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I've been a programmer my whole life, and now I've found that I really need to start designing my own stuff. I know how to use Photoshop in and out, but I just can't create anything nice. I often visit Dribbble and try to get some inspiration, but I get overwhelmed by their creativity. How do they come up with this stuff?

Besides learning the fundamentals to design such as color theory etc, what are the best ways to coming up with some original and nice looking designs? Should I draw on pencil and paper my designs before designing in Photoshop? I'm referring to interface designs mostly. Lately I've just been finding random Dribbble interface designs, and trying to replicate them from scratch. I'm often successful, but I know I couldn't have come up with that on my own.

Another question is how do the creatives do it?

Do they imagine a design in their mind first, then draw it out on paper, then Photoshop?

Or do they just go on Photoshop and just play around until something nice comes out? Or what?

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Please also see: graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/q/31/93 ("Tips and sources for programmers who must or want to learn graphic design") –  Philip Regan May 22 '11 at 14:39
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To answer the 'non-creative' part of your question -- yes, there are certainly advantages to sketching UIs with pencil and paper first, and many full-time UI designers will do this. It's quicker, it's often easier to show to other people (who themselves are less reluctant to criticise something that looks like it took a long time to do), and you can very easily make changes on the fly based on their comments. Check out Carolyn Snyder's excellent Paper Prototyping book and website for lots more about that. –  scottishwildcat May 23 '11 at 13:30
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For start I'd suggest to read Robert Bringhurst's Elements of typographic style. Although it's a lot about typography (which is imperative for web) it has lots about design, perceptance, aesthetics etc... I call it the design bible. –  Robert Koritnik Jan 12 '13 at 14:50
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Creative.. to be honest; it is true in visuals as in programming: you have to log the hours to become tolerably good (and then hopefully go on to be very good). Try, fail, try, fail better. It is a lot of grunt-work; it is not magic, really. –  Benteh Nov 28 '13 at 22:37
    
Ok, fine, it's not quite on topic but still amusing: youtube.com/watch?v=9C_HReR_McQ ;) –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 30 at 20:54

13 Answers 13

up vote 123 down vote accepted

If you're a programmer, you're already creative. Programming is one of the most creative of professions (else why would the word "elegant" be such a high term of praise?). So much for that.

So let's narrow this down. You want a route to channel your already-existing creativity into the VISUAL arts, rather than the unseen-by-all art of good coding.

Like programming, visual design has its own fundamentals and technology. That's good, because that means there are learnable rules and teachable skills that, while they may not turn you into a world-famous UI designer overnight, will at least get you up to "competent." How far you go after that is up to you.

A general rule for learning any skill: you have to be able to duplicate (recreate exactly what others have done) before you can originate (create your own from-scratch design). This applies to art, music, programming, anything.

For great introductions (and continual reference) to good visual design, subscribe to Before and After Magazine and/or buy and read John McWade's excellent books "Page Design" and "How to Design Cool Stuff." Buy, read and reread "The Non-Designer's Design Book" by Robin Williams.

For UI, take a look at Joel Spolsky's wonderful article, "Designing for People Who Have Better Things To Do". This is probably the best and most succinct exposition on the Big Thing All UI Designers Must Know.

As you are already doing, and once you have done some of the study above, search out great UI designs and figure out how they did it. Recreate them exactly. In the process three things will happen:

  1. You will associate the design fundamentals you've been studying with real-world examples. When principle and application come together, the principle buries itself so deeply in your mind that you no longer have to remember it; it becomes something you think with automatically.

  2. You will be building a vocabulary of techniques, just like the programming vocabulary of algorithms and programming shortcuts you work with every day in coding.

  3. You'll start to gain confidence in your own ideas. I guarantee you'll have at least one "aha!" moment, when you look at some successful UI design and realize, "Hey! I could do better than that!" Your own designs will come alive, and you'll be on your way.

Let us know how you get on.

