad to magnificent in the time it takes to read one article, but if you apply them to your work, they should make a big difference.

Do Stuff In A Graphics Program

It’s truly rare that you complete a project, and go from start to finish while maintaining every single aesthetic mutation in the design files. And, unfortunately, designers aren’t always around to run to for a quick fix.

Therefore, there always comes a point in any front-end job where you end up having to make some aesthetic-related tweaks. Whether it’s making the checkmark that shows when you check the checkbox, or making a page layout that the PSD missed, front-enders often end up handling these seemingly minor tasks. Naturally, in a perfect world this wouldn’t be the case, but I have yet to find a perfect world, hence we need to be flexible.

A good front-end developer has to use professional graphics tools. Accept no substitute.

A good front-end developer has to use professional graphics tools. Accept no substitute.

For these situations, you should always use a graphics program for mockups. I don’t care which tool you choose: Photoshop, Illustrator, Fireworks, GIMP, whatever. Just don’t just attempt to design from your code. Spend a minute launching a real graphics program and figuring out how it should look, then go to the code and make it happen. You may not be an expert designer, but you’ll still end up with better results.

Match the Design, Don’t Try To Beat It

Your job is not to impress with how unique your checkmark is; your job is to match it to the rest of the design.

Those without a lot of design experience can easily be tempted to leave their mark on the project with seemingly minor details. Please leave that to the designers.

Developers have to match the original front-end design as closely as possible.

Developers have to match the original front-end design as closely as possible.

Instead of asking “Does my checkmark look amazing?” you should be asking, “How well does my checkmark match the design?”

Your focus should always be on working with the design, not on trying to outdo it.

Typography Makes All the Difference

You’d be surprised to know how much of the end look of a design is influenced by typography. You’d be just as surprised to learn how much time designers spend on it. This is not a “pick-it-and-go” endeavor, some serious time and effort goes into it.

If you end up in a situation where you actually have to choose typography, you should spend a decent amount of time doing so. Go online and research good font pairings. Spend a few hours trying those pairings and making sure you end up with the best typography for the project.

Is this font right for your project? When in doubt, consult a designer.

Is this font right for your project? When in doubt, consult a designer.

If you’re working with a design, then make sure you follow the designer’s typography choices. This doesn’t just mean choosing the font, either. Pay attention to the line spacing, letter spacing, and so on. Don’t overlook how important it is to match the typography of the design.

Also, make sure you use the right fonts in the correct spot. If the designer uses Georgia for headers only and Open Sans for body, then you shouldn’t be using Georgia for body and Open Sans for headers. Typography can make or break aesthetics easily. Spend enough time making sure you are matching your designer’s typography. It will be time well spent.

Front-end Design Doesn’t Tolerate Tunnel Vision

You’ll probably be making small parts of the overall design.

Tunnel vision is a common pitfall for front-end developers. Don’t focus on a single detail, always look at the big picture.

Tunnel vision is a common pitfall for front-end developers. Don’t focus on a single detail, always look at the big picture.

An example I’ve been going with is making the checkmark for a design that includes custom checkboxes, without showing them checked. It’s important to remember that the parts you are making are small parts of an overall design. Make your checks as important as a checkmark on a page should look, no more, no less. Don’t get tunnel vision about your one little part and make it something it shouldn’t be.

In fact, a good technique for doing this is to take a screenshot of the program so far, or of the design files, and design within it, in the context in which it will be used. That way, you really see how it affects other design elements on the page, and whether it fits its role properly.

Relationships And Hierarchy

Pay special attention to how the design works with hierarchy. How close are the titles to the body of text? How far are they from the text above them? How does the designer seem to be indicating which elements/titles/text bodies are related and which aren’t? They’ll commonly do these things by boxing related content together, using varying white space to indicate relationships, using similar or contrasting colors to indicate related/unrelated content, and so on.

A good front-end developer will respect design relationships and hierarchy. A great developer will understand them.

A good front-end developer will respect design relationships and hierarchy. A great developer will understand them.

It’s your job to make sure that you recognize the ways in which the design accomplishes relationships and hierarchy and to make sure those concepts are reflected in the end product (including for content that was not specifically designed, and/or dynamic content). This is another area (like typography) where it pays to take extra time to make sure you’re doing a good job.

Be Picky About Whitespace And Alignment

This is a great tip for improving your designs and/or better implementing the designs of others: If the design seems to be using spacings of 20 units, 40 units, etc., then make sure every spacing is a multiple of 20 units.

This is a really drop-dead simple way for someone with no eye for aesthetics to make a significant improvement quickly. Make sure your elements are aligned down to the pixel, and that the spacing around every edge of every element is as uniform as possible. Where you can’t do that (such as places where you need extra space to indicate hierarchy), make them exact multiples of the spacing you’re using elsewhere, for example two times your default to create some separation, three times to create more, and so on.

Do your best to understand how the designer used whitespace and follow those concepts in your front-end build.

Do your best to understand how the designer used whitespace and follow those concepts in your front-end build.

A lot of devs achieve this for specific content in the design files, but when it comes to adding/editing content, or implementing dynamic content, the spacing can go all over the place because they didn’t truly understand what they were implementing.

Do your best to understand how the designer used whitespace and follow those concepts in your build. And yes, spend time on this. Once you think your work is done, go back and measure the spacing to ensure you have aligned and uniformly spaced everything as much as possible, then try out the code with lots of varying content to make sure it’s flexible.

If You Don’t Know What You’re Doing, Do Less

I’m not one of those people that thinks every project should use minimalist design, but if you’re not confident in your design chops and you need to add something, then less is more.

Less is more. If your designer did a good job to begin with, you should refrain from injecting your own design ideas.

