13 Ways to Challenge Yourself in Your Career as a Web Designer

A career in web design or development requires a constant effort to improve and to stay on top of new technologies and changes within the industry. No matter how much you improve or how many new things you learn there is always something else out there that can make you better at your work and improve your career.

Fortunately, most designers and developers receive challenges on a daily basis in the normal course of their work, especially those who work for a variety of different clients. However, there are times when a designer should focus on learning and improvement outside of these normal activities. Perhaps no project has come up that will provide an opportunity to hone skills in a particular area, or maybe you have something specific in mind that deserves extra attention.

In this article we will look at some of the ways that you can challenge yourself as a designer. This is not intended to be an all-inclusive list, there are certainly countless possibilities in this area, but it is intended to give some ideas to those of you who are interested in trying new things or improving on existing skills.

Some of the most beneficial things that I have done in my career have also been the most uncomfortable. For most of us it is easy to get in the habit of doing things in a familiar way or avoiding projects that push us beyond our comfort zone. There are times, however, when those challenges and discomfort lead to invaluable opportunities that can have a significant impact on our futures.

1. Accept Clients for Freelance Work

If you are currently working for an agency or as an in-house designer, managing some clients of your own on a freelance basis would certainly provide some outstanding learning opportunities. With your own clients you will need to consider things like pricing your work, securing the client, project and time management, financial management, communication with the client, possibly outsourcing some of the work, and meeting deadlines.

Some of these things, like time management, communication and deadlines, are likely already a part of your daily work as an employee, but when you are managing the client and the project on your own they will probably have a different type of significance.

2. Try a New Type of Layout

Do you find that you use the same type of layout on the vast majority of your projects? Maybe a fixed-width center-aligned site is not appropriate or necessary for every project, and trying something new would bring a new challenge and an opportunity to gain experience with other types of layouts.

Have you ever tried designing a horizontal website? They are not practical for most projects but learning to create one can teach some new skills that may be useful at some time in the future.

3. Seek Out Feedback and Constructive Criticism

Designers are always receiving feedback from clients and this is obviously useful and an important part of the process. But if you have not actively sought out feedback from other designers you may benefit from doing so. Concept Feedback is a great resource for designers who want to submit their work and receive honest feedback from other designers.

4. Blog

Blogging can be a great exercise for designers, whether it is publishing posts on your own blog or writing for others. The design blogging community is large and very active, so there are always plenty of opportunities. Writing an article or a detailed tutorial can be a great learning experience because if you know your work is going to be visible to the world you’ll probably push yourself to do the best that you can.

I’ll never forget writing my first post for Smashing Magazine. The thought of having my article read by an audience that large was rather intimidating, but it forced me to go further than I would if I was writing for a much smaller publication. For those of us that don’t naturally want that exposure, blogging is a valuable experience for moving out of the comfort zone and trying new things.

5. Try a Different Style of Design

Is there a particular style of design that you have never tried or that you would like to improve on (for example vintage, nature-inspired, minimalist, magazine-style, textured)? Stretching your design skills will make you more valuable and well-rounded, but often it is easy to stick with similar styles without exploring new possibilities.

If you don’t have a client that is an appropriate fit for a different style of design that you would like to try, personal projects can be a possible solution.

6. Experiment with a New Content Management System

If you find that you use WordPress, Drupal, ExpressionEngine or some other content management system on almost all of your projects, maybe you would like to try a different CMS. No CMS is perfect for every situation, so learning something new may prove to be a wise decision when the right situation comes up in the future.

The best way to know what CMSs work well in specific situations and which ones are most user-friendly is to experiment with them on your own. There is a lot of information available online regarding the different CMS options, but you can learn a lot more from some hands-on experience than you can from reading about someone else’s experience.

7. Use HTML5 and CSS3

If you’re not already familiar with HTML5 and CSS3 they are certainly an area for potential improvement that will open up new opportunities and new ways of doing things in your projects. Here are some learning resources:

8. Write a Book or E-Book

We already talked about the opportunity that blogging presents for challenging yourself, but that’s not the only possibility for those who like to write. Writing a book or an e-book is now a realistic option for just about anyone. Services like Lulu make it possible to publish a book independently, and e-books are of course easy and inexpensive to produce.

Covering a specific topic in a book or an e-book will force you to really dive into the subject, and you’re bound to learn plenty along the way. Of course, you’ll probably not want to attempt to write a book on a topic that requires extensive learning on your part, but even writing about a subject at which you are well versed can present learning opportunities and experiences that will improve your abilities.

9. Sell Stock Graphics

Marketplaces like GraphicRiver and stock photo sites like iStockphoto allow designers to sell stock graphics like vectors, illustrations, and icons. Designing these types of items presents unique challenges that are not a part of the client process.

Selling stock graphics can also provide a nice secondary income and can also be a great fill in activity when client work is slow or between projects. (Vandelay Premier members can see the interview with Ryan Putnam for a detailed look at the process of selling stock graphics.)

