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User Interface (UI) Design

What is user interface (ui) design.

User interface (UI) design is the process designers use to build interfaces in software or computerized devices, focusing on looks or style. Designers aim to create interfaces which users find easy to use and pleasurable. UI design refers to graphical user interfaces and other forms—e.g., voice-controlled interfaces.

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In this video, Michal Malewicz, co-founder and CEO of UX consultancy Hype4, shares his vision of UI design.

How to Design User Interfaces for Users

User interfaces are the access points where users interact with designs. They come in three formats:

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Graphical user interfaces (GUIs) : Users interact with visual representations on digital control panels. A computer’s desktop is a GUI.

Voice-controlled interfaces (VUIs): Users interact with these through their voices. Most smart assistants, E.g., Siri on iPhone and Alexa on Amazon devices—are VUIs.

Gesture-based interfaces: Users engage with 3D design spaces through bodily motions—e.g., in virtual reality (VR) games.

To design UIs best, you should consider:

Users judge designs quickly and care about usability and likeability.

In this video, Michal Malewicz explains the aesthetic–usability effect and its relationship with UI design.

They don’t care about your design , but about getting their tasks done easily and with minimum effort.

Your design should therefore be “invisible”: Users shouldn’t focus on it but on completing tasks: e.g., ordering pizza on Domino’s Zero Click app.

So, understand your users’ contexts and task flows (which you can find from, e.g., customer journey maps ), to fine-tune the best, most intuitive UIs that deliver seamless experiences.

UIs should also be enjoyable (or at least satisfying and frustration-free).

When your design predicts users’ needs, they can enjoy more personalized and immersive experiences. Delight them, and they’ll keep returning.

Where appropriate, elements of gamification can make your design more fun.

UIs should communicate brand values and reinforce users’ trust.

Good design is emotional design . Users associate good feelings with brands that speak to them at all levels and keep the magic of pleasurable, seamless experiences alive.

Airbnb's homepage screenshot

Airbnb’s simple, inviting layout lets users satisfy their travel needs quickly, easily and enjoyably.

© Airbnb, Fair Use

UI vs. User Experience (UX) Design

Often confused with UX design , UI design is more concerned with the surface and overall feel of a design . UI design is a craft where you the designer build an essential part of the user experience. UX design covers the entire spectrum of the user experience. One analogy is to picture UX design as a car with UI design as the driving console.

“Interfaces get in the way. I don’t want to focus my energies on an interface. I want to focus on the job.” — Don Norman, Grand old man of UX design

How to make Great UIs

Learn the basic principles of UI Design.

To deliver impressive GUIs, remember— users are humans, with needs such as comfort and a limit on their mental capacities . You should follow these guidelines:

Make buttons and other common elements perform predictably (including responses such as pinch-to-zoom) so users can unconsciously use them everywhere . Form should follow function.

Maintain high discoverability . Clearly label icons and include well-indicated affordances : e.g., shadows for buttons.

Keep interfaces simple (with only elements that help serve users’ purposes ) and create an “invisible” feel .

Respect the user’s eye and attention regarding layout . Focus on hierarchy and readability:

Use proper alignment. Typically choose edge (over center) alignment.

Draw attention to key features with :

Color, brightness and contrast. Avoid including colors or buttons excessively.

Text via font sizes, bold type/weighting, italics, capitals and distance between letters. Users should pick up meanings just by scanning.

Minimize the number of actions required to perform tasks but focus on one chief function per page . Guide users by indicating preferred actions. Ease complex tasks by using progressive disclosure.

Put controls near objects that users want to control . For example, a button to submit a form should be near the form.

Keep users informed regarding system responses/actions with feedback .

Use appropriate UI design patterns to help guide users and reduce burdens (e.g., pre-fill forms). Beware of using dark patterns, which include hard-to-see prefilled opt-in/opt-out checkboxes and sneaking items into users’ carts.

Maintain brand consistency .

Always provide next steps which users can deduce naturally , whatever their context .

Tailor your UI design to the platform or device on which it’s used . E.g., the UI of mobile UX will be different from that of the desktop experience.

Investigate UI design trends like neumorphism , skeuomorphism and glassmorphism to see whether they will work in your design, and potentially enhance it.

IxDF Course page screenshot

On our courses webpage, colors, brightness and contrast draw attention to key features.

Because the best interface is no interface, you should offer users the most direct, accessible, comfortable control (and best experience) where they’ll forget they’re using your design. Therefore, keep asking yourself “Can I make things simpler?”.

Learn More about UI Design

Learn more in the Master Class Beyond Interfaces: The UI Design Skills You Need to Know with Michal Malewicz.

