Rocking Restrictions

I love my job. I live my job. For every project I do, I try to make it look special. I’ll be honest: I have a fetish for comments like “I never saw anything like that!” or, “I wish I thought of that!”. I know, I have an ego-problem. (Eleven I’s already)

But sometimes, you run out of inspiration. Happens to everybody, and everybody hates it. “I’m the worst designer in the world.” “Everything I designed before this was just pure luck!” No it wasn’t.

Countless articles about finding inspiration have already been written. Great, but they’re not the magic potion you’d expect them to be when you need it. Here’s a list of small tips that can have immediate effect when applying them/using them. Main theme: Liberate yourself from the designers’ block by restricting yourself.

Do’s

Grids

If you aren’t already using grids, you’re doing something wrong. Not only are they a great help for aligning your design, they also restrict you to certain widths and heights. (For more information about grids, I suggest you read Mark Boulton’s series on designing grid systems. Oh, he’s also publishing a book I think.)

So what’s the link between grids and restrictions? Instead of having the option to style a piece of layout with a width of 1 to 960 pixels, you have to choose from values like 60 pixels, 140, 220, 300, …

Start small

Having a hard time finding a style for the layout, why don’t you start with one small object? No, not that small object, I meant a piece of a form, or a link, or try styling your headers (h1h6).

Let’s take a submit button of a form: it’s small, but needs much attention. People will click it. People will hover it. Maybe sometimes it’s disabled? Also: a button needs to look like a button, so typically it requires more styling then a regular link. Once you’ve got the button, move on, following the button’s style.

Color palettes

There are lots of resources on the web for finding inspiration for color palettes. Some of the most famous are COLOURlovers, wear palettes and Adobe’s Kuler. Browse through them (or create your own from a picture), pick a color palette you like and which works with the subject you’re handling, and stick with it. 4-5 colors, maybe with some tonal variations, but that’s it.

Fonts

There aren’t many fonts available for the web (Richard Rutter has a great article on this subject), but you’d be surprised how long they go. A simple text-transform: uppercase; or font-style: italic; can change a dull looking font into something entirely fresh.

Play around with the fonts you want to use and the variations you’ll be using, and make a list. Pick five combinations of fonts and their variations, and stick with them throughout the layout.

Single-task

Most of us use multiple monitors. They’re great to increase productivity, but make it harder to focus on a single task. Here’s what you do: try using only your smallest monitor. Maybe it’s the one from your laptop, maybe it’s an old 1024×768 you found in the attic. Having Photoshop (or Fireworks or…) taking over your entire workspace blocks out all the other distractions on your screen, and works quite liberating.

Mute everything…

…but not entirely. I noticed I was way more focused when I set NetNewsWire to refresh it’s feeds only once every two hours. After two hours, I need a break anyway. Turning off Twitterrific was a mistake, as it’s my window to the world, and it’s the place where the people I like to call colleagues live. You can’t exactly ask them to bring you a cup of coffee when they go to the vending machine, but they do keep you fresh, and it stops you from going human-shy. Instead I changed the settings to not play a notification sound when new Tweets arrive so it doesn’t disturb me when I’m zoning.

Don’ts

CSS galleries

Don’t start browsing all kinds of CSS galleries. Either you’ll feel bad, or you just start using elements in a way you can’t call “inspired” anymore. Instead gather your own collection of inspiration. Example: I use LittleSnapper in which I dump everything I find inspiring. This goes from a smart layout idea, to a failed picture someone posted on Flickr. Everything is inspiring.

Panicking

Don’t panic. It’s the worst thing you could do. Instead, get away from the computer, and go to bed early. A good night of sleep combined with a hot/cold shower can give you a totally new perspective on a design. Got a deadline by tomorrow? Well, you should’ve started earlier. Got a good excuse to start on this design this late? Tell your client it was either that or a bad design.

120-hour work-week

Don’t work all day long, including evenings and early mornings. Write off that first hour, you don’t really think you’ll get anything productive done before 9AM?! I don’t even think you should work on one and the same design all day long. If you’re stuck, try working in blocks of 1 or 2 hours on a certain design. Mixing projects isn’t for everyone, but it might just do the trick for you.

Summary

  • Use grids, not only for layout purposes.
  • Pick a specific element to start with.
  • Use a colour palette.
  • Limit the amount of fonts and variations you’ll use.
  • Search for the smallest monitor around, and restrict yourself to that one.
  • Reduce the amount of noise.
  • Don’t start looking on the internet for inspiration. Build your own little inspirarchive.
  • Work in blocks.

About the author

Tim Van Damme is a freelance interface designer at Made by Elephant. Not afraid to push the limits, friend of all things living, blabbermouth, honest chap, passionate about the web, always in the mood for a chat, blogger at Maxvoltar, boyfriend of Gwenny, Belgian, Twitter addict.

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