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How to Get Dark Mode Design Right

Dark themes are everywhere these days. 

As human beings continue to spend more of their time interacting with technology, dark themes provide a more relaxing way to engage with the digital world. More often than not, these themes are easier on the eyes, more attractive, and perfect for the dedicated user

Throughout 2020, countless leading brands have debuted their own version of the dark theme. Google has a solution for your Drive, while Apple and Android have built dark theme performance right into their operating systems. 

If you haven’t learned how to make the most out of dark mode yet, then you could be missing out on an excellent opportunity to differentiate your design skills, and earn more clients going forward. 

Why Dark Mode?

Before we dive too deeply into the possibilities of creating your own dark theme, let’s examine what dark mode is, and why it’s so effective. 

Ultimately, dark themes are created to reduce the amount of luminance emitted by everything from your desktop and laptop, to your smartphone and smartwatch. Dark themes help to improve the visual ergonomics of design, by reducing eye strain, adjusting brightness to suit current lighting conditions, and more. Additionally, many dark mode offerings are also fantastic at conserving battery life. 

Here are some of the main benefits of adding dark themes to your design portfolio

  • Better user experience: A focus on user experience is one of the most important trends of the digital age. You need to be willing to deliver incredible experiences to everyone who visits your website if you want to stand out today. Dark mode reduces everything from eye strain, to battery power consumption. This helps to keep customers on a website for longer.
  • Innovation and cutting edge appeal: Most companies want to prove that they can stay on the cutting edge of their industry. The ability to offer an opt-in dark mode version of a website theme or appearance can help your clients to stand out from the crowd. As the environment becomes more mobile-focused, more companies will be looking for designers that can provide the best mobile experiences. 
  • Support for universal design: Dark mode isn’t just great for people who have light sensitivity at night. This solution could be more comfortable for visually-impaired users who would struggle with eye strain when visiting your websites otherwise. If you want your content to be more inclusive for a wider range of viewers, then learning how to design for dark mode is a good way to start.

Best Practices When Designing for Dark Mode

Designing for dark mode is easier than you’d think. Most of the time, it involves simply thinking about how you can replace some of the brighter, more overwhelming aspects of your site, with something deeper and darker. 

Here are some useful tips that will get you moving in the right direction. 

1. Experiment with Colors

A big issue for a lot of web designers when it comes to developing a dark mode solution is that they get too caught up with things like pure white text against pure black backgrounds. However, this high-contrast option can be a little much after a while. 

It’s often much easier to use a dark grey as your primary surface color, instead of a true black. Additionally, rather than using bright white, think about slightly off-white alternatives that will be warmer to the eye.

Experiment with surfaces and color combinations that are unlikely to cause too much eye strain. Dark grey foundations often offer a wider range of depth, too, because you can demonstrate shadows on grey. 

Additionally, when you are experimenting with colors, remember that saturated colors often vibrate painfully against very dark surfaces, making them harder to read. Desaturating your colors will help to reduce the contrast and make your websites more welcoming. 

Lighter tones in the 200-50 range will have better readability on dark themes. However, you can always experiment with your choices. Google Material Design recommends using a contrast level of around 15:8:1 between your background and text. 

2. Consider the Emotional Impact

Much of the effort involved with dark mode design is figuring out how certain colors work together. It’s easy to get carried away with stark contrasts, particularly when you’re used to working with a white background. However, you need to remember that you’re designing for a user that’s primarily looking for an easier and more subdued browsing experience.

While you’re working, remember to consider the emotional aspect of the design too. The emotion in colors can make or break a buyer’s journey in any environment. However, an often overlooked-aspect of color psychology, is that people perceive shades differently when they’re on a black background

For instance, think of the color green. On a light background, it conveys nature and even financial wealth. However, on a dark background, the same green could come across as something venomous, toxic, or even sickly. It’s important to think about the kind of impressions end users are going to get when they arrive on your site.

3. Give Users the Freedom to Choose

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when you begin designing for dark mode, is thinking that you should focus entirely on your dark themes, and nothing else. This lines you up for a problem if you interact with users who want the best of both worlds. If you’re designing for apps in particular, you’re going to need web pages that can switch naturally between light and dark themes. 

