Secrets from the world's top 20 web designers

Essential design tips from the kings and queens of code

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What makes a world-class designer? It's a simple question and yet once we started compiling this list we realised it's not at all simple to answer.

Is it about pushing boundaries or holding fast to traditional principles? Should the body of work be judged on aesthetics or usability? Is fame or notoriety important, or just a distraction?

Ultimately, we've tried to balance all these considerations and more, and picked 20 figures who we all feel act as a beacon of inspiration to web builders everywhere. We hope you agree …

Jonathan Snook

Snook.ca

"Design influence comes from multiple places," Snook says. "Sometimes that's from other designers. I do find myself more readily influenced by design in other mediums such as books, magazines and architecture. I'm particularly drawn to multi-storey buildings and how they embrace repetition while providing visual separation at various levels. I've always felt a connection to web design and its long, vertical nature."

Snook is quick to praise the work of his peers and singles out Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain (31three.com). "Not only does he have a nice design aesthetic, I think he also solves technical problems with design very well." Snook's advice to up-and-coming designers? "It's healthy to start the process by mimicking what other designers do. As you expand your horizons, you'll begin to develop a style of your own."

Jason Santa Maria

Jasonsantamaria.com

You'll know Jason Santa Maria's work even if you haven't gone looking for it. WordPress? That's one of his. A List Apart? Ma.gnolia's logo? Dictionary.com? Yep, yep and yep. "For me, inspiration is easy, but motivation is tougher," he explains. "I get fiercely inspired by print design, specifically editorial and book design. Just walking through a library makes me want to draw for days on end.

Jason santa maria

JASON SANTA MARIA: Jason Santa Maria's site is part portfolio, part blog and part playground. If you read it via RSS, you're missing most of the fun

On the other hand, my creative process is a rollercoaster of determination, self-doubt, sweat and procrastination." The best advice he's ever been given? "Don't be afraid to say no to a client. You're not a pair of hands. Stand up for your work."

Larissa Meek

larissameek.com

It's the same old story: you're on a reality TV programme, you start a blog, you fall in love with WordPress and before long you're creative director with AgencyNet, picking up awards for your antismoking site OwnYourC.com (which, thanks to a recent and dramatic revamp, should mean more gongs).

Larissa Meek's story isn't quite that simple, however: she was a 3D animator long before anyone pointed a TV camera at her, and moving to Flash and CSS was a natural progression. So what inspires her? "I love playing with new visuals, but the most important aspect of inspiration is having an organising thought," she says.

Larissa meek

LARISSA MEEK: The only real downside to revamping OwnYourC lies in the loss of the original website, which is a wonderfully quirky and warm piece of work

"An organising thought helps me focus my designs so they have meaning and purpose. We're really big on this at AgencyNet: it's a simple statement that you use as a benchmark for your creative decisions. It's more than just designing for design's sake."

When it comes to other designers, "I have to admit I can't pick just one," Meek says. "I am, however, addicted to www.behance.net. I visit daily for new bits of inspiration. I love the gamut of creative fields it covers. It shows you can find beauty in everything."

Andy Rutledge

andyrutledge.com

The chief design strategist of Unit Interactive points out that the secret of successful design has more to do with perspiration than inspiration; that said, he's "inspired by anything and everything – just not every time. A game, a conversation, a book, packaging on a product at the grocery store, the layout of a restaurant; I never know what might inspire me or why inspiration strikes. But I tend not to rely on inspiration as a necessary component to good work."

Rutledge is particularly proud of redesigning Woot.com, which meant "launching a complete surprise redesign of a site with more than two million opinionated users, on whom Woot relies to make daily purchases – no pressure!". It could have been a $165m mistake; it wasn't. "It's become an ongoing project with many moving parts and additional components added regularly," Rutledge says.

"Every one of my staff have and are working with Woot designers and developers every week … It's an all-round team success in my book." What other designers does Rutledge rate? "How much room do you have here?" he says.

"This is a hard one, as my jaw drops quite frequently due to the design efforts of all sorts of people. Doug Bowman has been pretty darned consistent in producing jaw-dropping work that spans quite the breadth of context and application. That's nearly impossible to do impossibly well, and yet he's been doing it for quite a while."

Dan Cederholm

Simplebits.com

The founder of SimpleBits and co-founder of Cork'd is famed for his expertise in standards-based design, attracting clients including Google, MTV and ESPN. He also "plays a mean ukelele and occasionally wears a baseball cap".

From turning MTV's Flash extravaganza into clean XHTML/CSS to the stunning redesign of Mac audio firm Rogue Amoeba, Cederholm practises what he preaches in his books Handcrafted CSS, Bulletproof Web Design and Web Standards Solutions.