Take our course on Mobile UI Design .

Take our course on UI Design Patterns .

Read some helpful advice to develop an approach to UI Design .

Learn more about the differences between UX and UI in the article UX vs UI: What’s the Difference?

Questions related to User Interface (UI) Design

The industry highly values UI designers, and their salary reflects this demand. Glassdoor states that the average salary for a UI designer in the US in 2023 is approximately $75,057 annually. However, experience, location, and the company can significantly affect salaries, ranging from $90,000 to $128,000 per year in the United States. For more detailed information about UI & UX designer salaries in your region, check this article: UI & UX Designer Salaries: How Much Can I Earn in 2023 .

To become a UI designer, develop visual design skills in color theory, typography and layout. You must also be well-versed with interaction design and interface design best practices and heuristics. Michal Malewicz emphasizes the importance of visual skills in this video snippet, noting that good visuals are perceived as more usable.

This is critical in a world with a diminishing human attention span. Create interface design projects, get feedback, and build a strong portfolio. Enhance your skills by enrolling in the Interaction Design Foundation (IxDF) courses offered in the UI Designer Learning Path .

A UI designer focuses on designing the user interface, which includes the layout, visuals, and interactive elements of an application or website. While most interfaces are graphical, UI designers may also work with:

Voice-controlled interfaces (VUIs): Users interact with these through their voices.

Gesture-based interfaces: Users engage with 3D design spaces through bodily motions.

UI designers ensure the interface is intuitive, easy to navigate, and aesthetically pleasing. Essential tasks include creating wireframes, mockups, prototypes and conducting user research. 

As Frank Spillers highlights in his video, understanding the 'context of use' is crucial. It involves observing users in their environment and understanding their experiences and needs. 

For a comprehensive understanding of Mobile UX Design, consider this course by the Interaction Design Foundation.

To learn UI design, you must understand the basics of design principles, accessibility, color theory, and typography. Become familiar with design software such as Sketch, Adobe XD, or Figma. Create wireframes, mockups, and interactive prototypes as practice. Seek feedback from peers and online communities, and analyze well-designed applications to understand good practices. Lastly, consider taking online courses from the Interaction Design Foundation in the UI Designer Learning Path to strengthen your skills and knowledge. Continuous practice and learning are essential for proficiency in UI design.

To excel in UI design, you must understand the users' needs, develop a keen eye for aesthetics, and learn design principles. Practice regularly, seek feedback, and stay updated on the latest trends and tools. Additionally, as Michal Malewicz suggests, simplify your color palettes. Use a background color, a foreground color, and an accent color, and avoid clashing combinations like red with saturated blue or green. 

Test your colors by overlaying them and checking for a fuzzy line, using fewer colors, especially when starting, results in a more professional design. Most importantly, always design for accessibility. WHO estimates 2.2 billion people have some form of vision disability. Make sure your interfaces are easy to use for everyone, not just those with full vision. Enhance your skills further by enrolling in this UI Design Skills Masterclass .

UI/UX design involves two crucial elements: User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX). UI encompasses all the elements a user interacts with, such as colors, typography, buttons, and icons. It focuses on the aesthetics and the overall look of a product. On the other hand, UX involves creating a holistic and pleasurable experience that meets the user's needs. It includes all aspects of the end user's interaction with the company, including its services and products. Ultimately, UI is about a product's appearance, while UX is about the overall product experience. Both elements are essential for designing successful solutions and experiences. Learn more about UI and UX design from this:

UI design does not necessarily require coding skills. A UI designer's primary focus is on the visual aspects of an application, such as color schemes, graphics, and typography. If you have some familiarity with coding languages such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, it can be helpful. It enables effective communication with developers and provides an understanding of the potential and limitations of the technology used. 

Although it's not a requirement for a UI designer to be proficient in coding, possessing some coding skills can provide a competitive advantage in one's career. For a more in-depth discussion, see this article: Should Designers Learn to Code? .

Graphic designers and UI designers are not the same, but they do share similarities. Graphic design involves creating visual content for print, digital, and social media. It includes creating logos, brochures, posters, and more. UI design, on the other hand, focuses specifically on the elements of interfaces, such as apps or websites. UI designers may occasionally need to develop graphical elements such as logos and icons, however, their primary responsibility is to ensure that interfaces are usable and intuitive.

As mentioned in the video, UI design involves visualizing, grid typography, hierarchy, readability, and some basic aesthetics. While both graphic and UI designers work with visual elements, UI design requires a more specialized skill set focused on creating user-friendly digital interfaces. UI designers may also work with non-graphical interfaces such as voice-controlled interfaces (VUIs) and gesture-based interfaces.