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I wish I could upvote this twice. Informative, practical and inspiring! –  Mark Rendle May 23 '11 at 9:20
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Good answer, but I wouldn't say coding any more or less creative than most other professions. A good analogy would be carpentry: Anyone can do it; lots of people do it poorly (and you don't notice the problems until the house falls down, decades down the track); to do it well takes decades of practice; and anyone can appreciate masterworks. I have noticed in the last couple of years that I'm beginning to learn how to learn (you'd think 12 years of school and two degrees would teach that, but it doesn't). It's all about seeing patterns. And you're right that it's a totally transferable skill. –  naught101 Aug 8 '12 at 5:09
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If you define creativity as the process of bringing about original ideas that have value, as Ken Robinson does, you'd have to say that programming or engineering are more creative professions, generally speaking, than carpentry (not cabinet-making) or car maintenance. Not that a carpenter or a mechanic can't be creative, but those professions don't routinely demand the level of creative thought that a software engineer, sculptor or graphic designer does. –  Alan Gilbertson Aug 8 '12 at 6:26
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Play. Have fun, is what I tell beginners. –  Stan Aug 29 '13 at 23:04
    
I agree with your first paragraph, but after that it goes downhill. Programming is not a visual art (fundamentally it's not an art at all, but rather a science. That's why it's called "computer science" instead of "computer art"), and just as importantly, web design (or any design) is different from web development, and as a coder/programmer you will, I think, tend to do more coding and not have much input on design. Design is often the realm of UX designers and graphic artists, etc. –  TylerH May 8 at 14:31

Read this blog article on increasing Creativity for Graphics Designer It will be really good for your question.
http://www.bapugraphics.com/blog/how-to-increase-creativity-for-graphics-designer/

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This is not a valid answer, this is YET ANOTHER LINK TO YOUR WEBSITE. Stop it. Now. –  Yisela May 1 at 9:04

I see a lot of answers pertaining to the "good looking" part of your question. I'd like to add about creativity because I think they are two completely different things. I think creativity is extremely important because it allows you to create an impression on people even if your photoshop skills are not as good. A good concept even if it's a bit on the ugly side, will always have more impact than something pretty without soul. The best part is that creativity can affect many spheres of your life, as opposed to Photoshop.

I would look at Alex Osborn's work: brainstorming, Osborn's checklist are two methods that I've used a lot (so much that they now seemed ingrained and I don't consciously think about it). Edward De Bono has some great books as well.

Some rules that I give myself: keep an open/humble mind, be a sponge and expose yourself to all sorts of things, don't ever be satisfied with having a single idea even if it seems great, sleep on it or give your brain some time to "simmer" things through while doing something else.

If you have problems giving yourself assignments to work at it, you may want to check out Standford University's MOOC "A Crash Course on Creativity". I took it summer 2013, it was pretty good. (http://venture-lab.org/creativity)

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There's an old advertising classic that is really important for anyone trying to tap into their nascent creativity: James Young's A Technique for Producing Ideas

I've mentioned it elsewhere, but I'll hit the high points of Young's approach here.

  1. Gather raw materials: Flood your brain with the subject at hand.

  2. Digest the material: Study what you've found and see where the connections are.

  3. Unconscious processing: This is where you wait for inspiration to strike -- get back out into the world for a while.

  4. Inspiration strikes: When the subconscious is done, it hands over something you didn't think you could do.

  5. Face reality: Take that great inspiration and make something usable out of it.

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The internet is usually my source for Creativity, but also reflection out in nature helps spur up creativity.

I can't draw very well, but after watching more and more tutorials and videos, I'm getting more and more confident in creating things for the Digital Realm.

Here are some of my best resources, other than Dribbble or DeviantArt.

  • Web Design Ledger/Inspiration

  • Design Instruct

  • Slodive Illustrator Tutorials

  • See what people are creating at Graphic River and Google Tutorials on How to Make Them Yourself

  • This Is Colossal is a a Good Graphic Design Site

  • Learn To Draw Anatomy With Riven Phoenix

  • Museum Of Modern Art Website is Grandeur MOMA.org

  • Take an Art Appreciation Course At Your Local College and be the next Picasso

  • BuzzFeed Has A Great Article on Life According To Painter Bob Ross

    buzzfeed.com/awesomer/profound-wisdom-from-bob-ross

Apparently I have to have a higher reputation to post more links but you can google those yourself.

Youtube Adobe Illustrator Tutorials are also helpful. Lynda.com will teach you how to use Adobe Products or look for Open Source tutorials for GIMP.

