Tag Archives: webdesign

What IS “Flat Design” and Why Should We Use It?

After seeing several webdesign blogs mention “flat design” as a still-up-and-coming design trend for 2014, I was intrigued. “What do you mean, ‘flat’ design? Ain’t the screen flat already?” I thought, jokingly.

At first, I wondered if perhaps the CSS box shadows, pretty text bevels, and all of that had started going out of style–you know, the stuff I worked really hard to master and have just now begun implementing into my new designs. But the answer is a lot more subtle than that.

Flat Design: A Feeling Rather than a Set of Rules

The Ultimate Guide to Flat Web Design is where I began my research, and after perusing the screenshots of several different “flat design” layouts, I began to understand. Not only was flat design already a “thing” on the Web, but it wasn’t necessarily just “flat” as in boring. It was, instead, a certain minimalist approach, a “less-is-more” feeling…and it was EVERYWHERE.

A few examples:

Tumblr’s login form, for instance, has elements of flat design; the fonts are simple, the text boxes are only very slightly rounded (VERY slightly!), and the colors are basic (white, blue, and a touch of gray here and there). And yet, there’s an elegance in this simplicity–there is no high-gloss “Web 2.0” feeling, but it still looks “finished.”

My WordPress login screen is treated very similarly–subtle variations between colors, pictorial icon rather than text logo, and clear, readable fonts. Notice on the right and bottom sides of the form, there is the very faintest shadow, just barely there.

Here’s the most surprising example of flat design, at least to me–this comes from Version 13 of my own domain’s layout! In my search to give my layout a new, icon-heavy/pictorial feel, I quite by accident wove in some flat design aesthetics. You can’t call my color choices “subtle” (LOL), but the simplicity of the icons and fonts still fit.

Basically: Flat Design = Natural Makeup

Flat design is to webpages as “natural” makeup is to faces. I know that’s a weird analogy, but it’s accurate. When you choose natural makeup, the point is to not LOOK made-up–it’s all about enhancing the bone structure and features that are already there, with skin-like shades and very careful, subtle color placement. Flat design does the same thing, with 1px strokes of faint shadows, minimal color choices and simple icons, and only the very subtlest shaping and rounding of page elements.

Where Can You Use Flat Design?

Thankfully, like all web trends, you can choose to hop aboard the “Flat Design Train” or not. The look can be too boring for some and too cold for others, especially if used all over the page. Some projects just don’t need that much minimalism (as weird as that sounds!).

That’s why I personally advocate using flat design for your basic page functions, such as navigation and web forms, and perhaps use a more striking graphic or design aesthetic for news, updates, or anything else which needs immediate user attention. Just as a makeup artist balances a strong red lip with just the barest touches of eyeliner, flat design’s concepts can provide just enough styling to your page to make it look polished, without detracting from your most important content.


Give flat design a try with your next design–toy around with shading things just right, picking simple yet effective icons and fonts, etc. Who knows, you might find your next idea hiding amid your musings!

Should You Make a Single-Page Site?

As a relatively “old-school” designer (having learned way back in 2003), the idea of a website having only a single page seems really weird. And yet, according to some folks in the webdesign world, it’s one of the hot new trends for 2014. It baffles me. I mean, a website’s supposed to be about content, right? And content needs to be divided up into pages, doesn’t it?

The answer: Not necessarily! There are actually several instances where a single-page site can serve you well. See the following examples:

Sites Which Work Well with a Single-Page Format

Portfolio Page

If, like most webdesigners, you choose to host your own portfolio page on your website, a single-page site should do well for you, since all you need for a portfolio page is your contact info, examples of your work, etc. And with a little careful page design, you can have a single-page portfolio where the user doesn’t even have to scroll much–thus, interested users don’t even have to click to see all they need.

App or Service Page

If you’ve made an app or are providing an Internet service, most times you won’t need a heavily-involved website. A small write-up (with screencaps) of what your app/service does, support/contact information, and links to download any necessary software, and you’re pretty much done. (Just make sure your single-page site is mobile-friendly if it’s for an app!)

Personal Site

Unless you just want a full-on site about yourself, your personal site can be more like a quick window into your life–your latest tweets, last listened tracks, and a small bio, for instance, or whatever you’d like for visitors to know about you. A single-page personal site can be tidy and still informative.

Small, Extremely Focused Fansite/Fanlisting

If you’ve made or want to make a small fansite or a fanlisting, the single-page format can work REALLY well. Think about it this way–it’s less pages to code and less for your users to click through. (This works best if your fansite/fanlisting has 10 or less pages of content.)