Yes, UI design is an excellent career choice for individuals interested in the intersection of creativity, technology, and user experience. The demand for UI designers has surged with the proliferation of digital products, apps, and websites. However, it is a competitive field that necessitates continuous skill development and staying updated with the latest trends and tools. UI designers play a crucial role in shaping the user's interaction with a digital product, impacting its success and usability.

They work in various industries, including tech companies, design agencies, and freelancing. Overall, UI design is a rewarding and fulfilling career for those dedicated to enhancing user experiences and creating visually appealing interfaces.

Material UI is a popular open-source component library that helps designers and developers implement Google’s Material Design. It includes powerful predefined components and functionalities that are useful, culturally appropriate, safety compliant, and pleasant, ultimately addressing user needs and goals and fostering a deeper connection between the user and the app.

Material UI aligns with the principles discussed in the video, emphasizing the importance of understanding user needs, defining value propositions, and creating a differentiated UX strategy that provides users with functional and emotional value.

Answer a Short Quiz to Earn a Gift

What is the primary focus of user interface (UI) design?

  • To create a highly decorative and visually intense interface.
  • To focus on advanced technical features.
  • To make interfaces that users find pleasurable and easy to use.

Which of the following is NOT a type of user interface mentioned in the topic definition?

  • Graphical user interfaces (GUIs)
  • Haptic feedback interfaces
  • Voice-controlled interfaces (VUIs)

According to the principles of great UI design, what should designers prioritize?

  • Designers should guarantee the interface is "invisible," so users focus on their tasks rather than the design.
  • Designers should make the interface complex to showcase design skills.
  • They should prioritize decorative elements over functionality.

What should UI design effectively achieve?

  • Keep users constantly aware of the interface.
  • Minimize the user's effort and maximize task completion efficiency.
  • Only focus on aesthetics without considering usability.

Why is emotional design important in user interface (UI) design?

  • It enhances user engagement by connecting on an emotional level, which imrpoves overall satisfaction.
  • It ensures the interface can be used in multiple languages.
  • It focuses on reducing the cost of software development.

Better luck next time!

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Literature on User Interface (UI) Design

Here’s the entire UX literature on User Interface (UI) Design by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about User Interface (UI) Design

Take a deep dive into User Interface (UI) Design with our course Mobile UI Design .

In the “Build Your Portfolio” project, you’ll find a series of practical exercises that will give you first-hand experience of the methods we cover. You will build on your project in each lesson so once you have completed the course you will have a thorough case study for your portfolio.

Mobile User Experience Design: UI Design is built on evidence-based research and practice. Your expert facilitator is Frank Spillers, CEO of ExperienceDynamics.com, author, speaker and internationally respected Senior Usability practitioner.

All open-source articles on User Interface (UI) Design

10 great sites for ui design patterns.

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User Interface Design Guidelines: 10 Rules of Thumb

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Shneiderman’s Eight Golden Rules Will Help You Design Better Interfaces

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Repetition, Pattern, and Rhythm

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Adaptive vs. Responsive Design

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  • 3 years ago

The Grid System: Building a Solid Design Layout

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Principle of Consistency and Standards in User Interface Design

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10 Free-to-Use Wireframing Tools [Updated for 2024]

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The Power of White Space in Design

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Visual Hierarchy: Organizing content to follow natural eye movement patterns

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Recalling Color Theory Keywords: a way to refresh your memories!

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Design Iteration Brings Powerful Results. So, Do It Again Designer!

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Skeuomorphism is dead, long live skeuomorphism

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Don’t Make Me Think – Key Learning Points for UX Design for the Web

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The Golden Ratio - Principles of form and layout

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Occam’s Razor: The simplest solution is always the best

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How to Use Mental Models in UX Design

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Emphasis: Setting up the focal point of your design

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  • 8 years ago

Do I Need a Degree to Work In User Experience?

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Google’s Material Design - Android Design Language

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5 Practical Exercises to Learn UI Design (For Free)

Erik D. Kennedy ·  Published Jul 9, 2018

One of the biggest problems with trying to learn design is INFORMATION OVERLOAD. There are tons of design articles and tutorials on any of thousands of different sites. But most are pretty short – they touch on one particular topic, and that’s it .

Trying to get a design education from design articles is like trying to eat a meal of crumbs .

Now, I teach a paid course on user interface design – titled Learn UI Design , appropriately enough – but (A) it’s not free, meaning it’s not a good fit for some learners, and (B) it’s not always open for new enrollments. In fact, it’s rarely open for new enrollments (you can sign up for the Design Hacks newsletter to hear when it next will be).