Less is more. If your designer did a good job to begin with, you should refrain from injecting your own design ideas.

The designer took care of the main stuff; you only need to do minor fillers. If you’re not very good at design, then a good bet is to do as minimal amount as you can to make that element work. That way, you’re injecting less of your own design into the designer’s work, and affecting it as little as possible.

Let the designer’s work take center stage and let your work take the back seat.

Time Makes Fools Of Us All

I’ll tell you a secret about designers: 90 percent (or more) of what they actually put down on paper, or a Photoshop canvas, isn’t that great.

They discard far more than you ever see. It often takes many revisions and fiddling with a design to get it to the point where they’d even let the guy in the next cubicle see their work, never mind the actual client. You usually don’t go from a blank canvas to good design in one step; there’s a bunch iterations in between. People rarely make good work until they understand that and allow for it in their process.

If you think the design can be improved upon, consult your designer. It’s possible they already tried a similar approach and decided against it.

If you think the design can be improved upon, consult your designer. It’s possible they already tried a similar approach and decided against it.

So how do you implement this? One important method is taking time between versions. Work until it looks like something you like then put it away. Give it a few hours (leaving it overnight is even better), then open it up again and take a look. You’ll be amazed at how different it looks with fresh eyes. You’ll quickly pick out areas for improvement. They’ll be so clear you’ll wonder how you possibly missed them in the first place.

In fact, one of the better designers I’ve known takes this idea a lot further. He would start by making three different designs. Then, he’d wait at least 24 hours, look at them again and throw them all out and start from scratch on a fourth. Next, he’d allow a day between each iteration as it got better and better. Only when he opened it up one morning, and was totally happy, or at least, as close as a designer ever gets to totally happy, would he send it to the client. This was the process he used for every design he made, and it served him very well.

I don’t expect you to take it that far, but it does highlight how helpful time without “eyes on the design” can be. It’s an integral part of the design process and can make improvements in leaps and bounds.

Pixels Matter

You should do everything in your power to match the original design in your finished program, down to the last pixel.

Front-end developers should try to match the original design down to the last pixel.

Front-end developers should try to match the original design down to the last pixel.

In some areas you can’t be perfect. For example, your control over letter-spacing might not be quite as precise as that of the designer’s, and a CSS shadow might not exactly match a Photoshop one, but you should still attempt to get as close as possible. For many aspects of the design, you really can get pixel-perfect precision. Doing so can make a big difference in the end result. A pixel off here and there doesn’t seem like much, but it adds up and affects the overall aesthetic much more than you’d think. So keep an eye on it.

There are a number of [tools] that help you compare original designs to end results, or you can just take screenshots and paste them into the design file to compare each element as closely as possible. Just lay the screenshot over the design and make it semi-transparent so that you can see the differences. Then you know how much adjustment you have to make to get it spot on.

Get Feedback

It’s hard to gain an “eye for design.” It’s even harder to do it on your own. You should seek the input of othersto really see how you can make improvements.

I am not suggesting you grab your neighbor and ask for advice, I mean you should consult real designers and let them critique your work and offer suggestions.

Let designers critique your work. Put their criticism to good use and don’t antagonize them.

Let designers critique your work. Put their criticism to good use and don’t antagonize them.

It takes some bravery to do so, but in the end it is one of the most powerful things you can do to improve the project in the short-term, and to improve your skill level in the long run.

Even if all you have to fine tune is a simple checkmark, there are plenty of people willing to help you. Whether it’s a designer friend, or an online forum, seek out qualified people and get their feedback.

Build a long-lasting, productive relationship with your designers. It’s vital for useful feedback, quality, and execution.

Build a long-lasting, productive relationship with your designers. It’s vital for useful feedback, quality, and execution.

It may sound time consuming, and may cause friction between you and your designers, but in the big scheme of things, it’s worth it. Good front-end developers rely on valuable input from designers, even when it’s not something they like to hear.

Therefore, it’s vital to build and maintain a constructive relationship with your designers. You’re all in the same boat, so to get the best possible results you have to collaborate and communicate every step of the way. The investment in building bonds with your designers is well worth it, as it will help everyone do a better job and execute everything on time.

Conclusion

To summarize, here is a short list of design tips for front-end developers:

  • Design in a graphics program. Don’t design from code, not even the small stuff.
  • Match the design. Be conscious of the original design and don’t try to improve it, just match it.
  • Typography is huge. The time you spend making sure it’s right should reflect its importance.
  • Avoid tunnel vision. Make sure your additions stand out only as much as they should. They’re not more important just because you designed them.
  • Relationships and hierarchy: Understand how they work in the design so that you can implement them properly.
  • Whitespace and alignment are important. Make them accurate to the pixel and make them evenly throughout anything you add.
  • If you’re not confident in your skills, then make your additions as minimally styled as you can.
  • Take time between revisions. Come back later to see your design work with fresh eyes.
  • Pixel-perfect implementation is important wherever possible.
  • Be brave. Seek out experienced designers to critique your work.

Not every front-end developer is going to be a fantastic designer, but every front-end dev should at least becompetent in terms of design.

You need to understand enough about design concepts to identify what’s going on, and to properly apply the design to your end product. Sometimes, you can get away with blind copying if you’ve got a thorough designer (and if you’re detail oriented enough to truly copy it pixel for pixel).

However, in order to make large projects shine across many variations of content, you need some understanding of what’s going through the designer’s head. You don’t merely need to see what the design looks like, you need to know why it looks the way it does, and that way you can be mindful of technical and aesthetic limitations that will affect your job.

So, even as a front-end developer, part of your regular self-improvement should always include learning more about design. 

The original article was written by BRYAN GREZESZAK - FREELANCE SOFTWARE ENGINEER @ TOPTAL and can be read here.