Learning how to implement both a dark mode and a light mode option into the desks you create will help you to reach a wider selection of customers. Remember, you’ll need to test the performance and impact of your designs in both themes, to check that they deliver the same kind of experience, no matter how your user chooses to browse. 

Although dark mode should offer a different experience to end-users, it still needs to feel as though they’re browsing on the same website. That means that you’re going to need to experiment with the most natural combination of light and dark mode options.

4. Remember the Basics

Remember, although the three tips above will help you to get on the right path for dark mode design, you’ll also need to consider the opportunities and limitations of the platforms that you’re designing for. The kind of dark mode experience you can deliver for Google Chrome websites is going to be very different to what you can create for something running on iOS.

Examining the documentation provided by the system that you’re designing for will help you to develop something with a close insight into what’s actually possible. 

Other top tips for dark mode design include:

  • Focus on your content: Make sure that your content stands out on the page, without being too overwhelming. 
  • Test your design: In both light and dark appearances, you need to make sure everything is working as it should be.
  • Adopt vibrancy for your interfaces: Vibrancy helps to improve the contrast between your background and foreground. 
  • Use semantic colors: Semantic colors adapt to the current appearance of a website automatically. Hard-coded color values that don’t adapt can seem more aggressive. 
  • Desktop tinting: Try experiment with things like transparency and filters to give your websites and apps a slightly warmer tint – ideal for late-night browsing
  • Icons: Use individual glyphs and icons for dark and light modes if necessary. 

Ready to Design for Dark Mode?

Preparing your web development and design portfolio for an era addicted to dark mode can be a complex experience. You need to think carefully about how people are going to browse through your websites and apps when they’re searching for something more subtle, and less visually overwhelming than the websites that we’re used to making. 

The most important thing to remember is that everything on your website or application should look just as beautifully tailor-made in dark mode as it does in light mode. Simply adding a dynamic black background when people want to switch settings in an app isn’t enough. You need to go in-depth with your designs and examine how different fonts, colors, and images work together.

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The Ultimate 10 UX Influencers to Follow

The digital world is a place of constant change. Just as you get used to a new design trend, another one appears, forcing you to rethink the way that you approach each client project. 

As a web designer, it’s up to you to make sure that you have your finger on the pulse on the latest transformations in the industry. However, it can be challenging to know for sure which trends you should be taking seriously, and which you can simply ignore. 

One option to refine and enhance your design journey is to pay attention to influencers. 

Influencers aren’t just there to guide customers into making purchasing decisions. These people are thought-leaders in their field. They spend all of their time tracking down ideas and concepts that really work. That way, they can maintain a successful reputation online.

Sourcing information and motivation from the following UX influencers could help you to create some truly amazing websites in 2020: 

1. Andrew Kucheriavy 

Andrew Kucheriavy is the phenomenal co-founder and CEO of a company named Intechnic. Andrew was one of the first people in the world to be given the “Master in User Experience” award. This means that he’s an excellent person to pay attention to if you want help understanding the ins and outs of user experience design

As one of the leading visionaries in UX, business strategy, and inbound marketing, Andrew has a lot of useful information to offer professionals and learners alike. Andrew is particularly active on Twitter, where he’s constantly sharing insights on design and marketing. You can also find input from Andrew on the Intechnic blog. 

2. Jeff Veen 

Another must-follow for designers who want to learn more about understanding their audience and their position in the marketplace, Jeff Veen is a leader in UX and product design. Veen got his start with the founding team for Wired, before he created the Adaptive Path company for UX consulting. Jeff Veen is also known for being responsible for various aspects of Google Analytics. 

Over the years, Jeff has expanded his knowledge in the design space, and mentored various companies, from WordPress to Medium. He also has a fantastic podcast that you can listen to for guidance when you’re on the go. 

3. Jared Spool 

Jared Spool has been tackling the most common issues of user experience since before the term “UX” was even a thing. Excelling in the design world since 1978, Jared has become one of the biggest and most recognizable names in the user experience environment. He’s the founder of the User Interface Engineering consulting firm. The company concentrates on helping companies to improve their site and product usability. 

