You can add conceptual designs to your portfolio. You can blog about your experiences, and advertise your skills in doing so. You can take on a design challenge with other designer friends, and perhaps compete. You can gain a greater understanding of the technology you use.
The point is to do something differently from the way you usually do things. Change for its own sake isn’t always advisable, but trying new things is how we grow as designers, and as people. Just maybe don’t do any of these challenges on a client’s site unless you’re absolutely sure they’ll like it.
1. Try to Build Something New
This is actually my personal go-to challenge. I try to build something—usually something to do with layout—that I haven’t built before. It could be an effective and accessible horizontally-scrolling interface, a three-column site I actually like, or a full-screen responsive background image with absolute positioning.
This is a challenge where you get to try out newer CSS modules, or techniques you might not have thought of before, without worrying too much about cross-browser compatibility or other issues like that.
2. Change Your Colors
I know that I personally am always tempted to stick with what I know works, as far as colors go. I love my muted shades of colors, my grays, my de-saturated greens and blues, and so on. Unless you’re required to follow a specific style or branding guide, it can be easy to fall back on what you know works.
Well, get right on out of your comfort zone! Build a site with a color scheme you wouldn’t normally go for. For me, that would be using more bright, and bold colors. I’d have to turn up the saturation in general. For you, you might consider a dark layout, if you usually do light ones. Use calmer colors, if you’re prone to going bright and bold. Many of us, myself included, aren’t using enough contrast in our designs. Try adding more. Heck, try a design that’s totally just black and white, and make it work.
3. Copy a Complicated Layout
Okay, don’t copy someone else’s site exactly. Just find a site with a nice, complex layout or design, and copy it without looking at the source. Build the thing up from scratch by examining the major layout elements, and figuring out how to do it yourself. Don’t use this for a live site, but as a simple HTML/CSS/JS exercise.
You could choose to copy one of those fancy, experimental-looking sites to see if you can manage the same feat. Or you could copy the layout from a large retail site, to see figure out how you would manage that amount of HTML and CSS in a practical way. Copy a news site to see how they handle the scaling of large amounts of text and images in a responsive way.
Remember, the point is not to create a pixel-perfect copy, but to learn the principles behind the design decisions.
4. Design and/or Code a Site Using New Tools
If you’re used to Foundation, try Bootstrap, or a lesser-known framework. Try a different pre-processor. Try a different CMS. Try a different file manager or text editor. If you’re a programmer and/or like pain, drop your favorite JS framework, and try another.
Obviously, if you want to go in-depth this would be one of the longer challenges, but it doesn’t have to take too long to learn the operating principles of new tools. The key is not to necessarily change everything about your workflow, but to expose yourself to new and potentially better ideas.
5. Try Out a New Methodology
Similar to the last entry, you can spend an afternoon or two trying a totally different way of working. If you’re primarily a graphics specialist, try looking at how others start and fill out their mockups. Look at how others organize their layers. See if you can learn something from them.
On the front-end development side, you might try out a new CSS methodology.
6. Refine an Old Design
When I look at my older design work, my most common emotions are frustration, and a small amount of disgust. In that state, I have often decided to go for a full redesign. If you’ve been doing this for some time, chances are that your old work is built on solid principles. It just needs to be updated and refined.
Take an old design, and update it without changing its core elements. Maybe keep the same layout, but update the spacing of elements. Keep the chosen typefaces, but update the text styles to better reflect your knowledge of typography. Keep the chosen colors, but make better use of them.
Just see what happens when you apply new knowledge to old design, instead of burning it all down and starting over.
7. Follow a Tutorial (the Hard Way)
Tutorials are often a wealth of information, even if you’ve been at this for some time. Don’t copy and paste the code. Find a good, long tutorial, and type every line of example code out yourself. Follow every step in Photoshop carefully. Observe how everything changes as each piece of the puzzle is added in.
If there’s a bit you don’t understand, Google it until you do. The challenge here is not one of creativity, but of understanding…and maybe endurance.