10. Sell Themes or Templates

Similar to selling stock graphics, you can also design and code template or themes (premium WordPress themes are especially popular) to be sold. Selling themes/templates has become a significant source of income for many designers, but even if making money is not your primary goal designing for a mass audience rather than designing for a specific client will present some new challenges.

When it comes to actually selling your work you can either use a marketplace or manage the sales on your own through your site. If you’re primarily focusing on it as a way to learn and challenge yourself you’ll probably want to use a marketplace like ThemeForest, which can save huge amounts of time as compared to setting things up to sell from your own site.

11. Answer Questions on Forums

There plenty of design and development related forums where users interact and look for help and guidance from other users. If you’re looking for a way to challenge yourself why not take a few minutes to browse through some forums and attempt to answer questions from other users?

In some cases you may be able to answer the question easily based on your experience, but at other times you may want to answer a question that requires research or experimentation on your part. This is a great opportunity to stretch your own skills and knowledge in areas that are likely to be valuable to you at some point in the future, and it will also be appreciated by others.

12. Take Up Photography

Photography is a hobby of many designers as there is often some overlap in the creative areas of both. If you’re not already active with photography taking the time to learn some basics may even help you to learn some new things that can be applied in your design work.

13. Identify Your Weak Areas

All designers have areas of strength and weakness. You’re probably already aware of some areas where you could use improvement, but if not, try to take an objective look at your work and your experience. What area of your work are not as strong as they could be? By identifying and improving your areas of weakness you will make yourself a more complete designer and more valuable to your clients or your employer.

What’s Your Experience?

Do you make an effort to challenge yourself and to improve your skills? If so, how do you do it?

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43 Responses

Comments are now closed on this post.

  • Skweekah, July 24, 2013

    Love it! You are what you do so do what it is you want to be!

  • Vishwas, March 30, 2012

    There is no way a techie can stop learning new technology. That’s when improvement is really possible. Or else, one will just get stuck to the existing one and will not be able to bring in fresh energy to one’s work. thanks for writing this.

  • Toronto Web Developer, June 10, 2011

    Love the challenge, I am so ready for it!

  • Laura - Web Courses Bangkok, April 22, 2011

    Some great ideas in your article. I really think it’s important not to get stuck in the stuff we do everyday and instead seek out challenges to constantly improve ourselves. Repetition kills creativity.

  • Gabriel Web, April 21, 2011

    Thanks for the advice on publishing. Please, can we have more where that came from? Thanks

  • Nookeen, September 28, 2010

    Great advice!! Thank you!

    I wanna add to the list this: I just read an article in Smashing Magazine (http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/09/24/does-the-future-of-the-internet-have-room-for-web-designers/) about the future of Design. Basically, the author says that we, designers, are going to be extinct due to Apps, Templates, and Social networks like facebook… Most likely, it is an exaggeration, and design will be needed anyway, but the truth is that if you can write apps for facebook, google, iphone, android and so on, you have a great advantage. Exploring these trends could turn out to be very valuable.

    Good luck everyone and feel free to add me on Twitter!

  • Darklg, September 27, 2010

    I Agree, HTML5 for Web Designers is a must-read to discover HTML5 :)

  • martyn, September 16, 2010

    Think some designers might benefit from this sound advice. Freelance yes Please!!!

  • Lucian Marin, September 14, 2010

    Thanks, i really need to learn some css myself, since i always spend parts of my budget on outsourcing css code. Will definitely

  • Kathy, September 9, 2010

    This is very good information. I do not know if, I could do this because I like things to stay the same. I do not like alot of change. I like to find something that works and stay with it.

  • Elgart, September 8, 2010

    Its really true! Really great ideas…I am planning for freelancing actually, really helpful article.

  • Derek, September 7, 2010

    Very good article I am in the process of getting my blog set up! I am planning on delving into HTML5 soon I hear a lot of people saying about only certain browsers support it :(

  • Lime Web Design, September 2, 2010

    Great information. Really good read. Thanks

  • Web Design Detroit, September 1, 2010

    I was talking to a friend last night about taking html5 classes. In the past, I was a Flash programmer, but it’s kind of going the way of the Dodo. In order to stay competitive I think this might be a way to go.

    Anyone have suggestions for a good html5 book?

  • 3d animation, September 1, 2010

    Very practical yet unique ideas. Thanks lots

  • Kuzma, August 29, 2010

    I which that already began to applyб thanks for ideas, Thanks for sharing

  • om, August 29, 2010

    Really Great article!! I always design almost same type website but after reading this article I feel that Its not good for a good designer.

    A good designer need to design all types of design like vertical and horizontal. and he need to invent new !deas for a good design, so thank you very much for helping me to change my !dea to create different design types.

    and after reading this It is my first comment for designing blog

    Thanks Again !!