So if you want to get a free, immediate start to learning UI design, where do you look?

I’m glad you asked. You look here – at this article.

Think of this article like the central hub in a wheel of resources, tools, links, and ideas that will kickstart your path to learning UI design. I’ve assembled here what I wish I could’ve seen when I first started learning interface design. But I’m going to focus in a specific direction with this article – one that I encourage all students to do.

You need to create .

90% Production, 10% Consumption

A couple years ago, I undertook the dubiously useful task of building a floor-to-ceiling climbing wall in my garage. I would say “Don’t tell my homeowner’s association!”, but the thing is so over-engineered it probably makes my house more sturdy. The grade of the lumber, the gauge and size of the screws – everything is a couple notches stronger than it needs to be, and consequently, I’m pretty sure a silverback could boulder on it with no ill effect.

garage climbing wall

Anyhow, while building this monstrosity, I noticed I had a bad habit . Every time I drilled in a screw, I would step back and admire my work. Not just that one screw, but I would admire the whole wall, at whatever stage of completion it was at. It was like 10 seconds of drilling followed by a minute and a half of looking at the remaining markers I still needed to drill, planning how much I could finish tonight if I worked X more hours, dreaming how awesome it will be to have everything finished, etc.

Now, I’m all for “measure twice, cut once”, but this was absurd. Why wasn’t I just hustling through the menial work to get to the fun part – the climbing?

Uh, obvious? Because work is hard , and it’s easier to sit there and dream.

In the same way, it’s tempting to read/talk/browse/consume endlessly about the things we want to do. Ever have a friend who starts a new martial art, and you’re pretty sure they talk about it more than they actually go to practice? Or know someone who’s talked for years about quitting his job and becoming an entrepreneur, yet he hasn’t made a dime during any of the thousands of hours of nights/weekends/holidays in that time?

If you’re going to learn UI design, you have to be wary of this trap. It’s 10x easier to read random design articles than it is to actually design . But the latter is far more important to your skills.

Let me put it this way. For every minute you spend reading design articles, spend 10 minutes actually designing.

Does that seem absurd? It’s not. What’s absurd is the idea that you can get better by passively browsing whatever happens to be the most recently tweeted article by your tech friends. You don’t want to read what’s hottest right now, you want to read the best . But is there one place that’s compiled all the best articles into a comprehensive curriculum? You get what you pay for there.

So rather than recommend a bunch of other articles, I’m going to recommend exercises . These will be things that you do to get better at design. You will be CREATING things. Not just designs though; you will also be creating lists and resources for yourself to refer to down the road, effectively earning you compound interest on your time .

Exercises are also awesome because they tell you what question to ask . Part of the struggle of learning by reading is not knowing what’s useful and what’s useless. You actually have to immerse yourself in the activity before you know where you’re really going to struggle. This was something I noticed when I first started design. I could read all I wanted about color theory – useless . What it turned out was useful was the answer to questions like “I have a button that looks too plain – what options do I really have to make it look cooler?”

So I will give you the exercises, but it’s up to you do figure out the questions. Once you have the questions, ask me . Seriously. I will tell you to stop when I get too many questions, but I’ve had this offer out for years and haven’t rescinded it yet!

Alright – let’s get on to the exercises. Here is what we’re going to talk about:

  • Design analysis
  • Fonts database
  • Style tiles
  • Personal project mockups

Exercise 1: Build Your Gut Instinct Through Analysis

Like any open-ended creative endeavor, successful UI designers have a strong “gut instinct” for what will look good. One of the most common worries I hear from beginning designers is they don’t have this strong gut instinct yet.

Well guess what. If you’re just starting out, that’s to be expected.

Sure, there are some designer savants who make beautiful software from day 1, but that wasn’t me.

my first UI design

Now that I’ve been designing for years, I have a strong design gut instinct. Every time I start a new project, my mind is brimming with possibilities – ideas of what fonts to try out, which colors might work well, what websites would be good inspiration , what layouts to use, etc. Some of these may be things I’ve never done, but I just have a hunch they’ll work – maybe because I did something similar on a project a year ago, or saw something similar on an app I used last week.

Describing gut instinct like this makes it seem more attainable. It’s knowing which options are out there, and having a decent hunch as to which will work better than others.

Gut instinct is nothing more than your unconscious mind having a good map of the territory.

Now, we’re talking about your unconscious mind having a good “map of the territory” (i.e. knowledge of options available to get from here to where you want to go), but all that filters down from you consciously think about. And in this case, we want to start mapping out our options.

