Good web design is easy to reach just sticking to a small set of rules, principals and avoiding some common mistakes. Excellent web design skills are born out of years of experience, but for the beginning avoiding classical mistakes will give you a very good start.
You also must keep abreast to the changes in mentality, skills and sophistication of today web visitors. Fifteen years ago if you had a website with excellent graphics, flashy banners, and some animation elements you had a great website. Today you need to have content: relevant, unique, useful, you really have to solve some problems for your visitors. It is still important the website to look good but the content is the king now. You see the shift, which definitely are part of the learning curve, and competition on the internet marketing, which is different now vs. 15 years ago.
I will share with you some of the golden rules and common mistakes.
Keep everything simple and intuitive. Long ago I read a book, which opened my eyes. Do not make me think: a common sense approach to web usability by Steve King is one of the best books on websites design.
I hear you, and I will explain. Do not make me think is just a cry loud for simplicity and intuitively. If you have to fill in a form and you have no idea how to do it, if you want to navigate from point A to point B but you don’t have a direct link to do it, and so on, it is something wrong with the logic of your website design.
It is more than that, after years of browsing the web, visitors to a website expect certain conventions, and just breaking them is a great way of losing visitors. Example: people expect to find the navigation at the top of a page or on the left side; logos are mostly found on the top left. I suggest looking at how large companies such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, eBay structure their pages, the language they use and emulate them.
Choose carefully the fonts. Not all the visitors have all the fonts available, you have to go with those fonts everybody have. They are: Arial, Verdana, Times, Courier, Geneva. All are easy to read. I think Verdana font looks great and is cited as being the easiest to read on the web, Arial as well. Do not make any sense to buy new fonts and use them because a user, who does not have that particular font, will end up using the default on his browser.
Always ensure that there is a good contrast between any text and its background. The best combination is black text on a white background or white text on black background. Do not use white text on pale background; it is not user friendly because it is not easy to read.
Do not use all available colors on your pages, limit to 2-3 colors per website. Be considering to users with color blindness or contrast perception difficulties. You can help yourself with a software packages: Color Wheel Pro.
Make your website easy to change. You must be able to easily change your page without completely redesigning your page. The ability to add or remove content from a website is fundamental to the ongoing success of your website. You do not create a website once and expect to be rank well in Google without to update frequently your website, improve your content, add new ideas and delete the ones which are not relevant.
The best structure of a website has a horizontal navigation, use cascading style sheets, and avoid unconventional layout and complicated backgrounds.
Be consistent, it is part of do not make your visitor think. At least about how to use your website, how easy is to navigate, and the same pattern and rules must exist in all the pages of the website. Using CSS correctly you can make most of this happen automatically. Try to learn a lot about cascading Style Sheets, this will make possible to separate the appearance and layout of your website from the content. This way the update and maintenance of your site will be easy to accomplish.
Concentrate on content, make the website relevant. Correlate your content with your pictures, without to abuse them. Do not use a lot of animation. Try to keep focus on content, update frequently, add more useful content. Create links to frequently visited website. This will help your ranking by search engine.
Avoiding complexity you will save development time and make website easier to use.
All the above are common sense but following these principles will help you keep from trouble. It is possible to outsource the website design, it will cost you decent amount of money just to create just the initial layout. The real problem will appear later when you want to maintain your website; you will be charge be minimum half hour price for any 5 minute change and will add up considerable amount of money in time.
Personally I want to be in charge with the maintenance of all my websites.