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I am a novice UX designer and I am fairly comfortable with information architecture, interaction design, and creating mockups (low, med., and high). But when it comes to creating the actual UI, I have some challenges - the UI doesn't seem to look 'pretty'/'eye pleasing', which is causing some problems at work.

Can you please suggest some books/websites that I can refer for improving my visual design skills?

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Are you talking about websites, desktop applications, mobile apps? Are you have trouble getting your dev tools to give results that look like your mock-ups? Can you be a bit more specific about what you are doing and why it doesn't look pretty to you. – Roger Attrill Jul 21 '11 at 22:23
Are you talking about visual design? If so it might be better to ask this in Graphic Design as they probably have more knowledge of what materials are available to get you started. – Rahul Jul 21 '11 at 22:27
Thanks for your response. I am working on a web application. My role requires understanding the user needs and creating workflow/UI. Wireframes are created based on user research and shared with the managers who suggest changes if any. Once finalized, mocks are created (with company's UX stds). These mocks are eventually shared with the dev team for production. The mocks mimic how the final product will look. My problem is in creating these final versions. For example, the appearance of menus/buttons etc. I would like to understand what I can do to improve my design (visual design) skills. – Tara Jul 21 '11 at 22:37
Thanks for the response Rahul. As a UX designer, I am not sure, if I am expected to be designing the final look and feel of the UI or is it the responsibility of a graphic designer? The graphic designer scorns when I request for her help. – Tara Jul 21 '11 at 22:40
There are many opinions on this but my personal one is that UI designers can be responsible for "visual design" but not necessarily "graphic design". I define the difference as: visual design is functional; you're creating something that is easy to use and looking good may be part of that. Graphic design I define as focusing on other concerns like branding, logo/typography work, etc. Each requires different priorities. My advice would be to work together with the graphic designer to figure out where each of your responsibilities lies. – Rahul Jul 21 '11 at 22:47
up vote 19 down vote accepted

Since you defined your question more clearly in the comments as relating to visual design, let me approach my answer from that perspective.

Visual design as I tend to define it relates to how graphic design principles are used in interface design to support clarity, consistency, and simplicity in order to create UIs that are easy and enjoyable to use. Wikipedia defines it as "Visual Design is a design working in any media or support of visual communication", which is a broader definition but still what I'm talking about.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte is the single most influential book on visual design. Not only does it craft a compelling narrative for "visual design" as a separate profession, it gives you a ton of thinking about UI design and names patterns, such as the Least Effective Difference.

Some basic aspects of visual design that I think are important:

  • Every design decision is in support of the medium. What that means is that if you're doing visual design work for a web app, each choice you make should be relative to the fact that you're working on a web app which will be used by someone to achieve some goal. As such you have different priorities than graphic designers sometimes do and should make decisions accordingly. For instance, a common difference of opinion between some graphic designers and UI designers that I've seen has been whether or not to style input fields. Graphic designers may be looking for visual consistency as it relates to a theme or brand, whereas the visual designer in charge of the UI may be looking to create an easy to use and understand interface. Sometimes these goals clash, creating interesting conversations.

  • Typography. Large parts of interfaces are made up of text and as such you should grasp how typography can be used to affect how people use them. What are the consequences of Verdana vs Arial? Why do you want to stay away from serif fonts for screen-based UIs? Which fonts work well on mobile/small screens? Similar questions are relevant and, like above, a visual designer may make different choices than a graphic designer.

  • Contrast and colour. Both of these are designers' tools. Where a graphic designer may be interested in achieving a certain mood or atmosphere, a visual designer may prioritise contrasts and colours in a way that allows users to focus on essential parts of the user interface. Knowing your way around contrast helps you create legible user interfaces; colour is an essential tool for highlighting things, fading things out, and creating a consistent balance that delivers ease of use but doesn't conflict with any house styles or branding guidelines.

  • Whitespace and proportions. UIs are subject to the laws of proportions and composition like any other creative medium. Whitespace is a great way to draw attention to something without having to use superfluous colours, icons, etc. Know when whitespace works and how much you should use. Some designers cram everything together, making it hard to find things on the page, whereas some use too much (sometimes because they have 23" screens and don't notice). Don't be like them!

  • Iconography. Understanding how and when to use icons and having a basic grasp of how to create them goes a long way. Even if you're not a hot shot icon designer you should still be able to put together basic icons that communicate concepts effectively, and you should certainly learn how to distill ideas down into icon format because it's just useful to know how to do that. Ultimately though you'll likely want to work together with the graphic designer to figure out the best visual representation of business logic stuff and have her actually do the hardcore, detailed work on them.

Ultimately, if you're looking to improve your visual design skills, my advice would be to practice a lot.

I learned a lot from watching others, notably 37signals' designers Jason Fried and Ryan Singer, as well as keeping my eyes on trendsetting visual design like Quora, the team responsible for Facebook's visual design, Twitter, Google's UX team, etc. But that's me - I focus on web applications and minimalism. You may have different priorities.

In any case, always be on the lookout for interesting visual design by keeping your eyes open. Start following people on Twitter, subscribing to RSS feeds, and delving into books. And - of course - start designing your own stuff. There's no better way to learn than by doing.

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Thank you for sharing. Appreciate it. – Tara Jul 22 '11 at 1:01
+1 For "practice a lot" - would have been my answer, if yours wasn't so comprehensive. – Samuel Hulick Jul 22 '11 at 5:07

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