How To Explore Design Projects Out Of Your Comfort Zone

Everyone knows that the best way to improve your skills as a designer is to venture outside your comfort zone and try things that will challenge you. But the problem is, no one ever tells you how to actually do that, and for most of us that usually is a strong enough excuse to go ahead, and not do it.

Today, we’re going to fix that problem and explore some specific techniques you can use to expand your design skill set. Not to worry, they are relatively simple and if you are not careful, you may even have a lot of fun in the process.

Schedule and Plan Ahead

It’s nice to say you’re going to start on a fun side project “one day,” but unless you take the time to plan out exactly what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it, it doesn’t count.

A big problem many designers have (myself included, of course) is that they don’t give the same serious consideration to their personal projects as they do to their client work. This is one of the biggest mistakes you can possibly make as a designer. Why?

The sooner you adopt the mindset that exploring new creative avenues is the most important thing you can do as a designer, the faster your career will take off.

Personal Work Always Matters More

Client work has two functions:

  1. To provide someone else with a solution to their problem (for a fee)
  2. To show new potential clients that you’re competent enough to handle their design problems.

It’s a closed cycle, and while it does allow us to pay our bills, client work alone is not going to take us to the heights within the industry that we dream about. It will be much easier to make time for side projects and exploration if you remind yourself that that is literally your ticket to catching the attention of those elusive, high-end clients you’d really like to work for.

One Skill At A Time

It can be overwhelming at times to attempt to fill every single need that your clients have. Whether it’s a code, new logo or brand re-design, UX, or even photography or copywriting, clients seem to be looking more and more for a jack-of-all-trades when they hire a freelancer.

If you really want to have multiple specialties, there is a way to develop them without driving yourself nuts in the process. Simply take one single skill you want to learn – say CMS for web design clients – and develop a project that deals specifically with that skill.

Don’t add in anything else to your agenda – no typography or logos or content strategy. You want to focus and get really good at that one thing before moving on to something new. If you try to take on multiple skills at once, you’ll just end up confusing yourself even more, and nothing will get done.

Despite popular opinion, humans are actually terrible at multitasking. Do your brain a favor and go with baby steps.

Start With A Sketch

I’ve written about how so many designers are deathly afraid of sketching. But sketching out your ideas on paper (not in Photoshop or Illustrator) can help open up your imagination in ways you might not even expect.

There’s something very visceral about holding a pencil and sketchpad in your hands that can inspire you even before you make any marks.

If you leap into Photoshop with every new side project (which, I admit, I do a lot), give sketching a try. I find that, when I put the tablet down and pick up a real pencil, the ideas flow much more easily and quickly. Complex design problems I could have been chewing over for days suddenly disappear.

Don’t Forget About The Process

You probably have a set method for developing designs for clients, but it might not occur to you to have one for your personal work as well. The more efficiently you can approach new work, the faster your brain adapts and begins to excel at it.

For example, say you want to get better at photography. This is a completely new skill with its own set of rules and guidelines that’s completely different than, say, web design or coding. Ask your photographer friends how they start their day and see if you can incorporate any of their methods when you pick up your camera.

Don’t Get Stuck

Lastly, if you find that you’re just not seeing any improvement in your new skill area no matter how much you practice, it may be time to take some drastic measures. For a skill you absolutely must learn to increase your appeal to clients, taking a class or getting a tutor is almost always worth the investment.

Alternatively, you can make friends with a talented person in that industry and ask them to critique your work. It may be that you’re just slightly off in your process, and, once you correct your course, you’ll begin to see major results.

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