So you have a website to design. Or a newsletter. Or maybe a blog.
There's only one problem: You're not a designer.
Ever since the advent of "desktop publishing" more than 20 years ago, personal computers have allowed anyone and everyone to test the limits of their creativity and graphic design know-how in a freewheeling, low-cost frenzy of fonts, colors and clip art. Now just about any software for professionals, from word-processing programs to presentation tools, encourages nondesigners to experiment with design by adding images and resizing fonts.
The trend jumped into overdrive with the advent of do-it-yourself blogs and websites, as even more people decided they could just slap a photo on a website, add a few mismatched colors, and watch as their handiwork turned up at Google. Free from printing expenses, plenty of awful-looking websites have been created by writers, techies and others giving graphic design a whirl without much thought or the skills required to produce something that's not an eyesore.
There's not much of an excuse for this -- not when the Internet serves up daily lessons in graphic design for both print and the Web.
And, in fact, plenty of nondesigners -- or, as it might be better to put it, self-trained designers -- produce work that's visually appealing and sometimes downright stunning. Many of them have gleaned tips and advice from the Web's voluminous design resources and tutorials. A thriving online design culture is devoted to educating, informing and sharing ideas, and anyone is welcome to learn and contribute.
Head over to Design Observer (designobserver.com), and you will be presented with a smart, elegant blog that's about design in all of its incarnations, from print and the Web to products and architecture. Though you won't find the sort of nitty-gritty guidance here that you'll find at other design blogs, you will enter a realm where design is prized as a tool for communication and creative expression.
A section with recommended books suggests everything from Debbie Millman's "How to Think Like a Graphic Designer" to Edward Tufte's "Beautiful Evidence," and the extensive site suggestions lead you to spots with names such as Noisy Decent Graphics and the Designer's Lunchbox.
Other spots go for a far more practical approach. Smashing magazine (smashingmagazine.com) delivers tutorials and how-tos, and links to other online resources in posts such as "Five More Principles of Effective Web Design" and "White Space and Simplicity: An Overview." You'll find plenty of freebies here, too, including fonts, icons and templates.
Scouring these spots, you'll inevitably stumble upon a variety of free tools for designers. The Color Scheme Generator (typetester.maratz.com) lets you fool around with various color schemes, using a Web-friendly "color wheel." Typetester (typetester.maratz.com) lets you try out fonts with a variety of sizes and spacing to see what looks best online. Plenty of other tools can be found at tlbox (tlbox.com/web--designers/).
A recent post at the Signal vs. Noise blog (37signals.com/svn/), labeled "Designing is not a profession but an attitude," sums up the come-one, come-all approach of the Web's design resources and hotspots: "We often put 'designers' and 'creatives' in special silos. But when you look at it from this 'design for life' perspective, everyone is designing: writers, programmers, managers, CEOs, HR departments, parents, etc. Design and creativity don't belong exclusively to people who use Photoshop."
True, gazing at a Web design blog or a list of blog icons won't make you a design professional, but the Web's online design resources can turn you onto a way of thinking that's more about communication and clarity than piling on fonts and colors until your readers want to don sunglasses or click away in horror.