Every designer has their problem areas – whether you hate to create fonts or haven’t yet brushed up on your character animation, you certainly aren’t alone. But what’s a designer to do when they encounter these issues, and need to overcome them to complete a project and get paid?
They challenge themselves to conquer their top challenges. And that’s just what we’re hoping to do here.
For every obstacle or problem spot, there’s a design exercise you can use to practice. Even if you’re just starting out in the world of design – or have hundreds of completed visuals under your belt – there’s always room for improvement.
What gets under designers’ skin?
Whether you’re a design student building your skills, or a professional designer working with multiple clients at a time, chances are good that you’ve run into these issues at one point or another:
- Burnout. Every creative – from designers to videographers to copywriters – has dealt with this, and from experience, I can tell you that it’s the Worst. Feeling. Ever. Particularly when you’re burnt out on something that you’re passionate about, and get paid to do. Whether burnout stems from a lack of ideas or inspiration, or is a result of repetitive projects, it’s a signal that it’s time to shake things up a bit.
- Unspecific client demands. A client that can’t explain the vision they have, or at the very least, the purpose and results they’re hoping for, is one of the biggest challenges designers can face. A project without clear direction and expectations can quickly go off the rails. (But note, there’s a difference between “I don’t know what I want,” and “I trust your design experience and expertise.”)
- Too many cooks in the kitchen. This is basically the opposite of our last issue – clients that don’t provide enough guidance can be problematic, but clients that have a team of stakeholders, all with their own opinions, are a completely different monster. (And don’t even get us started when one of them says “Make it pop.” Heads will roll.)
- Lack of trust for your expertise. Professionals that have to defend their design choices to non-designers are not happy people. There’s a reason for everything, and when a client asks for something that’s simply not visually possible (i.e., due to sizing/formatting/trademark/etc.), it’s enough to make a designer want to scream.
And that’s just for starters. Things like time management, keeping to deadlines, maintaining creative control, or dealing with wild client requests can also come up frequently and create challenges for even the best designers.
But, there are some ways that you can overcome these issues.
Enter the design challenge.
And no, we’re not talking about the frustrating problems that can make a design project more difficult. We’re talking about practice exercises and activities that professional graphic designers can use to:
- Flex their muscles and get over creative blocks.
- Improve their skills in particular graphic design areas.
- Boost their experience.
- Add to their graphic design portfolio.
- Have examples to turn to for ideas and inspiration.
We’ve gathered some of the most creative, compelling and interesting graphic design challenges, spanning everything from logo design and web design to post-worthy social media and more. Whether you’re a student working toward a graphic design degree or a pro building a client’s visual brand identity, here are some challenges you can use to become a better graphic designer:
1. Create something wayyy outside your comfort zone
Remember when we talked about repetitive projects in connection with burnout? Yea, that’s something that happens to more designers than you might expect.
It’s not hard to feel stuck in a rut when all you’re doing day after day is logo design, or dragging and dropping elements into a web design template.
If you’re dealing with burnout or just want to try something that you haven’t had the opportunity to do yet, try a graphic design prompt that’s as far as possible outside of your comfort zone. One place you can turn to for such prompts is Sharpen, which boasted more than 15 million graphic design challenges as of this writing.
Take this one for example, which had me laughing out loud the minute the page loaded:
Color me super intrigued.
Sharpen even lets you set a timer so you can flex your time management skills – or so that you don’t get caught up in the exercise for longer than you have time to. And if you don’t love the first challenge, simply hit the button for a new one that really speaks to you, and will help you get your creative juices flowing.
2. Take inspo from social media
If you’re a designer looking to learn new skills, or you’re having a hard time keeping your finger on the pulse of the latest design trends, this challenge is for you.
Taking inspiration from social media is a great way to expose yourself to new design strategies and learn what other pros in the industry are doing. Or, if you’re a student in a graphic design degree program, you may be looking for all the inspiration you can get, and social media is the perfect place to turn. This article from the Creative Bloq staff is a good starting point for building out your Insta feed with inspo from the pros.
2½. Visit the library!
Whereas social media can provide you with cues and inspiration for the latest graphic design trends, some clients may be looking for a more classic or retro style. In these instances, consider checking out what your local library has to offer in the way of print and other designs.
