Secrets from the world's top 20 web designers

4th Oct 2009 | 08:00

Secrets from the world's top 20 web designers

Essential design tips from the kings and queens of code

What makes a world-class designer?

What makes a world-class designer? It's a simple question and yet once we started compiling this list we realised it's not at all simple to answer.

Is it about pushing boundaries or holding fast to traditional principles? Should the body of work be judged on aesthetics or usability? Is fame or notoriety important, or just a distraction?

Ultimately, we've tried to balance all these considerations and more, and picked 20 figures who we all feel act as a beacon of inspiration to web builders everywhere. We hope you agree …

Jonathan Snook

"Design influence comes from multiple places," Snook says. "Sometimes that's from other designers. I do find myself more readily influenced by design in other mediums such as books, magazines and architecture. I'm particularly drawn to multi-storey buildings and how they embrace repetition while providing visual separation at various levels. I've always felt a connection to web design and its long, vertical nature."

Snook is quick to praise the work of his peers and singles out Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain ( "Not only does he have a nice design aesthetic, I think he also solves technical problems with design very well." Snook's advice to up-and-coming designers? "It's healthy to start the process by mimicking what other designers do. As you expand your horizons, you'll begin to develop a style of your own."

Jason Santa Maria

You'll know Jason Santa Maria's work even if you haven't gone looking for it. WordPress? That's one of his. A List Apart? Ma.gnolia's logo? Yep, yep and yep. "For me, inspiration is easy, but motivation is tougher," he explains. "I get fiercely inspired by print design, specifically editorial and book design. Just walking through a library makes me want to draw for days on end.

Jason santa maria

JASON SANTA MARIA:Jason Santa Maria's site is part portfolio, part blog and part playground. If you read it via RSS, you're missing most of the fun

On the other hand, my creative process is a rollercoaster of determination, self-doubt, sweat and procrastination." The best advice he's ever been given? "Don't be afraid to say no to a client. You're not a pair of hands. Stand up for your work."

Larissa Meek

It's the same old story: you're on a reality TV programme, you start a blog, you fall in love with WordPress and before long you're creative director with AgencyNet, picking up awards for your antismoking site (which, thanks to a recent and dramatic revamp, should mean more gongs).

Larissa Meek's story isn't quite that simple, however: she was a 3D animator long before anyone pointed a TV camera at her, and moving to Flash and CSS was a natural progression. So what inspires her? "I love playing with new visuals, but the most important aspect of inspiration is having an organising thought," she says.

Larissa meek

LARISSA MEEK:The only real downside to revamping OwnYourC lies in the loss of the original website, which is a wonderfully quirky and warm piece of work

"An organising thought helps me focus my designs so they have meaning and purpose. We're really big on this at AgencyNet: it's a simple statement that you use as a benchmark for your creative decisions. It's more than just designing for design's sake."

When it comes to other designers, "I have to admit I can't pick just one," Meek says. "I am, however, addicted to I visit daily for new bits of inspiration. I love the gamut of creative fields it covers. It shows you can find beauty in everything."

Andy Rutledge

The chief design strategist of Unit Interactive points out that the secret of successful design has more to do with perspiration than inspiration; that said, he's "inspired by anything and everything – just not every time. A game, a conversation, a book, packaging on a product at the grocery store, the layout of a restaurant; I never know what might inspire me or why inspiration strikes. But I tend not to rely on inspiration as a necessary component to good work."

Rutledge is particularly proud of redesigning, which meant "launching a complete surprise redesign of a site with more than two million opinionated users, on whom Woot relies to make daily purchases – no pressure!". It could have been a $165m mistake; it wasn't. "It's become an ongoing project with many moving parts and additional components added regularly," Rutledge says.

"Every one of my staff have and are working with Woot designers and developers every week … It's an all-round team success in my book." What other designers does Rutledge rate? "How much room do you have here?" he says.

"This is a hard one, as my jaw drops quite frequently due to the design efforts of all sorts of people. Doug Bowman has been pretty darned consistent in producing jaw-dropping work that spans quite the breadth of context and application. That's nearly impossible to do impossibly well, and yet he's been doing it for quite a while."

Dan Cederholm

The founder of SimpleBits and co-founder of Cork'd is famed for his expertise in standards-based design, attracting clients including Google, MTV and ESPN. He also "plays a mean ukelele and occasionally wears a baseball cap".