  • web design chicago, August 29, 2010

    As a web designer, the only thing that’s constant is change. To keep up with change, you’ve to constantly be updating your skills. I can say from 15 years of experience as a web designer, I have constantly updated myself which has allowed me be up to date with modern technologies!

  • Danny Cheeseman, August 28, 2010

    Very indepth and true, it is an ever changing world. Being a web developer I know it is hard, up until a year ago I was a computer maintenance technician as well, but, it is so hard to keep up with the fast paced movement. I had to make a decision. Web development or Computer maintenance… You know the rest ;-)


    Keep on bloggin’

  • Jud, August 27, 2010

    This is legit advice. I challenge designers to start seeing themselves as their own business regardless of if they are affiliated with a firm. Ultimately, you can be investing in yourself both for today and tomorrow so keep up the work of studying, challenging and enriching yourself … and keep reading Vandelay for more good stuff like this.

  • dal, August 27, 2010

    admittedly its not something you can afford to let slip and theres something new every week to learn

  • Kristie, August 27, 2010

    Thanks. I’m just starting out, and it’s always helpful to hear that one of the best things I can do to make myself more valuable to clients is to brush up on my weak areas.

    Once I build up the courage I’ll see if I can get some criticism from other designers too. Great tip.

  • John Paul, August 27, 2010

    NIce site and I love the title as well ,it captures my attention .

  • Philwebservices, August 27, 2010

    Thank you so much for that very descriptive content .To be honest , I’m totally new to designing and I need lots of resources that can somehow improve my skills and I must say that this is a great site to start with .

  • Xaby Web Design, August 27, 2010

    Was working for a project and surfing around and I found this. Will “steal” this to benefit my own projects. Keep up the good work !

  • The Freelance Geek, August 27, 2010

    Getting involved in the Community is a good way of climbing out of the bubble we find ourselves in everyday.

  • Carlos, August 27, 2010

    This is a great article. I enjoy being able to get some new tips and anything to help me look at ways to continue to improve myself.

  • Jeremy Carlson, August 27, 2010

    Good post. How about throwing in something like Sass 3 or LESS.js? Magento seems to be the buzz word lately too, and that can be themed.

    Tackled WordPress, now going on to Drupal myself!

  • Matt Meeks, August 27, 2010

    I’d also throw in collaborating with one or more designers on a project or two. Maybe even get together with another designer and trade some concept work on a project for each of you, then work together to finish each project. You’d learn a lot from the other designer and vice versa.

  • Whiple Design, August 26, 2010

    Good stuff! I was hired to design a product catalog for an existing client. I offered to shoot the photography at a discounted rate for the experience. My client now uses me for both design and photography.

  • Allan, August 26, 2010

    A web designer should always be learning new technology. There is no end to your options. Learn HTML5 semantics. CSS3 techniques. SVG charting. 3D modeling or other software. A new Javascript library for interaction. Flash programming. Catch up on PHP, or study a new language like Haxe. Do what interests you.

  • Nate Balcom, August 26, 2010

    Good tips. Keeping up with the web is an ongoing process. Designing in divs is pretty challenging. Validating across the board continually challenges me.

  • TheodorosPloumis, August 26, 2010

    Also, trying to do some work with other webdesigners as a member of a team is a good way to train yourself.

  • web designer leicester, August 26, 2010

    Great Article! Seeking constructive criticism from fellow designers can be quite daunting, but it will result in becoming a more rounded designer. I also think that designing a template for someone like themeforest is great way to improve, as you are competing with some very talented designers, there are some great themes on there.

  • chapps, August 26, 2010

    When thinking about taking on Freelance work like suggestion 1 make sure you time manage well and not let it impact on your ‘main’ job. Also doesn’t hurt to check your employment agreement as some companies prefer you don’t work outside and can use it as grounds for firing.

    Chances are you don’t work for crazy nutters who will do such a thing but better to be safe than sorry ;)

  • Web Design Portfolio, August 26, 2010

    some great tips here. I myself am branching out to undertake more freelance projects on the side as well as trying new things with each project I do. great aticle.

  • Jasdev Singh Mon, August 26, 2010

    Liked it very much. Gives very good advice on “How can you become a very good designer.” That’s great

  • Rupnarayan Bhattacharya, August 26, 2010

    Really great advices. I have already started to follow a few points. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jamal, August 26, 2010

    Great ideas! I was actually thinking about doing a few of those when I get more spare time.

  • Nick Yeoman, August 25, 2010

    Expression Engine sucks, don’t bother trying it. However try Joomla it works better than wordpress (as a cms). Drupal is neat too, just not for me.

  • maher, August 25, 2010

    Wooow thanks for useful information

  • CodeMyConcept, August 25, 2010

    Investigation and trial and error are definitely necessary to succeed, that is how children learn and we as professionals are no different.

    The way we work and market ourselves has to be innovative and innovation comes with experimentation.