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Try to be yourself and also be aware of all the traditional rules and modern styles as well. Then after a lot of observation when you have the knowledge, try to express who you are and make your own rules.

PS. Considering the techniques

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My answer is partially related to your question, but what I feel is that I needed motivation to count myself and you need some also.

Can you be creative?

Absolutely!

Use your imagination to change your beliefs; give time to your thoughts.

When I was newbie in this field the same things were in my mind but as time passed I came to know that only I can solve these things with time. Just pay attention, accept your faults. Nobody is perfect; time and experience make us something to stand out in the crowd.

Nobody comes out of their mother’s womb knowing everything, we learn by doing

Many people believe that creativity is something you are born with. That is true to some point, but it can also be something you can improve with a little practice/knowledge.

Creativity doesn’t just happen; instead it has to be consciously created. And while it might sound counter-intuitive, one way to encourage creativity is through purposeful rituals.


How to learn to be creative:

The first step to becoming creative is to remove the words “I am not creative” from your vocabulary. Seriously, do not say them, don't even say them inside your head.

Now you need to start looking at what other people in your niche are doing. Look them up online, read books, watch television shows about them. The more you see what they are doing, the more you can get a feel for how they think, and how they come up with creative ideas.

Find a way or a place where you feel totally relaxed. This is important so you can let your mind come up with ideas. Write them down as you get them. For me, a relaxing place is outside in nature where it is quiet and sunny, or when I take a long drive on my bike by myself.

Try to jot down a few ideas every day. Even if they seem like dumb ideas, write them down anyway. It’s a gradual process. Expand on previous ideas from the week before.

Repeat the process of reading and observing what similar people are doing and how they are being creative, finding a relaxing place to write down your thoughts, and jotting down a few ideas every day until you start seeing the kind of results you are happy with. It may take a few weeks or a few months, but this is the training process you need to put your mind through int order to become more creative.

Remember, looking at things from a different angle can also make a big difference to creativity. Question the way that everyone else is doing something in the same method, see if being different and doing it another way will produce something cool.

Source (Everyone can be creative!)


The lack of creativity comes from two things:

  • Social Conditioning :

From the day we are born we start being taught what to do, how to live, what is right and what is wrong. We are trained to accept other people telling us what to do. We are trained to follow rules and systems, sometimes to the point of not even being explained WHY, but just being told that that is ‘the way things are’ and the way things have to be done.

In other words, we are hardly taught to think for ourselves. We are not truly taught how to play and be creative, and often free thinkers and creative people have to withstand a lot of judgment and criticism because they dare to be different and think outside the box.

  • Self-limiting beliefs :

Due to this social conditioning, we have no real experience with being creative, because our thought processes are so confined and restricted. When we do wander outside the box every now and then, and try to be creative, and it doesn’t work, or comes out horribly, we start to establish the belief that we are not creative. The more we try, and the more we mess up, the more we confirm our belief that we are not creative.

Once this self-limiting belief is in place, it is hard to break, and we often end up not even trying to do things that require creativity anymore.


Possibly duplicate of this question programmers.stackexchange.com See their outstanding answers


For more inspiration please read these articles:

  1. how-to-embrace-your-inner-creative
  2. 10-free-ebooks-for-becoming Creative web-designers
  3. Answer from programmers.stackexchange.com

(Please read articles from changethis.com, they'll boost you like a rocket)


I hope at least by reading all this you'll see a change in yourself and in time become more creative if you are patient.

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Great links, Jack, and a fine answer. –  Alan Gilbertson Feb 5 '12 at 0:58
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The way this post was publish is creative too :) –  mr5 May 8 at 5:13

Play in Photoshop. Make lots of mistakes and try out lots of designs quickly. Don't worry if they don't turn out the way you want. Finish them and move onto the next. The only person who has to see them is you. Judge them against designers work that you like and try to figure out what they did to take it the extra mile.

Find the designers you like on deviantart and behance, then look at their favourites and the people who inspire them, before long you will have looked at lots of nice designs and your brain will be soaking it all up. Make an inspiration folder and save all the designs you like into it.