There are a few big upsides to this approach:
- You can score inspiration in spades. From logos to typography, chances are good there’s a book or resource to speak to any inspo need.
- There’s more than just print. Many local libraries have digital indexes so you can brush up on your website design, and a periodical guide so you can check out older magazines or newspapers.
- Browse graphics history. There’s more than just inspirational resources available – grab an art history book or an encyclopedia and expand your art education horizons.
- IT’S FREE. Yeeep! Fill your head full of knowledge and check out all the inspirational books your little arms can carry – all free of charge. Worth it!
3. Create typography based on your own handwriting
Some designers’ trouble spots lie in typography and font. This can be a difficult skill to improve on, particularly when there are so many opinions swirling around about the use of fonts (including my own!)
One of the best ways to beat this kind of challenge is by creating your own font. You can start by establishing a font based on your own (or someone else’s) handwriting, and go from there. Or, you can design a font that helps send a specific message, or to go with a particular logo – the choice is yours.
A tool like Calligraphr can help you create typography based on your handwriting. Or, for something a bit less template-y and more creative, try FontForge, an open source program that lets you play with font style, size, italic angle, and so much more.
4. Logo design: Revamp a classic
Like a throwback jersey, but better. This exercise is something seen everywhere from student graphic design projects to brand identity refreshes on a public scale.
The basic idea here is to take an existing logo design and turn it on its head, with your own creative inclinations and ideas leading the way. Check out some examples from designer Sara Marshall, who actually won a student graphic design award through her work.
The Sara Marshall remix:
This kind of logo challenge can help you break out of a creative slump, or look at a troublesome project from a new perspective. You can also use this kind of challenge as an opportunity to trial-run some new design trends or approaches that you haven’t been able to fit in elsewhere. Don’t be afraid to get creative and let yourself run wild.
5. Put the company’s materials to work for its brand identity
Crafting a brand identity through visual elements can put a lot of pressure on designers. You have to visually capture what the brand is all about, and work to send this message (or at least hint toward it) in the design. That’s a lot to fit into a single project.
One way to overcome struggles with brand identity design is to incorporate products used by the brand itself. You can take the approach of leveraging brand materials directly in your design, or as inspiration – whatever works best for you. Overall, though, using the company’s own products and supplies in your design is a great way to ensure that the visuals you create truly reflect the company’s identity.
A fantastic example comes to us from designer Wake Coulter, who took the idea of leveraging a brand’s own materials in his designs to new heights. For rooftop urban farm company ØsterGRO, Coulter created prints using produce straight from the company’s own fields. The results were rustic, beautiful and the perfect way to present the brand’s identity:
Creative, visually appealing and sustainable – what more could a brand ask for from its designer?
6. Branch out – practice copywriting and photography skills
Here’s another challenge to help get you out of your comfort zone, and also to practice skills that are important to your design craft, but may not immediately appear related.
Instead of solely focusing on design, flex your abilities with copywriting or photography.
Even if you work for an agency where there is a separate team of professionals in charge of copywriting (*cough cough* like Brafton!), trying your hand at content creation can be good for you – and good for your design skills. After all, successful design hinges on your ability to send a message, and approaching this from a written perspective is a great way to practice this skill. You can even use your own visual designs as a starting point, and write something based on your process.
**Pro tip: Or, take it to the next level and consider starting a blog to offer design advice to novice or student graphic designers.
Similarly, practicing photography can help you be more observant, and to look at visual elements from a new perspective. Try challenging yourself to take a walk and snap at least 10 photos along the way – you might be surprised with what catches your eye, and what you come up with.
7. Update your portfolio
This is a fantastic challenge because there are so many different ways you can approach it:
- Check out your existing portfolio, and identify any gaps. What’s missing? What styles or graphic design approaches do you not provide examples of? What skills are you not demonstrating? Update accordingly.
- Mine examples from recent client projects. Did you just finish work on something that you’re particularly proud of? Include it in your portfolio! But, make sure to check for things like permissions, nondisclosure agreements and other stipulations.
- Use our previous challenges (or daily design challenges from other sources, like Daily UI) to expand your portfolio.
However you decide to challenge yourself and your graphic design skills, we hope you come out on the other side feeling creatively refreshed and accomplished.