Sites Which Should NOT Be Made into Single-Page Format

Large, Intensive Fansites

If you have a HUGE fansite or topic site, a single-page format is definitely not the best idea. With a large site, you want to make sure your content is well-organized, which often means breaking it up into separate pages. That way, users can go right to what they want with a single click, rather than making them scroll for days.

Sites with a Lot of Topics

If your site has a slew of topics (like this blog, for instance), a multi-page website is better, both for content organization (as explained above) and linkage purposes. For instance, if someone is only interested in my Saturday with the Spark posts, he or she can simply bookmark my “Spark” tag page, rather than having to scroll through a ton of other posts to find the one or two desired-topic posts and read them.


Single-page sites can simplify your webdesign workload greatly. If you’ve already got a small site, give this kind of site organization/layout a try!

Web-Safe Fonts: There are More than You Think!

When it comes to using fonts for my websites, I admit I’ve gone the “super-safe” route more often than not. In search of making my text readable on all devices, I end up using Arial, Garamond, Georgia, and Verdana…and that’s pretty much it, since I avoid Times New Roman like the default plague it is.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that there are plenty of other web-safe fonts available–and even some which are friendly to multiple operating systems! Here’s how to make this work for your site:

Explore Which Fonts ARE Web-Safe

CSSFontStack is an excellent resource to begin searching for the web-safe fonts you want. It displays OS statistics on the most commonly-used web fonts, so you’re more aware of which OS (Mac or Windows) likely carries your chosen font. VERY handy!

See Which Mac and Windows Fonts are the Same

This Windows and Mac fonts list shows you which fonts are designed alike (for instance, Verdana and Geneva, Lucida Console and Monaco, Book Antiqua and Palatino). This will not only help you pick a good cross-platform web-safe font, but it will also help you choose fonts for your font stack in your CSS document (see next point!).

Build Your Font Stack Varied and Strong

As this W3Schools page shows, you can’t safely specify just one font name and be done with it–you must give the users’ browsers a range of fonts to choose from if one or more of the specified fonts is not natively installed. This range of font options is called a font stack, and will save your users from having to read your content in a really odd font.

See Examples of Font Stacks

Sitepoint’s “8 Definitive Font Stacks” article is a great jumping-off point for your sites, either to use directly or as a template for designing your own font stack. This will help you make your font choices as web-safe as possible!


Choosing fonts for your website content doesn’t have to be “same-old, same-old”–using these web resources can help you pick stylish yet standard choices for your design! (And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to select some new favorite fonts! :D)

Don’t Forget to Credit Your Design Sources

Sometimes we get all swept up in the process of design and we forget exactly what font we used, where we found those Photoshop brushes, what site Google Images found that picture, etc. It may not seem like a big deal, but it’s actually important to credit other people’s work, especially when their work has made yours possible. Not only does it create good feeling among the creative crowds who make the stuff you use, but it also raises awareness about their work and may draw more interest their way! In webdesign, we’re all helping each other with links, after all!

So, here’s a handy little guide to crediting your design sources (and adding credits where none were before):

Properly Crediting Design Sources to Begin With

  • As you find brushes, fonts, graphics, photos, etc., copy-paste the URLs of each site where you found them. Also note the creator’s name, if provided, and their personal work’s website (if different from the source link).
  • Place your credits either at the bottom of each page of your site, or on a separate page (this option works great for longer lists of credits).
  • Your list doesn’t have to be super-organized or stiffly written. A simple, casual format like this could work: “I used brushes made by This Girl (WebsiteA.com), found the image by This Girl over at WebsiteB.com, and used This Cool Font, made by This Guy (WebsiteC.com).” (Just make sure you include the links somewhere in that text!)

Fixing or Adding Credits

  • Check through your files to see if you saved the Readme documents for your downloaded font or brush. Most creators will include at least a little something that can help you credit your source correctly.
  • If you don’t remember where you got your brush or image, try doing as specific a Google search as you can for it, and comb through all the sites you usually visit for visual design resources. It may be time-consuming, but it’ll be worth it!
  • If you just can’t remember or decipher what font you used on a design (been there done that), give the WhatTheFont tool a try. Though the process is a little more involved, it’s always been accurate whenever I’ve used it!
  • If all else fails and you are clueless as to where one of your design elements came from, put a line in your credits like this: “Apologies, but I have no idea where I downloaded this font/brush/image; if this is your work, please contact me and I will gladly put up your link.” Be honest, and you might just make a new design friend!

