Interface design isn’t art, it’s math with an infinite amount of variables, a chain reaction of logical decisions.
If art is about talking and expressing yourself, interface design is about listening and disappearing into the background. You listen to the content and its context, and take it from there, one step at a time.
Don’t worry about the looks, just start with the variables. 1 + 1 + 1 + … Baby steps, over and over again until what you have on your screen feels right. Anything else you add after this point will degrade the quality of what you just built. It’s easier to make something worse than improving it. Maybe the end sum is 5, maybe it’s infinite, depends on the variables.
But sometimes, even 1 + 1 is too much to handle, and you need to clear your head. This is where art comes into play, in the broadest meaning of the word: Paintings, illustrations, architecture, human beings, even nature is art. They won’t help you decide whether you should draw a 1 or 1.5 pixel highlight, but allow you to take a step back and just decide on what’s more suitable or pick one and move on.
Don’t check out what the competition is doing. If you turn to interfaces designed by others for inspiration, you’ll start multiplying and dividing and this will only complicate your workflow. 1 + 1 is how you reach your goal. Looking at other people’s work is bad and unproductive. In the worst case you’ll think you’re a horrible designer and that’s a nasty feeling to shake off, trust me.
Instead of looking at the pure pixels of other people’s work, try figuring out the “Why?” part. Try figuring out their 1 + 1 + 1 that took them from a blank Photoshop file to the end result.
Learning the tools is the easy part of becoming an interface designer; trusting your guts and the science of math is hard, something I hope to master one day.
Take content in one hand and context in the other, aim for the path, and start calculating.
This article has been generalized on purpose for simplicity.