Learning how to craft brilliant websites will take time and patience. There is no magic Adobe genie who will appear to grant you divine powers over Photoshop. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that, and even if it did you should obviously ask for infinite wishes first.
Prowess in Photoshop is developed by practice and study. You can learn a lot by visiting websites such as Dribbble to find examples of great mockups and free PSD files. But through practice you can truly cement skills to become like second nature. In this guide I’ve written up some tips to help you design usable website mockups in Photoshop without reliance on a magical arabian lamps.
Guides & Rulers
Measurement should be a Photoshop 101 topic whenever you design something which needs to be pixel-perfect. Websites are produced for digital screens, and that means your mockup should directly relate to how the final website appears in a browser.
Getting right down to the nitty-gritty details would mean you need a way to measure everything. Well thankfully Photoshop has the solution. Just setup your rulers(CTRL+R) and make sure the unit is pixels(double-click the ruler to change). Then you can drag out guides to be placed vertically and horizontally onto the mockup. The info panel displays your exact X/Y coordinates while dragging.
I prefer this technique because it helps designers craft pixel-perfect elements on the page. You can easily dictate height for a header, image slideshow, footer, and other miscellaneous elements. Plus when dragging items around they’ll naturally snap to guides which can make your job a lot easier.
There are some other great tips on the Photoshop Etiquette website covering basics of setting up usable PSD files.
Building with Shapes
Any major interface mockup should be constructed using shapes. I’ll assume you learned about the basic shapes in grade school so let’s pick up from there. Photoshop has a number of common tools which assist designers when drawing rectangles, circles, or other related shapes. These are often the foremost items placed onto a layout mockup.
When browsing different websites pay close attention to the layout design behind text & images. You’ll notice header sections, navigation bars, buttons, and sidebar widgets all fit into shapes. Good designers will be sure these items fit into some type of grid structure too.
So think of your design first as large conglomerate of shapes pieced together in a particular fashion. Think of yourself as the set director: your unique vision should organize a brilliant tapestry of elements placed in just the right spots. And while you may not get paid as much as a Hollywood director, or get to work on camera, or get to meet celebrities… just trust me shapes are important. Start with the fundamental shapes and make your vision clearer than a frustrated father after he delivers a very stern scolding. Do I make myself clear?
Smart Object Layers
A big topic related to vector elements is the transition to using smart objects. Vectors can be scaled up to any size resolution so they’re perfect for every graphic in your mockup. But importing vectors from Illustrator will create what’s known as a smart object.
The graphic is still editable but you’ll need to resize and change paths in a separate document by double-clicking on the layer icon. Also when applying detailed filters you wind up with editable smart filters. This is much better than regular filters which apply an effect directly onto pixels. Smart objects are vectors, so while the pixels technically exist they are free from constraint. One advantage is that smart filters can be edited unlike regular filters.
Texture tutorial: Crumpled Torn Paper Effect
Smart objects are perfect for icons or much more complicated vector shapes. Think of how you might use a gradient map or smart filter on data graphs, repeating patterns, or textured nav bars. Plus layer effects can still be applied recklessly without fear of damaging the layer.
Remember that shapes are the same thing as vectors. They’re vector shapes, meaning a shape layer can be scaled larger or smaller without quality loss. So you can convert Photoshop shapes directly into smart objects too. But either way it is best to create mockups using vector elements over pixel elements solely to retain flexibility for changing size or shape.
Start with Building Blocks
Learning new techniques from online tutorials is a great way to get started. But if you need to create ideas rapidly why not start out with smaller building blocks? PSDs are freely available to designers who may prefer something more akin to a LEGO practice session.
These PSD building blocks could include navigation menus, buttons, forms, or even fullsize website mockups. There is a lot to learn by dissecting a professional designer’s PSD file to see how it was created. Then you can learn even more by re-creating your own layout from their graphical elements.
Free PSDs: 32 UI Element Kits
If you want to learn how to cook it’s best to start with recipes. Learning how to design something from scratch can be just as hard as cooking from scratch. So there is a major benefit to practicing UI design with existing PSDs just to learn the basics of composition and layout structure.
Once you get more comfortable blocking items into a layout the next logical step is recreating these individual items from scratch. Then you’ll be cheffing up your own delicious UI recipes! The primary focus should eventually turn to layer effects and filters, which are complicated and require a lot of play time to understand the end result.
With practice you’ll learn the many popular tricks of using Photoshop as a web designer. Getting the basics down is fairly simple – but to progress further into high-quality mockups will take a handful of mistakes. Learning from your own mistakes is the quickest and most efficient way to progress quickly. Keep these tips in mind and keep at it! Over time you’ll be surprised at what you can design.
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Author: Jake Rocheleau
Jake is a creative designer, illustrator, and web developer. He frequently writes articles involving new-age design concepts and freelance management skills. You can find him in Google or follow his tweets @jakerocheleau