From turning MTV's Flash extravaganza into clean XHTML/CSS to the stunning redesign of Mac audio firm Rogue Amoeba, Cederholm practises what he preaches in his books Handcrafted CSS, Bulletproof Web Design and Web Standards Solutions.

Don't just jump on the Web 2.0 bandwagon

Eric Jordan

The founder of 2Advanced designs cutting-edge Flash for clients such as Adobe and Ford, but one of his favourite projects is version 3 of "It was one of those projects that just didn't need a lot of revisions, over-thinking or storyboarding," he recalls.

"It was created at a time when Flash was relatively new and so you could feel this electricity in the air. It all just came together like magic. The site ended up winning the Adobe & FWA's most influential site of the decade award in 2006."

Jordan rates the "fascinating" Peter Jaworowski of Ars Thanea: "His design is so vibrant and intricate; it's full of detail and love". But he worries that the work of too many young designers is becoming "excruciatingly minimalised due to the emergence of the Apple-design mentality that has been sweeping the industry".

His advice for new designers? "If you don't set yourself apart and you simply jump into the Web 2.0 glossy-button bandwagon you'll get lost in all the noise. Do what you do best, and don't be apologetic. When all is said and done you'll be recognised for how unique your work is."

Fabio Sasso

Abduzeedo is one of the most inspiring design sites on the internet, with stacks of hands-on tutorials from Sasso himself. If we were feeling trite, we'd say it's proof that every cloud has a silver lining, as Sasso started the site "after I had lost all my stuff when my office was robbed". But we aren't, so we won't.

"I believe the most important thing is understanding the context of the work you have to get the inspiration for," Sasso says. "The first thing for me is to understand what I have to do and for who I'll be designing for, the target audience. Then I'll limit my possibilities and that will make the process of finding inspiration more efficient in books, sites and pretty much everywhere."

So which designers inspire him? "As far as influence goes, I have to mention Paul Rand, Carlos Segura and David Carson for their importance in design history," he says. "As for the web, I really admire Vitor Lourenço, one of the designers behind Twitter. I love the simplicity of his work and how efficient it is. There are more guys, such as Collis Ta'eed from Envato, Jason Santa Maria and Jeffrey Zeldman, and there are the graphic designers, guys like James White, Joshua Davis, Eduardo Recife, Scott Hansen and many others."

Mike Precious

Asked to pick a favourite project, Mike Precious plumps for Candy Bouquet. "It represented an open and flexible collaboration environment between the client and myself," he explains. "The end result, with a few compromises, represents one of the web dev projects I produced with exceptional results." It's a typically gorgeous Precious production.

Where does this stuff come from? "I find my greatest source of inspiration comes from being away from anything to do with computers, the web and the daily grind of design disciplines," he explains. "For example, I recently designed and built a flagstone patio out the back of my home. I had the opportunity to get outdoors and experience a whole new palette of colours, textures, sizes and materials."

Such projects often feed into his work, as does online inspiration including "CSS galleries, Twitter and the occasional trip to YouTube for an informative or comedic video". His peers are another key influence. "Hats off to my colleague, Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain," he says.

"I've known Jesse for a number of years now, and while entering the web development community after working in print, he was a mentor and major influence both on the creative side of design and, even more so, in the technicalities of design. Other influences include Derek Nelson and Jason Santa Maria."

Mark Boulton

Mark Boulton used to work for in London as an art director before working as senior designer for the BBC in Cardiff. "This was before I took leave of my senses and formed my own design consultancy, Mark Boulton Design," he explains.

His recent book Five Simple Steps has been described as a "triumph" (Jon Hicks), "The best web design book you can buy" (Malarkey) and "better than sex" by A List Apart (with the addendum: "Of course, being a magazine, I've never had sex").

Veerle Pieters

The standards evangelist and CEO of Duoh! has a dream: "My dream is that I have a small contribution in making the interweb a better place," she says. Pieters is particularly proud of the four years she spent working with the US Library of Congress on its Learning Page project: "They were always very challenging, most creative and a lot of fun."

And if we were to describe Pieters' work in a single word, fun would do nicely. There's a real sense of warmth and joy to her design work, whether it's a logo or a corporate CMS. "I usually get inspired the most if I'm in a happy mood, not pressured, a bit disconnected with the real world even," Pieters says.

"For me, inspiration has a lot to do with how I feel. In general if I'm happy I'm very perceptive for ideas. I often get ideas right before I fall asleep." Which designers make her jaw drop? "There are many," she says. "At the top of my list are Scott Hansen of ISO50, Robert Lindström of North Kingdom, James White and the very talented illustrator from Spain Mónica Calvo."

