Challenging Yourself as a Designer

Web design is a profession that requires constant growth and development of abilities in order to remain competitive. Technology is obviously changing constantly, and design trends certainly do not stand still either. A designer who is not committed to improvement will eventually become a designer that is searching for work.

A few weeks ago I published a post that examined a number of different skills that web designers can work to improve, including coding, graphic design, project management, SEO, marketing, communication, and more. If you haven’t seen that post there are links to some great resources that you may want to check out. Taking that idea of constant improvement a step further, putting yourself in challenging situations is a great way to promote growth. Sure, challenges are sometimes uncomfortable, but if you are actively seeking out the right types of challenges you can drastically improve your marketable skills as a designer.

Areas for Potential Challenges

A Different Style of Design

Many designers use a particular style for a lot of their projects. If you find yourself designing almost exclusively in one style, why not try to challenge yourself by creating a site with a completely different style? Do you design primarily minimalistic websites? Try your hand at creating something a bit more involved. Do you often find yourself creating sites with a typical two or three column layout? Challenge yourself to design a site with a unique and creative layout. Being able to design effectively in a wide variety of different styles can be difficult, but it can give you an edge over other designers.

Designing for a Different Industry

Typically, websites within a particular industry will be somewhat similar to other sites in that same industry. Because of this, designing a website for an industry that you have not been involved with before can be a good way to stretch yourself. Some designers and design firms specialize in a particular industry, which can be a good strategy, but if you are looking for a challenge to improve your skills, look for some diversity in this area.

Building an E-Commerce Site

E-Commerce websites can help you to develop several different skills. In order to be effective the site will need a shopping cart system that is easy to use, a search function, proper design and layout that features the products appropriately and encourages sales, and more. If you haven’t yet developed an E-Commerce site, it could be a good experience.

Designing Your Own Icons

Many websites use icons for visual attractiveness as well as to communicate with visitors and improve usability. Some designers create their own icons, but others use icons that are freely available or those that have been purchased for use. Have you ever tried creating your own icons for a specific project? Unique, attractive, and intuitive icons can really have a significant impact on the quality of a design.

Learning a New Coding Language

Which coding languages do you currently work with? If you stick to HTML and CSS, why not learn JavaScript, PHP, MySQL, etc? Expanding your knowledge and your experience can greatly increase the amount of opportunities that you have and the different options that you have for your projects. In addition, the added skills will make you more valuable than you are currently.

Re-Designing a Site with Only Changes to the CSS

CSS Zen Garden shows how much can be accomplished simply by changing a stylesheet without touching the structure and contents of a page. When re-designing a site, have you ever tried to limit your changes to CSS, or do you always rebuild the site? Of course, in order to pull this off you will need to be working with a website that is coded very well in order to have a good starting point.

Building a Full Website on WordPress

WordPress is the most popular choice for bloggers, but it also has the capability to run an entire website. A growing number of designers are using WordPress’s CMS features to create a full website rather than just a blog. Once you have an understanding of how the WordPress system works, designing for WP is not much different or more difficult than designing a standard website.

Fluid Width or Fixed Width

Do you almost always build sites with a fixed width? Why not develop your skills by working with a fluid width on your next project, or vice versa? Of course, the decision of fluid width vs. fixed width is something that should be considered on each project and you should make that decision based on what is best for each specific situation, not what is best for the development of your skills. With that being said, keep an open mind to the layout options and be ready and willing to try something new when it is appropriate.

Increased Use of Photoshop and Graphical Elements

Some designers are very skilled with Photoshop and the graphics design aspect of web design. On the other hand, some are lacking skills in this area. The graphic design of a site can make a huge impact on the overall quality of the site, so this is definitely a skill worth developing. If you are looking to learn more about Photoshop there are a number of websites and blogs dedicated to tutorials, PSDTuts is my personal favorite (also see our collection of Photoshop tutorials for better navigation ).

Coding from a PSD File

Many designers prefer to start their designs with a PSD file and then develop the code from there. Larger design firms will often have people dedicated to designing the PSD files and others dedicated to coding the site from the file. There are also a growing number of services available from companies that will take your PSD file and create the code for you. If you haven’t worked with this method before, it can be another challenge that will improve your abilities as a designer. Try taking a PSD file that has already been created and code the site based on the file.

Creating a PSD Mockup

Looking at the same issue from the other end of the spectrum, if you typically create your sites from scratch by coding the pages from the start, try creating a design with Photoshop before doing any coding. If you can develop this skill effectively you may be able to save a considerable amount of time by not coding for a design that really isn’t going to work.

