4 key principles of web design

Alex Bigman

If you’ve ever researched web design principles, you’re probably more than familiar with the following attitude: “Web design is just so easy these days. With lightning-fast internet speed and sophisticated browsers, designers hardly have to deal with any of the restrictions that shaped the early days of the web. A website is, more than ever, a designer’s canvas.”

This may be true enough from the perspective of someone already comfortable with the basics, but if phrases like “CSS responsive grid system” and “Google Web Fonts” are alien to you, then jumping into the supposedly “oh-so-easy” world of web design may still seem a daunting proposition.

In recognition of this, we put together a truly basic set of web design basics with the beginner in mind. Of course, it’s never a bad idea to review the fundamentals, even if you consider yourself a wiz.

1. Grid systems


Manuscript via Graphics.com; New York Times grid overlay via Design O’ Blog

Since the invention of the codex in the 1st century, the grid has determined how we read. Thousands of variations, involving different arrangements of rows and columns, have emerged over time.

Think of the way text and images are arranged in books, newspapers and magazines. These are the systems that were more or less directly carried over onto the web, and they work. Word to the wise: many a designer has attempted to avoid the grid in the name of “creativity”; many such websites go unread.

In a world where people are as, if not more likely to browse the web on phones and tablets than on traditional computers, the issue of “responsive design”—designs that translate to smaller screen sizes in a smooth and intentional manner—is also paramount.

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 7.45.43 PM

Profound Grid is an example of a compatible, responsive-ready grid system

To make our lives easier, a huge number of pre-fabricated grid systems have emerged which are responsive, compatible with major coding languages, and generally free to download. Some popular ones are 960.gs, Simple Grid and Golden Grid System, but the list of good options is truly enormous, with some being more complex than others. Here’s a good article from WebDesignerDepot to get you started.

Of course, if you’re feeling adventurous or feel your project demands a truly unique solution, then by all means, create your own.

2. Visual hierarchy


The Build conference website puts hierarchy principles to use

We recently wrote a full article on this subject, so we’ll be brief here. Basically, it’s a known fact that in most cultures, people read left-to-right and top-down. However, it is also a known fact that, within these parameters, reading behavior follows a much more complex set of rules. This is especially true on the internet where people actually “scan” pages much more than they “read” them.

Good web pages are built in response to these measured reading patterns by placing important elements, like the logo, call to action or a key image, along the axes that the reader is expected to scan. These conventionally take either an “F” or a “Z” shape.


F-pattern demonstration via Nielsen Norman Group

Beyond that, visual hierarchy is about signaling to readers what should be read first and what should be read next. After page placement, this may involve strategies like font size, spacing, direction and typeface pairing, as well as the use of color highlights.

3. Web-safe fonts


Open Sans is a nice web font from Google Web Fonts

In 2014, the term “web-safe fonts” already feels like something of an anachronism. Back in the early days of the internet, browsers supported a very limited number of fonts—typically just ones that were already installed in users’ word processing software—and if you deviated from these, some visitors would just wind up seeing random symbols.

Today, it is still true that certain fonts are supported by most browsers while others fonts are not, but the number of web-safe options has exploded thanks to the adoption of what is known as @font-face embedding in most modern browsers. Indeed, many designers complain of having too much to choose from.

Fee-based font services include Typekit, WebINK, Fontdeck and Fontspring. You can find nice free fonts, too, if you do a little searching through free services like Google Web Fonts. Here is a recent roundup of nice free web fonts by CreativeBloq.


Arvo is another nice font from Google Web Fonts

Now that you know where to look, there are just a few general rules to keep in mind:

  • In web design, serif fonts are always reserved for headlines, because at smaller sizes they become hard to read. Body text should generally be sans-serif.
  • Keep the number of different fonts on a website to a minimum, or it will start looking cluttered. 2, 3 at the most. Check out our recent article on smart font pairing.
  • Keep in mind that some font files can be pretty enormous, and this could potentially slow the load time of a website.

4. Images and colors


Hype! is bold, yet monochrome

The principles of image and color placement are not especially unique to web design, so we won’t go into too much depth here. The main maxim to keep is: don’t overdo it.

For colors:

  • Like fonts, just stick to 2 or 3. They should of course echo the host’s branding, while serving to highlight important areas, as noted in the “visual hierarchy” section.
  • One other consideration worth keeping in the back of your mind is the fact that something like 5% of the (male) population is colorblind, so watch out with your color pairings. We wrote a more in-depth article on the subject here.
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Square‘s photo helps you understand the product

For images:

  • Avoid images that move. Resist the urge for flash. Even .gifs are highly questionable, unless executed with the utmost skill. In general, studies show that viewers much prefer websites that keep still.
  • Don’t use images simply as a way to fill space; visitors will pick up on this immediately and may lose interest in your page. Instead, only use images which communicate useful information—illustrating accompanying text or explaining something about a product being described. This article on Designinstruct covers this issue more in-depth.
  • Be aware of the licensing restrictions associated with your images. Most images are copyrighted, meaning that you or your client will have to pay to use them, according to your needs. You can familiarize yourself with this subject using past articles we have written.
  • Keep file sizes as low as possible (web resolution is 72 ppi). Images often account for 60% or more of a web page’s size/loading time.

…And those are more or less the web design basics. Ask your questions in the comments!

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