Remember your goal
Why is the site you're designing being put up. The purpose, most of the time,
is not to make it look cool, or win awards. It's to distribute information or
sell a product. Determine the primary objective and then the secondary.
First thing - write down a statement of the goals of the site. Ask your client. This is crucial to ensuring the outcome satisfies everyone. It will also provides a basis for design decisions. Having a clearly stated goal can often settle design questions in a way that both parties agree.
Although you spend most of your time worrying about pages, rather than the
site as a whole, your primary concern should be the site's overall design.
When starting to design a new site from scratch, you should try to create
a design that will make sense to users, has a consistent look and feel, and
is not to difficult to extend in the future.
Using a consistent page design across a site can seem "boring" or "uncreative" at first. Stay with it. The consistency of design of a site is one of the factors that differentiates amateur sites from professional ones. At times you may end up with individual pages that are not as satisfying as they might have been had you designed them individually. Even so, your site will have a consistent look across all pages that will allow users to know immediately when they enter your site, and that will help them remember your site as well.
Designing on the site level also means that your work becomes far easier for others to extend. Don't expect to always be the person working on a site - most of a site's life is maintenance, rather than design. If you can create a site with a well defined and codified page structure, you will enable people with less experience and design savvy to work on updating and extending the site. This is critical if you want to go on to creating other sites, and your customers will appreciate it greatly when they are faced with updating their site.
When the time comes to design pages, pick up a pad and pencil. If you can't
draw, use Quark, Pagemaker, Illustrator or
Freehand. The last thing you ever
want to do is initially design your pages in HTML. While HTML is a great
transmission medium, it is a miserable design environment. By drawing
your prototype, or using a mature design program, you ensure that the only
obstacle to your designing a great page is your own imagination.
When you design in HTML, you end up with pages that look like every other page designed in HTML. You shouldn't arrive at a design simply because it's easy to do, or it's something you know how to do. You should want to create in HTML a design your envisioned without considering the messy reality of HTML. Using HTML 3.0, just about anything is possible... it's just not necessarily easy. Solving the problems of expressing a design in HTML are trivial - once you already know exactly what your design should be.
When was the last time you wrote down exactly what you did in order to
produce that great header on top of your HTML page? And when was the
last time you sat there cursing under your breath because you couldn't
remember how to make a new header to match that old one? I'm betting
the latter happened a bit more recently.
When you create that great design that is going to be the centerpiece of your site, write down how you did it! Write down anything that you can't extract later. This includes typefaces (font, font size, leading, spacing, attributes, etc.), graphical effects (how many pixels was the gaussian blur on the drop shadow?), and anything else you might forget.
A corollary of this is to always save a copy of what you created in Photoshop from the point before you flattened the image. Save a copy in Photoshop format with all the layers, etc intact. This is a lot of critical information being saved, as well as preserving separately graphic elements you might need later on.
Just because you're using a 1280x1024 screen with 24-bit "true" color
and a T3 connection to the Internet, don't expect your users to. If
your site isn't easy to view for end users, you've failed to achieve
your goal, regardless of how cool your design is. The average user has
a 640x480 screen, 14.4 or 28.8 modem, and often as little a 256 color
video. Even if they do have an ISDN or T1 connection, they'll still
appreciate a site that loads fast and gets them where they want to go
in as few clicks as possible.
Part of this is using clever design to reduce the download size of pages.
Test, Test, test, and test again your design and implementation on all
the clients and platforms that you have heard of. Do check your web
links to see if they still point to what you thought. Do review your
pages frequently. Periodic checking prevents possible embarrassment.
Do spell check your pages, even the headings! And especially check the
words in your images. Reversed signs or misspellings, particularly in
things like the name of your organization will be quite embarrassing.
Do you think I've mentioned testing enough?
Test Drives - Ask an outsider to "test drive" your information. If it isn't clear to them why something is there, take it out. Answer their questions about your organization, products, or services. And remember to listen to their comments. Their reactions should cause you to modify your design before you release them to the world at large.