How to practice designing on my own


I am designer with 8+ years of experience in Designing websites. I am currently facing a down phase in my design skills. It seems like my design skills are going nowhere. It seems like I have to make my transition from a amateur designer to more of a Pro. So can anyone please suggest to me how I can practice to become more of a Pro Designer on my own.:)

2/17/2014 7:21:00 PM

Accepted Answer

This is a bit of a how long is a piece of string, but @GraphicsRPS has some good points. Personally, I am a fan of the Newtonian method: get away from the computer, go sit under a fruit tree.

I think what is helpful, is not trying to bang your head against this, it will probably only create more frustration. What I believe in is looking, doodling, collect bits and pieces (taking pictures of stuff you see around you, physical thingamabobs, neon signs, billboards, table legs, the angle of the light from the window). Search for strange things on the internet, search terms that does not contain "design". Collect screenshots, but do not get bogged down in them. Build something silly in Lego. Play. Did I say doodle?

You need to try to see a little differently, you do not have to develop the doodles into concepts, you do not have to look very hard at the photos, screenshots, bits and pieces. Read a little design history in a leisurely way.

These things, I believe, help develop a conceptual way of thinking.

It is easy to get stuck in the design parameters of your job (buttons, headings, footers, posts, ads, sliders, forms, 2D ...)

I will probably bore you all to death by recommending this book, but I think there are hardly any one source for better for eclectic inspiration:

The art of looking sideways, Alan Fletcher.

Doodle five post-it doodles every day.

Edit: This post might give you some pointers, as how to get re-inspired.

Edit: the OP asked for clarification. Apologise for long rant

How can I expand on how to develop conceptual thinking?

I do not mean conceptual in the sense of "developing this project for a client". That would eventually be a by-product. I mean conceptual thinking in a more global, wider sense; as a way to look at things differently. By doing that, you can get out from under the shade of what you see as your (visual and technical) limitations.

Conceptual thinking is a process that contains parts of these elements:

  • Creativity
  • Intuition
  • Abstraction
  • Seeing patterns
  • Association
  • Experience (both professional and personal)
  • Integration and relating seemingly unrelated ideas
  • (There might be a little bit of analytical thinking in here, but not always)

It has been defined as:

Potential solutions or viable alternatives that may not be obviously related or easily identified.

There is a game you can play that takes into some of the creativity that goes into it: get someone to name two unrelated object, terms, ideas, and in as few steps possible find a connection between them. This uses an associative, creative, conceptual way of thinking. You need to get to the core, see patterns, find new connections and use all sorts of knowledge and experiences you might have. The connections could be rhyming words, similar concepts, objects, people, philosophical thoughts. Anything, really, that could create a thread from one thing to another. It would be highly subjective, but that does not matter.

Two examples, from palm tree to bookshop:

palm tree - > coral - > corral (a fenced off area for livestock) - > prison (being "locked in") - > Oscar Wilde (was in prison) - > literature (he wrote books) - > bookshop

Palm tree -> fibre - > paper - > bookshop

(one is clearly more imaginative than the other :)

Another game is to take your experiences and make a map or a network and draw connections. Say you did a course at uni that was incredibly boring. Now connect that to your uncle Bob, your herb gardening or your last rock climbing trip. There will be a few detours, kinks, nodes and oddities on the way.

There is no reason why your hobbies (say mountain climbing and herb gardening) cannot be useful in development. In fact, it is almost a prerequisite for the process, that you use "everything you have got". The trick is to not limit yourself to a narrow framework "I am here to create a website, I must use the compartment in my head that says: webdesign: colour, boxes, forms, screen size, code.".


The thought that creative people have epiphanies while sitting on the bus is often true, but they never come from nowhere. It is a thing the subconscious have been messing around with without you even knowing, and eureka! suddenly two unrelated things connect. From this you expand your world view so to speak; sometimes this is useful in a job, sometimes it gives a pleasant insight. Somewhere down the line it might become useful in a very practical way.

Often when working on a project there comes a point where I feel there is something wrong (do not get me wrong, I am not a touchy-feely hippy that are controlled by emotions.). But there is a gnawing feeling that something is not right, we are missing something. Often I cannot put my finger on it; I will tell my colleagues about this vague sense. Sometimes their conscious / subconscious comes up with a solution.

John Cleese said:

The really good idea is always traceable back quite a long way, often to a not very good idea which sparked off another idea that was only slightly better, which somebody else misunderstood in such a way that they then said something which was really rather interesting.

..and I think I wrote this:

Creativity is a numbers game. Creative people have loads of ideas, many of them bad. The trick is to filter; mercilessly purging out the bad ones, but never stop having them. Creative people fail more, because they try more. It is hard work, not divine insight. What hinders creativity and conceptual thinking is often a fear of failure.

Researchers refer to the three 3xB. Bathtub, bed, bus. It seems a lightbulb moment comes out of thin air. It does not. But change of context and environment trigger other things that leads you back to the problem, via crazy complex brainy byways impossible to track.

How to keep your general, global, seemingly useless, sometimes weird, concepts? You could write it down, but the conceptuals are often vague. Therefore; doodle. Doodle, add words, draw lines, connect. Put things in your sketchbook with stickytape. It needs to be fast, so pen an paper tend to work best. Collect bits and pieces, from pine cones to examples of complex interactive systems to architectual plans. Sit under a tree, who is to say that seeing a snail or a sunflower you do not start thinking about the golden mean? Fibonacci? Spirals? Galaxies? Leonardo da Vinci? Mathematics? Horses? Atoms? Stephen Hawking? Robots? Interfaces? Buttons..... (on and on it goes).

How is this useful in design?

You will get better at finding new solutions. You will see and approach challenges differently. That will give you a fundament in your creations that are unique. You will break out of thinking purely in boxes on a screen. You will play more, and play is essential for creating new. Let not the fear of failure bother you. Do not mentally check what the client might think. Make stick animals.

Here is the thing: with conceptual thinking start then with the idea and then go on to create. Often it is easy to get stuck visually, and you start with your limitations. Turn it upside down. The practical techniques for achieving something is secondary to the idea. You can always learn particular methods in Photoshop when you need them. Programmes are tools, not a mean in themselves. They are good at certain things, and quite bad at others.

As for developing and refining visual languages, I believe that is extremely connected to conceptual thinking. Pushing coloured boxes around in Illustrator is not likely to get you very far. If you are making a site for a toothbrush company, buy a bunch of different toothbrushes. Play. Associate. "Invent" a toothbrush for a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Whatever.

I draw a good deal on paper. People often say things like "oooh, you are a born artist! I wish I could do that too!" Fact is: the problem is not that they do not know how to hold a pencil (i.e it is not the technology that limits them), what they lack is the ability to see, the willingness to learn to see, and a willingness to fail. And the hard work of doing it over and over.

You will never be "finished" learning and playing with conceptuals. That is the magic.

Did I make up all this by myself? No. It comes from my research into complex visualisation and creativity. Most of those we see as magically inspired designers and artists will tell you something similar.

4/13/2017 12:46:00 PM

Quite simply - Side Projects.

By creating your own side projects you are removed from the usual client restraints. You can think of and implement more imaginative solutions. If you are doing all the work yourself you will be responsible for all areas of the project. This includes areas you may not have focused on too much before. This should help you get out of the design rut you seem to be in.

I would also consider doing side projects that are not directly involved in your usual day job. So instead of designing websites, try designing a board game, a magazine cover or a pack of playing cards.

You will learn lots of new skills and tricks which you can then apply to your web design work.