Jared offers plenty of handy information to stock up on in his Twitter feed. Additionally, you can find plenty of helpful links to blogs and articles that he has published around the web on Twitter too. He’s followed by Hubgets, PICUS, and many other leading brands. Make sure that you check out his collection of industry-leading talks on UIE. 

4. Jen Romano Bergstrom

An experimental psychologist, User Experience Research coach, and UX specialist, Jen is one of the most impressive women in the web design world. She helped to create the unique experiences that customers can access on Instagram and Facebook. Additionally, she has a specialist knowledge of eye-tracking on the web. You can even check out Jen’s books on eye-tracking and usability testing

When she’s not writing books or researching user experience, Jen is blogging and tweeting about usability and researching new strategies in the web design space. It’s definitely worth keeping up with Jen on Twitter, particularly if you want to be the first to know about her upcoming seminars and learning sessions. 

5. Katie Dill 

Katie Dill is the former Director of Experience for Airbnb, so you know that she knows her way around some unique experiences. With an expertise in working with companies that harness new technologies and UX design, Katie Dill is at the forefront of the user experience landscape. Dill attends various UX conferences throughout the year, and publishes a range of fantastic videos on YouTube. 

You can find blogs and articles from Katie published on the web; however, you’ll be able to get the most input from her by following Katie on her Twitter account. 

6. Khoi Vinh 

Khoi Vinh is one of the most friendly and unique UX bloggers and influencers on the market today. He knows how to talk to people in a way that’s interesting and engaging – even about more complicated topics in UX design. Vinh is a principle designer at Adobe, and he has his own podcast called Wireframe. However, he still finds time to keep his followers engaged on Twitter. 

Over the years, Khoi has worked as a Design Director for Etsy and the New York Times. Vinh also wrote a book called “Ordering Disorder” which examines grid principles in web design. According to Fast Company, he’s one of the most influential designers in America. Additionally, Khoi has a brilliant blog where you can check out all of his latest insights into UX design. 

7. Cory Lebson

Cory Lebson is a veteran in the world of web design and user experience. With more than 2 decades of experience in the landscape, Cory has his own dedicated UX consulting firm named Lebsontech. Lebson and his company concentrate on offering UX training, mentoring, and user experience strategy support to customers. Cory also regularly speaks on topics regarding UX career development, user experience, information architecture and more. 

Cory is an excellent influencer to follow on Twitter, where you’ll find him sharing various UX tricks and tips. You can also check out Cory’s handbook on UX careers, or find him publishing content on the Lebsontech blog too. 

8. Lizzie Dyson

Another amazing woman in the industry of UX, Lizzie Dyson is changing the experience landscape as we know it. Although she’s a relatively new figure in the web design world, she’s recognized world-wide for her amazing insights into the world of web development. Lizzie also helped to create a new group specifically for women that want to get involved in web design. 

The Ladies that UX monthly meet-up welcomes a community of women into the digital landscape, helping them to learn and expand their skills. Lizzie regularly publishes content online as part of Ladies that UX. Additionally, she appears on the Talk UX feed – an annual design and tech conference held for women around the world. 

9. Chris Messina 

Chris Messina is a product designer and a technical master who understands what it takes to avoid disappointing your users. With more than a decade of experience in the UX design landscape, Messina has worked for a variety of big-name brands, including Google and Uber. He is best known as the inventor of the hashtag!

Chris is a highly skilled individual who understands the unique elements that engage customers and keep people coming back for more on a website. You can see Chris speaking at a selection of leading conferences around the world. Check out some of his talks on YouTube or track down his schedule of upcoming talks here. Chris also has a variety of fantastic articles on Medium to read too. 

10. Elizabeth Churchill

Last, but definitely not least, Elizabeth Churchill is a UX leader with an outstanding background in psychology, research science, psychology, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, human interaction with computers and more. She knows her way around everything from cognitive economics, to everyday web design. Churchill also acts as the director of UX for Google Material Design. 