Or, to say it more clearly, we want to analyze what works in UI design – and what doesn’t.

For this exercise, you should list apps/sites that have great UI (and those that have really bad UI) and you should articulate, as clearly as you can, why and what you like (or dislike) about them.

You may say “Hey, I don’t have a lot of opinions on what looks nice or awful – I can’t even tell!”, but that’s no excuse. Surely you can find something you know looks well-designed.

For instance, I like the site for Abstract – a version control tool for UI designers.

Abstract screenshot

I would articulate why thusly:

  • Pastel color palette is fun and relaxed
  • Random scattering of rounded rectangles feels playful
  • Akzidenz Grotesque , an older grotesque font, feels quirky and “imperfect”, yet clean and straightforward
  • Logo, name, and scattering of shapes all back up the “abstract” brand

Now you might like Abstract.com too – but you might have totally different reasons for doing so. Fine.

The point is not that we agree so much as you understand why you feel the way you feel. Everything I just listed can be generalized into a principle that I might use in future designs.

For instance:

1/ Pastel color schemes are more relaxed than darker/more saturated schemes:

pastel colors vs. darker, more saturated colors

2/ Add playfulness with randomness and “grid-breaking” in your layout:

scattered visual elements in Contents Magazine

3/ Sans serif fonts with stroke-weight or kerning quirks can add to a slightly disheveled appearance

awkward kerning on MSDS Studio website

4/ Try to incorporate aspects of your brand across all elements – logo, layout, colors, etc… actually, I have a whole article on this.

I wouldn’t expect a beginning designer to necessarily pull these generalized principles out of this exercise – merely to start creating a map of the territory. And the beautiful thing about having even a fuzzy map of the territory is it gives you landmarks by which to place other data points. As you start to fill out this map of options, it becomes easier to place new lessons. You start to get a feeling of “I’ve seen this before” – because you have. Or something similar.

And before you know it, really, you’ve got a gut instinct for UI design.

WEEKLY EXERCISE 1: List 5 sites or apps with good UI design, and 1-2 with bad design. For each, articulate in your own words why you believe it works or doesn’t work.

Exercise 2: Copywork

Copywork is an incredible exercise for improving your design skills, yet hardly any designers actually do it. I’m going to give an overview of it here, but for a full treatment (with more examples), check out my article on copywork .

In short, copywork is simply recreating an excellent existing design pixel-for-pixel in your design program of choice.

Copywork is not a new exercise with UI design. Historically, everyone from painters to writers have copied the greats before them for practice:

  • Jack London copied swaths of Rudyard Kipling’s writing to adapt his forebear’s world-class cadence and phrasing.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson would meticulously study sections of writing he found particularly beautiful, then reproduce them word for word from memory.
  • Ben Franklin followed a variant of copywork, writing notes about each sentence in an essay and then, a few days later, trying to recreate the essay by reading his notes — and comparing the results.
  • Leonardo da Vinci recommended copywork as the first painting exercise any of his students should do, saying, “The artist ought first to exercise his hand by copying drawings from the hand of a good master”

But although it was once a foundational exercise of some of the world’s greatest artists, copywork has fallen out of favor. Nowadays, it’s viewed as rote, uncreative and reeking of plagiarism.

I hope the reverse that trend among UI designers, as copywork is a powerful exercise for expanding your “design vocabulary”.

The gist is this: When you recreate a design, pixel for pixel, you’re forced to remake every decision the original designer made. Which font? How big? How are things laid out? Which images and background and decorations? You immerse yourself in the small design decisions made by awesome designers . As you re-create those decisions, you start to notice the original making decisions you wouldn’t have made, and using techniques or tricks you wouldn’t have picked up on just looking at the design.

Those tricks and techniques you can take away with you for the rest of your design career.

Let’s look at an example. Here is one piece I copied – Dan Petty’s excellent Oahu Epicurrence website :

copywork of Dann Petty's Epicurrence Oahu site

Copying this piece gave me a bunch of new ideas I could take to my own work. For instance, here are things I noticed in the header alone :

  • Insanely large font size . My copy of the original included the Hawaii initials “HI” in size 365 font. Never in my years of professional work had I even considered making text that big. Yet he uses it as a visual element, aligning it with the other header elements, even putting an image between the letters. Very cool.
  • Paint stroke as “shadow” . A watercolor smudge runs across the bottom of the seal, the header and the pineapple. It’s in the spot where a shadow might be, as if the shadow were painted on the page. Whoa — that’s not the usual way of doing it!
  • Uppercase type with generous letter-spacing . No doubt, that uppercase text adds a strong element of alignment, and pumping up the letter-spacing is a textbook way to add some classiness to type, but I find myself getting self-conscious about doing it much. It was cool to see that all of the text here is capitalized, and basically all of it has modified letter-spacing, too.

