What are the basics of an attractive web design? What should I be looking for and what sources should I use to educate myself on the matter?
Well, the subject is quite vast, and it would take a book to cover it, but we may be able to give some advice. Ill try to give only a few bullet points for a short answer, but Ill also try to recommend a few readings that might explain some concepts and principles.
- Keep it simple - your readers want to find what they are looking for effectively, at first sight.
- Use progressive disclosure - do not overwhelm your readers with too many decisions and options. This is a part of keeping it simple
- Use the Single Responsibility Principle - each element of your site should have a single, clear purpose that it fufills well. Its usage and functions should be obvious.
- Optimize loading time, avoid flash - your readers will give your site an attention span that lasts a few seconds. Dont waste those precious seconds on loading too big images, fancy graphics or flash animations. The first few sub-pages/elements the user visits are crucial.
- Dont require registration to access the basic functions of your site - almost nothing else matches this one in the "turn-down for users" category.
- Dont put too much stress on the visual side of the page - the content is what your users are after. If you do an over the top, overwhelming design, it will only serve to distract your readers. A good design is one that you dont know even exists - its invisible. You only can see its lack.
- Try to be up to date with current trends and usability studies - some solutions that worked in the past are now being replaced by new, better ones. This is a continous process, so keep this in mind.
- Pay attention to the details - its where your professionalism shows.
- Stay focused - your design should have a small list of things it tries to accomplish, and you should think about your design decisions in terms of "hwo does this add to achievieng my goals?". Mercilessly remove everything that doesnt contribute properly. I know it may seem cool, but mostly it just clutters up the design.
- Learn from the best - check out the sites of the best players in the market and analyse them. Why are they pleasant to the eye? Why are they easy to use? Why is finding what you need so easy on those sites?
- Be consistent - if a thing works or looks in a certain way on yoru site, similar concepts and features should be expressed in a similar way. Not many things can be as confusing as an inconsisten design.
Thats just to get you started. But actually there are thousands of sites, books and blogs on the subject. There are quite a few questions on this very site. Ill list some links that I have found useful or educational:
Tips and resources for beginning designers - very good and popular question. Since its applciable to almost any design situation, its also applciable for web design. (Actually, your question might well be duplicating it)
What is the single most influential book every designer should read? - a lot of inspirational material and really great books. I personally recommend "Dont make me think".
http://uxdesign.smashingmagazine.com/2008/01/31/10-principles-of-effective-web-design/ - a few more thoughts that I didnt yet point out.
http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2012/10/judging-websites.html - a great blogpost by Jeff Atwood (you should recall the name ;) that any web developer should read.
http://www.amazon.com/Universal-Principles-Design-William-Lidwell/dp/1592530079 - a great book. Ive learned a lot from it, and I think you might learn a lot too.
But all in all, good design is a vast subject, and you'll have to work and learn a lot to get good at it. Good luck!