See everything as if for the first time

Douglas Bowman

Twitter's creative director is "helping change the world, 140 characters at a time". Before joining Twitter, Bowman was visual design lead for an obscure dotcom called Google, and prior to that his Stopdesign firm built acclaimed sites and online applications for the likes of Blogger, Adaptive Path and Cathay Pacific Airways.

"In a world where data bits flow abundantly, our minds have developed filters to sift through the overflow of useless and badly designed information," he writes. "The presence of design should simplify and facilitate our everyday life, enable us to accomplish our tasks more effectively, and help us enjoy them along the way."

Jason Hickner

Hickner's favourite project isn't a website: it's Ektos, an energy management system he and his brother Ryan created. "We developed some pretty intense predictive algorithms," he says. "So far we've saved customers over $20million in electricity, and offset about 100,000 tons of CO2."

Hickner is particularly excited by the possibilities of multi-touch overlays and augmented reality. "What if there were no physical signage?" he asks.

"No billboards, no street signs, but whatever signage you wanted to see was drawn directly onto your retina. Imagine glowing arrows leading you to your destination, or pointing out your friends nearby. See something interesting? Make a gesture with your eye (up, then right?) to Google it. Write a column of numbers on paper and make an eye gesture to total them. I think we're on the edge of the most interesting and transformative technology we've seen yet, and I can't wait to build applications for it."

"Good problems are all around us, but they're hard to see because we've grown accustomed to most of the small inefficiencies and inconveniences that are built into the things we use," Hickner says.

"Try to get in the habit of seeing everything new. Instead of just using everyday objects and interfaces, pretend you're designing them. Really see their flaws, and think about what you would do differently. You probably have three or four good design problems within a few feet of you right now."

Brendan Dawes

magneticNorth's creative director is an author, sought-after speaker, Flash guru, a designer whose work has been showcased in the New York Museum of Modern Art, a blogger, a masked vigilante, and a man who admits to being inspired by Waitrose. Only one of those things isn't true, and it isn't the Waitrose bit.

"I try to notice things that quite often go unnoticed and try to fill my head with lots of disparate crap – usually nothing to do with computers, the web or any such stuff," he explains. "For instance, wandering around Waitrose is like a master class in typography. It may not be cool, but I've never cared about such things."

Brendan dawes

BRENDAN DAWES:Brendan Dawes is proud of magneticNorth's new site, which is defiantly experimental

Dawes is particularly proud of magneticNorth's new site, which is defiantly experimental and playful. "We wanted to create something that would provoke a reaction and create debate … it's always baffled me why many design companies choose to put 'different' stuff in an experimental section, hidden away, almost in an apologetic fashion."

Anatoly Zenkov

"I can do anything," says the strapline on Zenkov's website. From conceiving, modelling and programming a multi-user musical game to developing websites for MTV, his Flash work is characterised by its vivid visual style. For Zenkov, inspiration can come from anywhere.

"When I was a child I got an A2 size sketchbook, which was half of my height. And I had a dream of drawing the whole world on it, everything I that I knew and had seen. That old dream became the basis of Termit's site conception."

At other times, Zenkov deliberately tries things he isn't good at. "I'm a bad photographer, so I began to play photographer, sometimes a real one," he says. "An example of such mimicry is the actual front page of my own website."


ANATOLY ZENKOV:The utterly charming Eco Zoo was the FWA Site of the Year and .net readers voted it Interactive Site of the Year


The word "genius" is bandied about all too frequently in design circles, but we think Roxik, aka Masayuki Kido, deserves the title. His Eco Zoo was the deserved winner of the .net Awards Interactive Site of the Year, and his 3D engine demos appear to have been beamed in from another planet.

Study and emulate work of those you admire

Cameron Moll

With plaudits from the likes of Jeffrey Zeldman, books such as CSS Mastery (the second edition of which will be out later this year), a must-read blog and a portfolio of beautiful websites under his belt, you'd expect Cameron Moll to have a giant, rampaging ego. Nope.

"I'm not at a point in my career, and perhaps I'll never be, where I'm satisfied with the body of work I've produced," he says modestly. "I'm certain that I have much better work to produce." For Moll, inspiration can come from "just about anywhere. I grew up playing drums. I love astronomy. I did a lot of woodworking when I was younger. I'm enamoured by letterpress. I have four wonderful sons and a beautiful wife. All of these people and activities are partly or wholly some form of creativity, and ultimately a source of inspiration. It isn't difficult to draw ideas from these sources that in turn influence my work."

