Design basics for non-designers

6 helpful guidelines for founders who didn't study design

A design crash course, you say? #

This isn't quite that, but it's not far off. It's a way for you to get started on design - whether that's your marketing site or an app - without looking or feeling ridiculous. You won't be a designer after you read this, but you'll know more than most non-designers.

The Non-Designer Guidelines #

1. Only design what's necessary #

To do this, you need to focus on the structure before you focus on frills. To focus on structure, make a black and white outline of your idea. It doesn't have to be pretty or permanent - it just needs to be a skeleton. (In designer terms, a skeleton is a wireframe.) Once you have a skeleton, double-check that all the bones are in the right order. Like, a hand isn't going to be handy if it's attached to the head.  

  • Tip: Use a tool like Balsamiq or Moqups to help you visualize structure before you design.

2. Have a goal for every page #

This helps you determine what needs to be on any given page. It also helps you keep things simple. For example, your goal for the pricing page is for visitors to make a purchase. So don't put facts about the CEO there. Move those to a page where visitors need to learn about your rad founder, like Why You Should Work for Us. See how helpful goals are? 

  • Tip: Ask these three questions of every page
    • What is the ONE action users need to take on this page?
    • What do we need to put on the page to persuade users to take that action?
    • What needs to be on the page so users can take that action?

Note that humans are easily overwhelmed 😅. If you ask me to read your FAQs, sign up for your newsletter, read a post and check out Twitter on the same page...I'm gonna leave.

3. If you walk away with nothing else: stay simple #

Choose a limited number of colors (3 or less) and fonts (2 or less). Look, the goal isn't for folks to say, "holy bananas this color palette is perfect! and that font! wow." The goal is for them to not even notice that stuff because they're so busy buying your product. That's when design is working. 🎯

4. Borrow inspiration  #

There are so many good resources are out there that it doesn't make sense to start from scratch. This is especially true if you have very little design experience. Instead of trying to re-invent the wheel, borrow standard layouts and elements. Standard doesn't mean boring - it means working. Use guidesUI kitsguidelines and anything else you can get your hands on. 

As a quasi-designer I start every personal logo design with a search of Noun Project. I'll find an icon I like, pull it into Sketch, add a typeface and BAM! You've got a not-totally-terrible logo.

5. Don't be a jerk with details #

The point of words is for someone to read them. So choose legible fonts and put text at a legible size. Keep color contrast high to prevent headaches as well. Make it easy for customers to identify what they need, then fulfill that need.

  • Tips:
    • Use a color-contrast checker to make sure your color choices are readable.
    • Ask other humans to verify usability, or use a service like Hotjar to see where folks get hung up
    • Steal this list of questions Basecamp publishes halfway through their post on friendly designs

6. Keep it #OnBrand #

When you start weighing your design options, you'll realize you can go in a few directions. There's the realm of actually possible. There's the realm of looks cool. There's the realm of customer-helpful. And then there's the realm of brand-appropriate. Find the sweet spot where these four circles intersect so you produce a neat, usable, and on-brand result. Otherwise, you might end up with a sweet animation (that explains nothing) or cursive and neon visuals (when you're targeting enterprise). 

Extra guidance for the ambitious #

If you want to take these guidelines to the next-level, check out Gestalt and Dieter Rams principles. They're full of helpful information about grouping, alignment, symmetry and other basic concepts. Google and Apple have also both published extensive online guides. Hack design is another great, free course. It's intended for developers but works for anyone without a design background.

P.s. Rather work with a designer than DIY? Keep these critique tips in mind for collaboration. You'll get a better result, guaranteed.

P.p.s. We do design 😁

"Design lets us turn what is complex into a simpler story."
- First Round Review

Want to see us cover a topic? Have major startup questions or sticking points? Email