A powerhouse of innovation and information, Churchill has more than 50 patents to her name. She’s also the vice president of the Association for Computing Machinery too. When she’s not sharing information on Twitter, Elizabeth also has a regular column that you can tune into on the ACM Interactions magazine. 

Who Are You Following in 2020?

Whether you’re looking for inspiration, guidance, or information, the right influencers can deliver some excellent insights into the world of web design. There are plenty of thought leaders out there in the realm of user experience that can transform the way that you approach your client projects. You might even discover a new favourite podcast to listen to, or an amazing series of videos that help you to harness new talents. 

Influencers are more than just tools for digital marketing; they’re an excellent source of guidance for growing UX designers too.

 

Featured image via Pexels.

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The Designer’s Guide to Letter-Spacing

Most of the information we consume happens through reading, so it makes a lot of sense to pay attention to the words when designing. There are many aspects to typography, but one of the things that helped improve the quality of my design was letter-spacing.

Letter-spacing is about adding and removing space between letters. Some people confuse it with kerning, but these two are different; letter-spacing affects the whole line of text, whereas kerning adjusts the space between two individual letters at the time. Kerning is best left to type designers, besides which, unlike letter-spacing there is currently no way to control kerning in CSS.

I believe that practice and a lot of observation will change the way you treat letter-spacing in your work as well.

The Purpose of Letter-Spacing

The main purpose of letter-spacing is to improve the legibility and readability of the text. Words act differently depending on their size, color, and the background they are on. By adjusting letter-spacing to the environment you are working with you will help readers consume your information faster, and more efficiently. The fun part is that they won’t even notice it — that’s the whole point of the job.

Bear in mind that typographers think about letter-spacing and kerning when designing a typeface. It means you don’t have to apply it to all your text, but in order to have an understanding when it’s necessary, you should know some basic principles, and use good typefaces.

How Letter-Spacing Affects Legibility and Readability

The legibility and readability of your text depend on things like line-height, paragraph length, font size, typeface choice, letter-spacing, and much more. Regarding letter-spacing, if you are just getting into typography, the best thing you can do is not overuse it. What I mean by that is simply don’t make the distance between letters too big or too small; even if you think it looks good, people will struggle reading it, and that will ruin their experience.

Letter-Spacing Capital Letters

Capital letters are designed with the intention that they will appear at the beginning of a sentence or proper noun, in combination with lowercase letters. When capital letters are next to each other, the space between them is too tight. So in order to achieve better readability, space needs to be increased. This applies to both large and small font sizes.

Letter-Spacing Headlines

If you are using well designed fonts, you can be sure that they are calibrated well, and you won’t need to make any major adjustments to them. However, the problem with headlines is that at larger scales the space between letters looks unbalanced. It can be fixed by increasing or decreasing the letter-spacing value.

There are no strict rules for letter-spacing — there are a lot of typefaces and all of them require an individual approach — but if you look at how big companies like Google and Apple treat their typefaces, you can find a lot of valuable information there.

Let’s take a look at the “Roboto” and “San Francisco” typefaces (the first one is used in Material Design and the second one in Apple’s ecosystem). Headlines from 20 to 48 pixels have either a positive letter-spacing value or none. If the font size is bigger, letter-spacing becomes negative. These exact numbers are not going to work that well for other typefaces, but after trying different approaches I can state that it’s a common pattern.

I’ve tested several guidelines for letter-spacing and the one that was published by Bazen Agency works for a lot of popular typefaces. It will be a good starting point for you, but you can always apply additional adjustments:

  • H1 — 96px — -1.5%
  • H2 — 60px — -0.5%
  • H3 — 48px — 0%
  • H4 — 34px — 0.25%
  • H5 — 24px — 0%
  • H6 — 20px — 0.15%
  • Subtitle — 16px — 0.15%

If you happen to design a lot of apps or you’re planning to do that, one thing that helps me is using the default Material Design and Apple guidelines for their typefaces. They are well balanced and it saves a lot of time.

Letter-Spacing Body Text

If you ever read anything about letter-spacing, you’ve probably have seen this popular wisdom from typographer Frederic Goudy: “Anyone who would letter-space lowercase would steal sheep”. (There’s an argument that he was only referring to blackletter fonts.) Some designers took it as a hard rule and now never adjust the letter-spacing of lowercase text.