Now, I’d seen Dann Petty’s design before deciding to copy it. I thought, “Wow, this looks great.” And even as my eyes glossed over the design, it’s not like I immediately internalized every technique he used. Only when I copied it did I start to consciously adopt those things in my UI toolkit.

These strategies are more detailed than any class on design would typically get into. They’re one-off tips and techniques that go straight from the mind of a master to yours, if you’re willing to put the effort into doing copywork.

Now, to me, there’s an art to figuring out what to copy. You can pick very specific pieces to copywork off of based on what they do well or what you lack. For instance, if you want to improve your use of color, copy something with some crazy gradients or a bold palette. If you want to get better at luxury branding, copy a preeminent website with a ritzy look and feel.

For more on copywork, read my full writeup on copywork . It goes over other questions, like:

  • Where to look for good pieces to copy
  • If you have to copy the original perfectly
  • How to not plagiarize off the stuff you perform copywork on

WEEKLY EXERCISE 2: Copy the UI of a good site/app pixel-for-pixel. At the end, write down specific techniques the creator used that “expand your design vocabulary”.

(Note: this could also be done as a 30-minute daily exercise rather than done all at one time)

Exercise 3: Start a Fonts Database

If you’re serious about learning user interface design, you’re going to need to be on friendly terms with fonts. There’s just no way around it. Some say “web design is 90% typography”, and maybe that’s a huge exaggeration, but it doesn’t change the fact that typography is a critical skill to interface design.

But “typography” is also a rabbit-hole. There are thousands of fonts out there, and even then, picking fonts is the easy part. It’s much harder – and much more critical – to be able to style them well .

All in due time, though.

The first typography-related skill any designer needs is some working knowledge of decent fonts and which situations each performs best in. I’ve had limited luck Googling for lists of good fonts, as anything that has more than about 10 recommendations either drifts into pretty niche-use typefaces, or ones that are sub-par in some way or another.

I’ve actually created my own database of good (free or cheap) fonts, available for Learn UI Design students.

table of good free or cheap fonts in Learn UI Design

But until then, I recommend building out this list for yourself, not by Googling, but organically, as you stumble across beautiful typefaces in use on various sites and apps.

WhatFont Chrome extension in action

Like any research process, the best method is the one that works for you. Nonetheless, I would consider recording the following information any time you find a font that works particularly well:

  • Website/app it’s found on
  • Usages it would be good for – body font, title font, certain types of brands, etc.
  • A screenshot of it in use, particularly if you can’t download it

I like to put my fonts into groups (like “Brush” or “Chunky heavyweights”) in a Font Manager, such as FontBase . I use different groups to represent different usage ideas as well as different types of fonts.

FontBase font manager

If you like a font, and it’s free, download it right then and there . The reason is because you need to use a font to see if it really works for your design. And you’re not going to want to go downloading a zillion fonts you wrote down last year every time you start a project. You’re going to want to have them on hand (as much as possible), and very quickly start comparing how a paragraph of body text looks in typeface A vs. typeface B.

As far as what tools to use for identifying fonts, I make further recommendations here .

WEEKLY EXERCISE 3: Record any fonts you particularly like, noting characteristics like when they seem to work well and where you’ve seen them.

Exercise 4: Style Tiles

If you’re anything like me, you can’t just build a database of your favorite fonts without wanting to use them . And you can’t analyze what all these beautiful sites are trying to do without wanting to experiment with those same ideas .

This is where style tiles come in.

Style tiles are small artboards that combine ALL the brand elements you’re thinking of – typography, color, form controls, a logo, etc. They don’t show you the finished product, but they give you a feel for what the finished product will be like.

They’re quick, one-off explorations of a certain idea you might have about a good UI.

Let’s look at an example, by yours truly.

Instavest style tile

Years ago, I worked with early-stage startup Instavest , a service that allows you to model your portfolio after stock tips from top investors.

I discussed with the founders the sort of feel they were going for. They wanted a site that people felt confident leaving thousands of dollars with , yet not something too run-of-the-mill. It couldn’t look as tech-stupid as your standard bank; it needed a modern edge .