Custom Website Background Tiles with PatternCooler

After making the changes to my domain’s new layout, as profiled in last week’s webdesign post, I found myself still dissatisfied with how plain the layout appeared. It just was…BLAH.

As per my usual habit, I found myself surfing aimlessly around the Internet, trying to pinpoint what it was about my favorite site designs that gave them the “oomph” I was looking for. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it…and then, I sighted a subtle tiled background effect on one site, and realized that perhaps all I needed was something to give the background a little interest.

Enter PatternCooler.com, a website that should definitely be on your favorites/bookmarks as a design resource!

In the Pattern Editor, you can start off by browsing tons of different background patterns, from bold to subtle and everything in-between.

Sort through the background images using the tag menu, available from the top left drop-down arrow…

…and once you find a tag you like, you can browse through the shortened list much more quickly. But this isn’t where the magic stops!

Once you select a pattern you like, you can actually change the colors in the image with either the onboard color picker OR a custom HTML hexcode (like what Photoshop outputs).

For this example, I picked the colors from my domain’s upcoming Version 14 layout, and started playing around. It looks so cool already!

You can play with the Transparency slider at the bottom left of the editor to make one or both colors more or less prominent. There are also Texture filters to customize the image even further (bottom right toolbar), as well as options to resize the image. When you’re done, simply click Download!

And here’s a sample of what that very background image looks like in use on my upcoming layout! I like how the subtle color variation gives a LITTLE interest to the background without overwhelming the eye.

Be sure to check out PatternCooler.com‘s new Background Tile Editor for your layout needs; this has been by far the easiest and best experience I’ve had with creating a background tile. (And they ain’t paying me to say this, either–I just had the good fortune to stumble on this site and realize what a gem I’d found!)

What Happens When You Rethink Your Design

Last week, I wrote about my upcoming domain layout and the design issues I was having with it. Check out what happened when I started rethinking all the bits I didn’t like!

(click picture for larger image in new window)

This layout has a very, VERY different feel from my first design; the lighter, more neutral background color and the longer, thinner sidebar feel like the biggest changes, because those were my biggest problems with the first layout (too dark and crowded). But I also made some smaller changes, depicted below:

Text Shadows and Box Shadows, EVERYWHERE!

The headings have a subtle shadow behind them to make them pop; so do the boxes holding the various website feeds. Even the sticky navbar at the top of the page has a little shadow! (I was following my own advice, LOL!) Though at first I was afraid I was going shadow-crazy with the layout, the design seemed to need a little extra detail, and I find that the text shadow on the headings especially looks good without being overdone. What’s your verdict?

Social Network Sidebar Slightly Revamped

Since I loved the social network sidebar as it was, I didn’t want to change it too much…yet the taller, thinner dimensions of the sidebar in this design called for me to make some sizing changes, at least. Instead of two wider rows of icons, I now have three narrower rows. However, I’m not sad about these changes–in fact, I like this more compact design even better!

*GASP* A Background Gradient!

I’ve written about background gradients positively and not so positively, but after struggling with several background tiles and finding them all too “busy,” I finally chose this subtle gradient style, which highlights the top of the page AND scrolls with the sticky navbar as it glides down the page with the user. (I like this option better than the other ones I tried, but admittedly I’m still not QUITE sold on it…what do you think?)

New Quick Links Section

After receiving a couple of complaints from visitors about not being able to find certain sites on my domain, I decided to include this little section–and quickly realized it would be just as helpful for me as for others! These are the sites that are the most active these days, so this Quick Links section could help draw attention to them as well as make it easier to navigate my network.

Less Blathery Welcome on the Sidebar

Part of what made my first layout feel so crowded, I realized, was the super-long welcome paragraph I had shoved into the main content area. It felt clunky and distracting…so, with a ruthless Backspace key, I edited it and put it at the top of the sidebar instead, where it can properly greet people without overrunning the layout’s prime attention-grabbing space.

Bottom Line: Rethinking Isn’t Scary or Annoying–It Can Be Fun!

Revamping and rethinking my design seemed like a huge pain at the outset, but once I started digging into my layout and really trying to revision what I wanted for it, I found myself unexpectedly freed. For instance:

  • If I didn’t just love a layout feature, I wasn’t expected to keep it
  • It’s MY layout, so I can choose to have features wherever I wish/wherever they make sense
  • I can make several different versions of changes and compare them

In fact, doing this redesign gave me carte blanche to try styles and formatting I hadn’t messed with much before (such as the text shadows and the welcome message on the sidebar)–I found myself thinking, “why not try it?” After all, if I didn’t like it, the all-powerful Backspace key and Undo button could help me change it back. That was incredibly liberating! (Just make sure to save your work under different filenames if you want to compare two or more versions!)

