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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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