From that conversation, I started putting together the pieces. Let’s talk through them:

  • Logo . I’m not a logo designers, and I don’t pretend to be one for my clients. So for this first-iteration style tile, I just wanted to create a simple text logo (in designer speak, a “wordmark”). After messing with about 3 dozen options for typeface and style, I chose Museo bold, a quirky sans serif that, when small enough, kind of feels like a serif . Good enough for starters!
  • Colors . The obvious choice for any bank or financial institution is… blue . It’s the boring, dependable, no-surprises color. So I wanted to use ANYTHING BUT BLUE. Take a look at the colors on the style tile above. Does they say “money” or “financial” to you? If so, it’s because they’re the colors from the euro bills! Simple idea, seemed worth exploring, so I added it to a style tile.

blue bank logos

  • Font . For the text on the style tile, I used PT Sans . It’s high-quality, free, and slightly underused as far as great Google Fonts go. It seemed as good as anything for this exploration.
  • Copy snippets . Part of the website’s brand is how it speaks . In my style tiles, I want to use phrases that could actually appear on the real site. From “3 clicks and no hidden fees” to a strikingly casual user-submitted stock tip, real text makes the style tile feel like the site actually would.
  • UI element snippets . Style tiles are not style guides. My goal here is not to show every single form control in every single state, but a smattering of the sort of things that would appear on the site, such as a stock chart and a user-submitted stock tip card (though older/wiser designer-Erik cringes looking at that dirty tan color now. Take it from me, kids, cards should look clean ). Frequently, a button is one of the first things I’ll throw on a style tile, since they’re so common on basically any site.

And that’s all there is to it! A few hunches about color, typography, copywriting – all transformed into something concrete and discussable. From this point on, my client and I don’t have to talk so abstractly about the brand; we can simply suggest what’s working or not working from a concept like this.

Let’s hold up a second though.

Even though style tiles are a great first UI deliverable for a client’s website, I’m suggesting them as a personal exercise for improving your own UI skills. Why?

They’re low-stakes , quick to put together, and easy to experiment with .

The moment you see a font and think, for example, “This would work really great for a luxury brand!”, actually try it out! Download that font (or, if it’s expensive, find a good free alternative ), grab some classy photos from Unsplash , decide on a color palette (OK, fine, just use grayscale + gold ), and experiment.

The “experiment” part is key , by the way. As with learning anything, the faster you can cycle between (A) thinking of an idea, (B) implementing it, and (C) evaluating it, the faster you will learn . With style tiles (at least as an individual exercise), there’s nothing that stands in the way of this process taking seconds . No permission, no UX constraints, no budget, no bureaucracy.

Just you , improving your craft, one step at a time.

WEEKLY EXERCISE 4: Create 2-3 style tiles for fonts in your database that you particularly want to experiment with. Think of a concept for a site, then design out a style tile featuring:

  • Realistic font choices and text elements (e.g. headers, navigational elements, body text)
  • Appropriate color palette
  • Example form controls or imagery
  • Logo (optional)

Personal Project Mockups

The fifth and final UI exercise I recommend is to actually work on personal design projects.

This means:

  • You’re NOT being paid for them (at least not by a client or employer)
  • You – and you alone – have complete creative control

And the project could take on any number of formats:

  • You design an app you wish existed , but currently does not
  • You redesign an existing app or website that you think you could improve upon
  • You design a site for a non-profit or other good cause, and potentially send it to them at the end

(I do mean the bit about “you alone” having complete creative control. Perhaps you and a partner are working on a side project. If your partner has a bunch of comments on the design, you then have two jobs: (1) understand your partner’s feedback on the design, and (2) work towards something that satisfies both of you. This is substantially harder – especially for a beginning designer – than simply trying to make something that you yourself like. So I highly recommend finding a project where the metric of success is you think it looks good . Is that how the real world works? No – of course not. But this is a learning exercise , where we intentionally remove real-world constraints in order to learn more effectively )

Giftr personal project screenshot

Here is a screen for one personal project I did to build my UI skills early in my career. Now, I can find a dozen things I’d improve about it, yet it was still a successful project – it furthered my skills, and even got some attention in my portfolio.

One easy way to pick a personal project is to choose a style tile that you particularly enjoyed working on, and expanding that into a more full-fledged app or website. There are basically three possible end-states here, which will affect how much of the design you complete before the point of diminishing returns:

  • A personal learning project . This is something that you only do for your own educational edification – you don’t even necessarily plan to show it to anyone (or maybe you show more experienced designers in order to get feedback – see my offer below, for instance). You might skip a lot of the UX phase for a project like this, or ignore some real-world business constraints. Fine. This is largely about developing your visual skills – color, typography, etc. For the most bang for your buck, focus on the “main screens” of the app for projects like these – homepage, profiles, dashboards, feeds, articles – wherever the user would spend the bulk of their time.
  • A portfolio project . For a project you’re particularly proud of and design out in its entirety, you might consider putting it on your portfolio. This is getting a bit beyond the scope of this article, but you’ll basically want to design out the entire app – not only the main screens, but also auxiliary experiences such as error states, loading pages, first-time-using-the-app flows, etc. I’ll be writing more on creating a solid portfolio on Design Hacks .
  • A real app or site . If you or a partner have the development skills, what started as a quick project might become a real app. This is really beyond the scope of this article, but as you work on these 5 exercises over time, you will start to find yourself closer and closer to completing a real app. At that point, it might be time to graduate to a real curriculum .