Moll is also "constantly inspired by the potential of upcoming designers. I love meeting other designers, especially those just beginning their careers, when I travel to speak at conferences. They'll often ask how I got where I am today with conference speaking, book writing and the like, and usually at some point in my reply I'll tell them that I expect to see them doing the same sometime later in their career. Plus, I'm competitive by nature, so it pushes me to be better, knowing some of the best talent we've yet to see is just around the corner."

What advice would he offer? "Master the instrument of design by studying and emulating work from those designers you admire most. Spend less time trying to define who you'll become and more time studying the greats that have come before you, past and present. Your artistic personality and individuality will emerge more readily and sustainably if you first become a great designer, second one who is known for a particular style or niche – not usually the other way around."

Shaun Inman

You create the intriguing, sort out web typography by creating the sIFR (Shaun Inman Flash Replacement), and build the highly rated Mint analytics system.

Shaun inman

SHAUN INMAN:Fever is one of the best RSS readers out there and well worth the $30 price tag

What next? If you're Shaun Inman, you then create the extraordinary RSS system Fever. And the Shortwave browser addon. And the Horror Vacui strategy game for iPods and iPhones. And a giant robot horse with laser beams for eyes. We made that last one up.

Carlos Ulloa

As if creating Papervision3D wasn't enough, Carlos Ulloa also produces beautiful work for firms such as Sony and Absolut. "I find inspiration in all things people enjoy," he says, "from nature itself, animals and plants to the latest interactive work being created on the PS3 and the iPhone. I'm also very interested in toys and games of all kinds."

"I love the work of Media Molecule in LittleBigPlanet, but also Q-Games for their PixelJunk games," he says. "On the iPhone, Simon Oliver never ceases to amaze me with the Rolando series. On the web my heart belongs to Hi-ReS! Having worked for them, I admire their work even more. I also like the attention to detail of unit9 and Grupo W from Mexico. And looking at the younger generations, I'm a big fan of the work of my friends Barcinski & Jeanjean."

The rally car on Ulloa's website is coming to the iPhone in a game called Helloracer, and there's also the small matter of Ulloa's studio website,, which will be unwrapped in September. "It's the most technically advanced piece I've worked on, but it's the interaction that makes it very special. After too many months fine-tuning it, I'm very happy with the result."

Martin Hughes

As famous for their irreverent attitude as their skills, it's perhaps unsurprising that WEFAIL have become the go-to guys for the more interesting bits of the music business, with a client roster including Eminem and the Dixie Chicks. Co-founder Hughes' own site is a bloody, disturbing mess, and we mean that as a compliment.

"In the early days I found inspiration from print designers and dragged all that into Flash, where I'd then ruin it all with my own take on it," Hughes says. "But nowadays I've become blinkered by my own stuff and haven't looked beyond it to see what everyone else is doing.

"That makes me a bad designer, shameful. But the last time I did actually lift my head up and had a look at what was going on in design land, it all looked a bit rubbish."

In addition to his own site – "I feel I really poured my soul out, you know, about losing my hair. It was the most difficult chapter of the site to work on, so many memories and tears came flooding out, and I think it shows" – Hughes is particularly proud of Julian Velard's site. "It was the last job that we pretty much had free reign over, so we could make it in any way we saw fit."

Who does Hughes rate? "Early Hi-ReS!, the movie sites they made … Donnie Darko and Requiem for a Dream, wonderful sites," he says. "I'll always love Neasden Control Centre and Michael C. Place, too."

Thierry Loa, aka Dr Hello

Hello Hello is rapidly running out of room for its various awards, and no wonder: Thierry Loa's been doing some jaw-dropping things with Flash, ranging from "surrealist presentations" for an architecture website to powerful corporate CMSes.

Of his myriad projects, Loa is particularly proud of the &Co Architects and MIKO Corporation websites, which enabled him "to explore and undertake interesting approaches to online communication and design". The good doctor is a writer, screenwriter, director, producer and proud user of a Pilot V7 rollerball pen with a 0.7mm tip.

"I always like to say that design is just a subset of what I do," he says. "Other creative disciplines inspire me a lot too, because to me design is just one form of creative communication and problem solving." Loa cites Dan Friedman's book, Radical Modernism, as a key influence. "That book and his words made me realise a very important thing," Loa explains. "Designers should be, above all, thinkers!"


First published in .net Issue 193

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