So if you’re currently stuck on a webdesign you’re not sure about, I hope this post will inspire you to look back at your design and think, “Hmm, what could be different?” You may only make subtle changes, but it could end up creating a very different look–as I discovered!

Don’t Be Afraid to Rethink Your Design

The hardest thing for me, as a webdesigner, is to admit that a design of mine is just not up to par…especially when it feels like I’ve spent months crafting the stupid thing. Layouts and UIs take so long for me to think up and code, so it’s disappointing when I get to the end of the process and find that I’m dissatisfied with the product.

This is what’s happened to my latest domain layout, version 14, which has sat finished on my hard drive for about 5 months. Here’s what it looks like so far:

I just can’t get up the gumption to let it go live, because I’m not QUITE satisfied with it. There’s something wrong with it, but I can’t exactly name what it is yet. So I’ve been sitting in “Layout Limbo,” pretty frustrated with myself.

I would guess I’m not the first or only webdesigner to feel like this, however. Come to think of it, we all end up with projects that just FEEL like they need redoing, for some reason. This impulse, contrary to my fears, is not a wasteful, horrible thing; it can serve as the impetus to keep doing BETTER, to keep making things more awesome. And it doesn’t just entail hitting Delete and starting all over again!

Step 1: Pinpoint What You Love about Your Design

Before you hit Backspace and delete all your code, and before you select and delete all your images, take a careful, thorough look at your design. What do you love about it, if anything? It can be even a really small thing, like the font you used, or a particular color.

v14_sidebarcool For instance, I love this cool little sidebar I developed for version 14. The simplicity of the icons, and how they pop against the background color, look tidy and sharp…plus, I like the font I used for the “social networks” and “affiliates” text.

I also like the navbar at the top of the page (which is a sticky navbar, yay)–I like that the main navigation scrolls with the page rather than getting lost.

When you find design elements that you like, make sure you note what they are, and copy/paste code and images so you don’t lose them. This is key to the “scrapping and remaking” process; if you don’t have anything to go on, you’ll be more stuck than you were with an unsatisfactory design!

Step 2: Figure Out What You Hate about Your Design

This is a tough one, but you have to confront it if you’re going to fix the problem. Really take time to look at your design–your choices of font, color, and basic content layout, your link styles, your images, EVERYTHING. What in your design sets your teeth on edge?

In studying my version 14 design, one of the things I keep saying to myself is “it’s so DARK.” The background is a lovely deep purple, but it almost feels so dark that it’s “flat”–it doesn’t seem to have much life in it. The lack of images also disturbs me subtly; it’s as if there’s nothing to brand my site, to make it look different. I was trying to go with the whole modern “mobile-friendly sleek and sexy” site look that’s so popular right now, but I think I may have gone overboard and turned it soulless instead. Even the addition of a few little curlicue images don’t seem to add enough spice.

As you observe your design with a similar critical eye, make notes about the things that bother you. But don’t delete your code or images just yet! There’s one more critical step!

Step 3: How Do You Fix These Problems AND Keep Your Favorite Stuff?

Now that you’ve gone through and figured out what you love and hate about your design, you need to know how to implement changes without losing the stuff you liked most. This is why I said don’t delete anything yet–you may only need to make small changes to your existing layout.

For instance, my main complaints on version 14 are that the background color seems too dark, and that the layout is overall lacking images, which would give it visual personality. Yet I like the sidebar and the top navigation bar. In my case, the colors and personality issues can be fixed easily without getting rid of the happy little sidebar and navbar–I can lighten the background color and darken text colors to maintain readability, and I can add in small images to demonstrate my personality without overwhelming the layout. (I don’t think I need a mid-2000s giant header image, but at least SOMETHING pretty and visual, right?)

Think about how you can blend problem fixes with the stuff you’re already happy with, and you’re halfway to a new design already! (And, if you end up having to scrap your design completely, don’t worry; it’s a learning experience if nothing else!)


Rethinking a design doesn’t mean you’re a horrible designer, nor does it mean you’ve failed–actually, it means you want to make a better product for your users to enjoy. Listen to those little tugs on your brain that say, “Hey, something doesn’t look right here!” Embrace that impulse to tweak, perfect, and shape your design to your heart’s content. You’ll be much happier with the end result!