Cut out elements from websites you like e.g. the nav from one, the gallery image borders from another, the social media buttons from another, build up a folder of the things you love and then try to put them all together into a website.

Experiment and play, its fun :)

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Its all in the detail.

Most creative people learn how to put detail in their work. Uncreative peoples' work always looks unfinished. Learn to polish your design and it will look creative,

That means:

  • polish those edges
  • Add shadows, highlights where necessary to spice up the work
  • For starters use invisible grid to place your elements
  • Add edges or borders to unite or divide elements

...you know what I mean, right?

Spending countless hours viewing other peoples' works for inspiration will drain you dry. Seek inspiration outside of other peoples' work. That means go take pictures, read a novel, go to an art museum.

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I think this rather misses the point of the question. Although the last sentence is OK. –  e100 May 24 '11 at 18:08
    
I don't know why 2 people voted it down, it's a point of view. +1 –  Yisela Nov 24 '11 at 11:58
    
The answer is slightly off, but it does bring a good point to the table. +1 –  Sylverdrag May 9 '12 at 14:50
    
You can't make an uncreative idea creative by polishing it! "Creative" isn't just some buzzword meaning "good"... Creativity is about coming up with ideas, and turning ideas into more ideas, to get that great idea that is worth polishing and finishing. Worrying about detail and things looking finished at this stage gets in the way. This is why creative designers' sketchbooks are full of thousands of unfinished ideas. The four routines and techniques Ben lists are procedural skills - also very important, but not the same as creativity. (The last bit is relevant to creativity though) –  user568458 May 18 '12 at 23:19

I think your questions is not about how to be creative, but rather about how to be able to create visually appealing content.

I know many graphic designers who are either good or talented, but are not creative (in the sense of being innovative and thinking out-of-the-box) at all.

Now, from my experience, people who are able to produce visually appealing content, whether it's computer graphics, paintings or graffiti, all have some sort of talent you are either born with or you're not. A lot of programmers poses this natural talent, most don't.

If you believe you are talented to some degree, it's just a matter of training yourself. Read design magazines ("SmashingMagazine" is a good place to start), visit CSS galleries on a daily basis (my favourites are CSSremix & Web Creme), and find tutorials that teach you how to recreate the visual effects you see on there.

Another important thing to do is to understand the theory behind the beauty. Read about Typography, white space, UI design, UX, and usability. Also check out our blog on Binpress, we have a design-for-developers series coming up.

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To me, it sounds you lack self-confidence.

You already master one difficult part: programming, and as Alan already said, programming is a creative job.

My tip: keep it simple, learn basic rules about layout and find your own style. This book: The design of sites helped me a lot for the structure of my designs and this book: The idea book helped me for inspiration in design.

In my opinion, trying to find inspiration on sites like dribbble is fine but it can also be discouraging for beginners because they tend to think everyone's work is better than theirs; plus, I like to compare apples with apples, I mean you can't compare the work of a newbie with the work of an experienced designer. Give yourself a little chance to learn!

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As more of a programmer than designer my self I find that it helps my creative process when I "design in the browser" instead of Photoshop.

I usually start with HTML and CSS to get my basic layout down and use Photoshop if I need to create buttons or other graphical elements. This also speeds up the process and makes development much faster.

When I use Photoshop my final product usually very different than what came up with in Photoshop.

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Your question scope is a little broad, but let me try to explain how I got into interface design. I just started by working on personal web projects for years, and visiting sites that had tutorials on how to use Photoshop to create certain results, then I started doing a few projects for other people and employers and generally just kept on experimenting and iterating.

Then I went and got a bachelors degree in a related field (Multimedia) which had a fair amount of formal design education. This was important for a number of reasons. Formal education wont teach you everything by a long shot, but it makes a huge difference in your foundational outlook.

If you immerse yourself in blogs that talk about good design, regularly browse sites that highlight good design, and spend a lot of time actually talking with people that are doing good design you will eventually get a feel for how to identify whether your work is any good. Then you need to take the time to learn the craft and techniques that produce good design, and then your own work will start to match the level of quality which is professionally acceptable.

This profession is kinda a big deal, make sure you're aware of what you're trying to do by jumping into design, good results won't come quickly. Do you really need to design your own stuff that badly?

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