Based on my practice and by looking at the work of designers I can’t agree with Goudy, because sometimes small changes can make a big difference in how your text performs. Let’s take, for example, condensed fonts. At a small size, the letters are too close to each other, which leads to poor legibility. By increasing letter-spacing by 1.5% you will see that the text is now easier to read.

If we look at my previous example, in the guidelines for “Roboto” and “San Francisco” typefaces, letter-spacing is applied to body text; even though San Francisco has a dedicated “SF Pro Display” for headlines and “SF Pro Text” for body text, letter-spacing is still used to refine them.

There are a lot of different typefaces and a single rule doesn’t apply to all of them. Experiment with letter-spacing and do what seems right to you. There are some simple guidelines that will lead you in the right direction, especially when working with body text:

Keep in Mind Line-Height

If you have a line-height greater than 120%, most likely negative letter-spacing will lead to an unbalanced look to the paragraph. To refine it you would need to either keep it at 0% or only slightly increase it.

Light Text on Dark Background

On a dark background, white text looks overexposed and therefore letters appear too tight. To make it more legible, I would suggest you increasing letter-spacing a small amount.

General Values for Body Text

You can use the following guidelines for body text, which I have tested with several typefaces:

  • Body 1 — 16px — 0.5%
  • Body 2 — 14px — 0.25%

Letter-Spacing Captions

Unlike headlines and body text, smaller font sizes don’t have many variations in letter-spacing. It’s a common practice when a font size is lower than 13px to increase the space between letters to make it legible. But there are always exceptions (“SF Pro Text” guidelines suggest using positive letter-spacing only when a font size is 11px or below). Make sure you experiment with settings.

You can use the following values as a starting point and then edit them to what seems right to the typeface of your choice:

  • Caption — 12px — 0.5%
  • Overline — 10px — 1.5%

Final Tip

One of the things that helped me improve my skills in typography was looking at other designers and especially type foundries. By decoding their work you might notice some nuances of how they treat typography and it will help you in future projects.

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Why Do Websites Look the Same (And Should We Care)?

If we don’t question this kind of design homogenization, do we put ourselves at risk of perpetuating the same mistakes in the years to come? Or is it even a mistake to begin with?

Today, I’m going to look at four things that are likely causing this, and what you can do to break the mold.

1. Education

We used to have a design school in every city in the world, each with its own design style or, at the very least, the encouragement of its designers to be creative and come up with something new.

These days, though, traditional design education isn’t as popular as it once was. According to Design Census 2019, only about a third of working designers have a formal education and degree:

The rest have been trained through a variety of means:

  • Online learning (17%)
  • Self taught (12%)
  • Workshops (10%)
  • Mentorship (6%)
  • Certificate programs (4%)

Cost and convenience are definitely two factors influencing this shift towards online learning methods. And with a wealth of resources online to teach them how to design and code, why not go that route? Plus, designers have to keep learning new things in order to remain competitive, so it’s not as though a degree is the be-all and end-all of their design training.

Plus, there isn’t as much demand for it from employers. Unless you plan on working for one of the top global marketing agencies, many hiring companies just want to see proof in the form of a portfolio and maybe have you do a test job.

Now, I’m not saying that online courses and other informal design education don’t foster creativity. However, in order to make them cost-efficient and quick to get through, they have to focus on teaching essential best practices, which means less room for experimentation. Perhaps more importantly, their curriculums are guided by fewer voices. So, this could likely be one of the culprits.

2. Design Blogs and Vlogs

You have to wonder if all the design blogs out there (yes, like Webdesigner Depot) impair designers’ ability to break free from the homogeneity of websites.

I think the answer to that is both “yes,” and “no”.

Why, Yes?

What is the purpose of a web design blog? Mainly it’s to educate new and existing designers on best practices, new trends, and web standards.

By their very nature, they really should be teaching web designers the same kinds of things. Let me show you an example.