Glasses Off: 4 Awesome Webdesign Sites

Here in the HTMLab, I’m fairly skilled at what I do (namely, HTML and CSS), but many of my articles would not be complete without some heavy-duty online research and self-teaching. Listed below are four sites whose tutorials make it easy for even this self-taught, non-technical webdesigner to understand:

Awesome articles abound here about the subtler points of design (which I definitely need help with!)

This site covers everything from helpful webdesign tools to overarching Web trends…really informative!

Webdesign Tuts
Need a tutorial on how to make a webdesign visually work? Webdesign Tuts (part of the TutsPlus network) likely has the help you need, for both front-end and back-end design.

Webdesigner Depot
This site literally runs the gamut of everything a webdesigner is concerned about (even marketing and branding)! You could spend hours browsing and learning.

3 Tips for Naming Site Folders

What I’m discussing today is nearly as important as designing and developing your site, yet it is often ignored: naming your site folders. The way we name our folders affects the efficiency of our site’s internal structure, the URLs we have to type in our code, and even the URLs that our visitors see (if you’re not using nifty PHP coding tricks to make your URLs pretty).

So, how do we name our site folders appropriately for all these scenarios? Read ahead!

Keep Site Folder Names Short


The shorter your folder names, the less you have to type in for every URL you code in on your site…and trust me, you will be glad you made this decision, no matter how big or small your site is. Less typing, especially on EVERY URL, is GOOD!

Don’t Capitalize Folder Names


Not only do partially capitalized folder names look amateurish to the user, but they also can pose coding problems, especially with lowercase Ls and uppercase Is in certain fonts. Misspelled URLs are broken URLs!

Don’t Nest a Ton of Folders Together


Nesting a lot of folders together looks clunky on the user’s end of things, plus it opens up a lot more opportunities to mistype a URL (and thus break it). Keeping your folder nests small (only two folders deep if at all possible) will save you a lot of time and trouble debugging later, and it will also look neater in the address bar. (Additional benefit: you don’t have to go digging around in hundreds of folders looking for ONE file!)

(Important caveat: Some web development software forces you to have tons of folders nested together for security purposes, like user passwords and information; if this is the case, leave those folder nests alone. But if you have total control over the site organization, make it as simple as possible for your own sanity.)


Making your folder names short and lowercase, plus simplifying them as much as possible, will save you time and effort coding. (Plus, anything that makes your site look more professional is definitely a good thing!)

Next-Gen Headers for Responsive Design

As users get more and more used to mobile browsing, we webdesigners are keeping up with that trend, making our sites ever more mobile-friendly. And nothing has shown that mobile sensitivity more than the responsive header, which not only resizes, but shifts its design slightly with the screen size.

Before we dig into how to make this happen, let’s look at a couple of examples from around the Web:

Visual Example #1: FunnyOrDie

(Desktop view)

fod_mobile (Mobile view)

See this responsive header in action: FunnyOrDie.com

Visual Example #2: SmashingMagazine

(Desktop view)

smashmag_mobile (Mobile view)

See this responsive header in action: SmashingMagazine.com

How Do We Make This Happen?

Combine Site Branding and Navigation in One Bar

An iconic site logo/site name and some simple navigation is the most mobile-friendly design choice. But that does not mean that your desktop users have to look at a boring header design! Both FunnyOrDie and SmashingMagazine’s navbars are both more complicated and elaborate on desktop view, with descriptive text added to icons, greater space between navigation links, and more subtle plays of color.

Make Your Header 100% as Wide as the Page, and Pretty Skinny

Make sure your header bar is always 100% of page width, so that it resizes with the screen size. Also, a navbar that is 100-150px tall translates well between screen sizes–it gives the mobile user enough screen space to tap on, while still being unobtrusive to the desktop user’s experience.

Fix Your Header Bar in Place

As described in my fixed navbar tutorial article, a combination header/navbar that scrolls with the user is infinitely more friendly, especially on mobile. It gives the appearance of an app without having to actually make an app for your site, and it makes quick browsing much easier.

Use Icon-Only Navigation on Mobile

Using tappable icons rather than text on mobile screens is much easier and quicker to view, and it keeps the navigation as small as possible (depending on how many links you have). (Notice that both FunnyOrDie and SmashingMagazine use a three-horizontal-line icon to give you access to full navigation.) This can be done using a CSS @media query to switch between displaying text and displaying icons.


Making a sleek, responsive header is key to making your site mobile-friendly, and it can be done with just a few code tricks! Try these suggestions and see what kind of mobile magic you can work!