Nonetheless, creating some realistically-branded screens for personal project apps will tie together everything you’ve done so far – the design details you’ve noticed and recorded, the lessons you’ve gained from copying the pros, the fonts you’ve collected, and the styles you’ve put together.

WEEKLY EXERCISE 5: Drawing from the style tiles you’ve created in Exercise 4, design 1-3 screens of an app/website that you’re most interested in working on.

Getting Started Now

Alright, this post is going on 5,000 words, so I’d better wrap it up. If you want to start your journey to learn UI design today, here are the resources that will help you get started today:

General resources:

  • Figma . Web-based, free if you’re the only editor (plus 3 files where you can invite co-editors).
  • Sketch . Has a 30-day free trial, but is $99/year after that (for as long as you want to receive updates, which is optional). Mac only.
  • Adobe XD . Free for Windows and Mac, but less fully-featured than the above options.
  • Evernote . Amazing software for creating fully-searchable “notebooks” of multimedia content. Can use on phone or desktop. Free plan covers 2 devices and 60 MB of content a month. Great option for tracking sites you like/dislike and reflections why, as well as reflections on copywork.
  • My copywork bucket on dribbble . This is where I store dribbble shots of the things I’ve either done copywork on or want to. If you’re not sure where to start with copywork, try here!

Resources for identifying fonts:

  • I have a full list of font-identifying tools here

Resources for managing fonts:

  • FontBase . A freemium cross-platform font manager. Allows you to browse and search all Google fonts, in addition to local ones that you sync. Good option; definitely not perfect.
  • Font Book . The default Mac Font manager. This is good enough to start with if you want to keep it simple. Most powerful feature? The ability to group fonts into categories.

And here is the weekly program of exercises. This pace assumes you can’t devote more than an hour or two per day learning UI design. If you’re available full-time, you should start feeling more confident in your design skills within a day. If you can only eke out an hour here or there, no problem, go at a pace you can maintain – AND MAINTAIN IT.

  • List 5 sites or apps with good UI design, and 1-2 with bad design. For each, articulate in your own words why you believe it works or doesn’t work.
  • Copy the UI of a good site/app pixel-for-pixel. At the end, write down specific techniques the creator used that “expand your design vocabulary”.
  • Record any fonts you particularly like, noting characteristics like when they seem to work well and where you’ve seen them.
  • Design 1-3 screens of an app/website that you’re most interested in working on.

An offer for you

I’d also like to make an offer to you. From the beginning of this article, I’ve said that I want you to spend 90% of the time designing and only 10% of the time reading about design. I realize that is hard, and that the vast majority of people on this page will close the tab, no thanks, time to read another article.

So if you’re one of the few to take me up on these exercises, you start your weekly regimen of learning UI design, and you find yourself needing help, tweet me your question . If I see you’re putting in the work to do these exercises, I will answer your question, full-stop, 100%.

One thing: why twitter ? Because it’s public. If our discussion can benefit others, I’d love for others to see it.

But go on and get started. You’ve already read for what, 15 minutes? That’s already couple hours of work before you can go on reading this stuff. What will you choose? – analysis , copywork , finding fonts ?

It’s time to start honing your craft. You got this.

Watch me do a UI project step-by-step

I’ll walk you through every part of a UI project — just like I’ve done for everyone from Fortune 100 companies to Y-Combinator startups .

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Browse Course Material

Course info.

  • Prof. Robert Miller


  • Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

As Taught In

  • Human-Computer Interfaces
  • Software Design and Engineering
  • Graphic Design

Learning Resource Types

User interface design and implementation, assignments.

Five problem sets (HW, PS/RS) are assigned, which you must complete individually, not in a group. HW1–2 (“homework”) are assigned to both courses. PS1–3 (“programming”) are assigned only to the undergraduate course 6.813. RS1–3 (“research”) are assigned only to the graduate course 6.831. These five assignments will constitute 30% of your grade.

Homework Assignments

Programming assignments, research assignments.


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Meta Principles of UX/UI Design final assignment

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