This is a Google search for “web design trends 2020”:

Most design blogs will publish trends predictions around January 1. And herein lies the problem. The writers/designers can only deviate so far from what we know to be true when writing on the same topic… so these sites end up with similar recommendations.

For instance, the top search results recommended similar things for 2020:

  • Dark mode
  • Hand-drawn illustrations
  • Immersive 3D
  • Glowing colors
  • Minimalist navigation
  • Geometric shapes
  • Inclusivity
  • Accessibility

When web designers receive the same guidance no matter where they turn, it’s only logical that they’d end up creating websites that adhere to those same practices.

Why, No?

Because I write for web design publications, I can tell you that there’s a big difference in the kinds of content some of them publish.

For instance, I find that WebDesigner Depot isn’t interested in rehashing what everyone else is writing about this month. We’re given topics that challenge us to think outside the box and present readers with meaningful insights and recommendations.

So, I think that finding design blogs that push the boundaries and don’t just want to recap what everyone else is saying is really important. That’s how web designers are going to master the basic skills they need to succeed while getting inspired to try new things.

3. Designs Tools and Frameworks

This is another one that’s not as cut and dried. I think it depends on the tools used and the intent to use them.

Where Issues Start to Arise

There are certain site builder solutions that you’re going to be hard-pressed to create something innovative with. The same goes with using templates from sources like Dribbble. It’s just the nature of the beast.

If your goal is to create a cheap website very quickly for a client, then you’re probably going to use a cheap builder to do so. With ready-made templates and a lot of the work already done for you, you can create something that looks good with little effort.

When you’re limited by time and cost, of course you’re going to rely on shortcuts like cheap site builders or boring (but professional) design templates.

How to be More Careful

You can run into these kinds of issues with more flexible content management systems like WordPress or frameworks like Bootstrap, too.

Whenever you rely heavily on ready-made templates, pre-defined styles, or pre-built components, you run the risk of someone else’s work informing your own.

The solution is simple: Use demos, templates, UI kits, and so on as a base. Let them lay down the foundation that you work from.

But if you want your website to look different from the sea of lookalikes, you’re going to have to spend much more time developing a unique visual style that’s equally as effective in its mission. Which also means moving beyond clients that have small budgets or low expectations.

4. User Data

Data gathering is an important part of the job you do as a web designer.

You research the target user (or the existing user, when applicable). You look at industry trends as well as the competition to formulate an idea of what you need to build and how you’re going to do it. And you also use resources like Nielsen Norman Group and Think with Google that put out definitive research on what users want.

Even with the most niche of audiences, consumers’ wants and needs are all basically the same. So, obviously, you have to design experiences that align with them. If you deviate too much from what they expect from your site or brand, you run the risk of creating too much friction.

Is This a Bad Thing?

It’s not in terms of usability. If we build simple, predictable and user-friendly interfaces based on data that successfully drive visitors to convert, that’s great. So long as the content remains strong and the UI attractive, there’s nothing wrong with that approach.

But…

This is the same issue presented by templates and site builders. If you do exactly what’s needed and not much more, your site is going to look and act just like everyone else’s. Which comes at the cost of your brand reputation.

Just look at Google’s Material Design. This design system may have made it easier for web and app designers to create new solutions that were user-friendly and responsive, but there was just too much spelled out. And this led to a slew of Material Design lookalikes everywhere you turned.

This is the whole reason why companies take the time to craft a unique selling proposition. Without a USP, brands become interchangeable in the eyes of consumers.

So, again, my suggestion here is to use data to formulate a strategy for building your website. But don’t forget to spend time adding a unique style, and voice of the brand to the site.

Wrap-Up

It seems like, despite all that we’ve learned to do, websites are becoming less and less diverse in terms of design. And I think a lot of that is due to the fact that it’s much easier to design websites today than it was ten, or even five years ago.

Modern-day education, resources, tools, and consumer data take a lot of the questions and the work out of building websites. Which is good… but only to a point.

Unless you’re building websites for clients who have absolutely no budget, you can’t afford to skimp on the creativity and personalization that will set their website apart. Yes, you need to adhere to tried-and-true practices and standards, but beyond that, you should be experimenting.

 

Featured image uses photo by Kari Shea.

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