Working with a Team of Designers

While some designers typically work on their own, others spend a good portion of their time working on projects with other designers and developers. If you normally work by yourself, this is another potential area for growth. Being able to work with others is necessary for larger projects and it will open up the possibilities and opportunities for you in the future. Regardless of whether you are working with other freelance designers or if you are working with other designers who are your co-workers, it will be a different process than if you were working on your own.


Many designers and design firms outsource a portion of their work. Do you have experience with outsourcing? While outsourcing work can bring new challenges and potential pitfalls, if done well it can increase your productivity and profitability. If you have more work than you can handle on your own, outsourcing may be a good solution.

Horizontal Layout

Typically pages scroll vertically and not horizontally. There are a small number of websites that are designed just the opposite (see The Horizontal Way to see a gallery of some examples). While I’m not personally a fan of horizontal design, some clients may want this type of layout. Being able to effectively design a horizontal layout can make you more versatile as a designer.

Design a One Page Site

One page websites can be a great choice in the appropriate situation. Most projects demand more information than can be presented on a single page, but you are likely to run into a client at some point that wants an attractive one page site. This is just one more style of design that you can challenge yourself with.

Design a Logo

Some graphic designers also do logo design, but good logo design requires skills that many web designers do not have (including me). Being able to design a high quality logo can improve the overall product that you offer and it can help clients by keeping more services in one place rather than going to multiple different designers.

What’s Your Experience?

In what ways do you make an effort to challenge yourself? How does it affect your skills and your abilities?

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16 Responses

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  • Your points are great, Steven. You would think that even keeping up with xhtml/css would be a no-brainer, but I keep running into people who have had their sites designed by someone who is still living in 1994. I’m the “blog guy” and I get thrown in between the site owner and the original “designer.” The site owner thinks everything is fine. I want to ask the web guy if he knows what century we’re living in. :)

  • Joe Watkins, March 9, 2008

    Very good call. That is what I love about web design. I own a small design firm in Portland Or. I love how it is a never ending journey of getting better. Almost like runner’s high… it’s coder’s high :)

    Thanks for a killer article. I would like to add that for myself as a designer, I have picked up PHP to become a little more versed. As finding a killer designer with developing skills is a hard find. :).. and the other way too.. finding a killer developer with great design skills is a tough one.

    Take care.


  • Evan Meagher, March 10, 2008

    Great tips. Only by trying new things will you learn and grow.

    The e-commerce tip is especially tempting. I’ve never done one, so I’ll look into at least collaborating on one in the future.

  • Wayne Liew, March 10, 2008

    Definitely listed out some of the few challenges that I think designers out there will face. Just like a blogger, we need to improve ourselves with various writing, marketing and networking skills.

    For me, becoming a designer is a challenge itself. I tried to improve myself on this aspect but I am only capable of modifying a complete blog theme. :-P

  • Tom Beaton, March 10, 2008

    I am no designer, but I do build websites, and there is always a challenge. Everytime you do something you learn new techniques and better ways of achieving results. I have old sites I wish I had built with the knowledge I have now.

  • Vinh Le, March 10, 2008

    I recently challenged myself with a one page website just to see if I could pull it off and because I never did anything like it before. I think I did pretty well, its at, what do you think?

    And I agree, it is important to challenge yourself with different tasks that you have never done before in order to grow. My next project is a full flash website. Good Article.

    Oh yeah, on a side note I found this article copied exactly word for word here

  • Canadian fine arts, March 10, 2008

    It is good to know these aspects for a designer. And I like the link to other articles esp skills to improve seo with web design.

  • Vandelay Design, March 10, 2008

    Thanks for sharing from your experience. I’m sure you do find yourself in those types of situations quite often.

    Good luck Evan.

    Yeah, I think that’s one of the harder things about continually learning is that you keep wanting to re-do your work because you can always do better.

    Vinh Le,
    I like your site. I’ve actually seen it before. You have a nice portfolio. Thanks for the heads up on that post. He constantly steals content from me and from others as well, and then he deletes comments like he did to yours.

  • job, March 13, 2008

    Designing is such a hardwork. To be creative, lots of imagination, and do not forget well known in designing software is a must. I have spend a lot of money to learn various software.

  • Web Designings, March 20, 2008

    iam a designer recently completed my course and i would like to try a website creating thank you for suggesting with such a good stuff..

  • skip, March 20, 2008

    as a designer you have to learn new things everyday to make such a good work.need to sacrifice your time and money for sure.all the best

  • web designings, March 24, 2008

    iam doing now web designing after your content i would really challenge my self to be best web designer

  • Outsourcing if done right like you said can really increase productivity and I’ll vouch for that… Since I’ve started outsourcing some of my design, seo and article marketing I’ve really seen some great results!