Designing Outside Your Comfort Zone

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December 22, 2008
When you've been designing for a few years, it's easy to fall into patterns. You carve out your personal style and find your inner voice. You figure out what you're good at, and the world encourages you to play to those strengths. Bosses, clients and peers want to see you do what you've always done because they know they like it. There are no unpleasant surprises. Sticking to your strengths is an easy formula for success, but only in the short-term. If you don't adapt and grow as a designer, you'll end up like that poor guy wearing the Members Only jacket without a hint of irony. Sure, it was uber-cool once. But styles change, and so should you. In your personal comfort zone you feel confident. You know you can perform well there. But if you find your design work to be comfortable and easy, it means you're not growing. Remember the pre-project jitters you used to get as a young designer? The overwhelming excitement of all the possibilities and challenges in front of you? If you haven't felt that way in a while, you're asleep at the wheel. It's time to push yourself outside the zone!

Expand Your Design Arsenal

The great Milton Glaser said "To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can control or master.” Which means it always make sense to acquire a few more communication techniques in your personal design arsenal. Here's how you can push yourself outside your comfort zone:

1. Identify the boundaries of your personal comfort zone

So much of what we do during our design process is unconscious. If you don't stop to examine yourself every now and then its easy to fall into a rut. You might use the same typeface in nearly every comp without even thinking about it, for instance. Or you might automatically put a gradient on your buttons, or always use white backgrounds, or put beautifully detailed illustrations on every homepage you design. Whatever your habits are, it is important to make yourself aware them. Look at your portfolio and try to see the big picture. Make a list of all the things that make up "your style". While you're doing this, take an honest look at your strengths and weaknesses. We all have areas we need to improve in. Admitting you're lousy at something is the first step toward getting better at it. If you feel like you can't make an honest assessment of your own work, ask a designer friend to be brutally honest or go to an online design forum and request a critique. While the truth can be hard to hear, it will definitely motivate you.

2. Set Specific, Attainable Goals

Those things you're already good at? They represent past successes. They worked for you once, so you know they'll work again. But why let your skills stagnate? Other things can work too... perhaps even better. Think about the designs that inspire you daily. Are there certain styles you admire but feel you can't recreate? If so, make a pact with yourself: Pick a design technique (or two or three) that you would like to explore. The key to becoming a more well-rounded and flexible designer is a willingness to new things. You need to embrace risk every now and then to push your own creative boundaries.

That said, its important to pick your moment. Everyone knows its hard to risk failure when you are getting paid to be good. There is a time and a place for exploring new design directions. If a client has hired you specifically because you're great at typography, they don't want to see you test out an illustrative concept. But opportunities to stretch your creativity come by all the time. You just have to make them work for you. Don't aim to become a radically different designer than you are now. Build on what you're good at - don't throw it away and start over. Aim to be yourself only braver and more well-rounded. Work on being the designer you always wanted to be put felt you couldn't possibly pull off. Make a list of specific, attainable goals you would like to achieve in the next three months. Mine might say 1) Create a typography-heavy site design 2) Create a conceptual illustration for use on a homepage 3) Work with a dark background color Post your list where you will see it every day. The next time a new project comes in, look at your list and see if this project can help you to meet one of your goals.

3. Get Passionate About Change

Now that you know what areas you want to improve, it's time to inspire yourself. If you really want to change and grow you have to get passionate and excited about your new goals. Feed your brain with inspiration from as many places as possible. Soak up ideas. Whatever you do, don't stick to the web galleries or the same old blogs you've been reading for years. Find new sources and explore new avenues.

 Look more closely at your peers at work, or rock stars within the design community. Examine at their growth as designers and take cues from them. A quick flip through a few portfolios can be incredibly enlightening. The designers you think are top-notch probably weren't always so amazing. If you dig back a few years, you will be able to see their progression. They had to stretch too. Pick a few role models to remind yourself what all the hard work is about. When you're trying to move outside your comfort zone as a designer, it's important to do it in other areas of your life as well. Try listening to music you wouldn't normally listen to. Take your laptop somewhere unfamiliar. Walk to work a different way each morning. Get out of your routine and wake your mind up so it starts to look forward to something new and different.

4. Dive In and Do Something Differently

All that time you spent assessing and inspiring yourself won't go to waste. A project is going to come along that fits perfectly with one of your goals. And when it does, you'll be more than ready to try out some new techniques. To really maximize your learning, start big instead of just dabbling. Don't be afraid to dive headfirst into the style you're trying to learn. Chances are your first attempts won't be completely successful, but you can always reign it back in later on. Now is the time to forget about failure and give yourself a free pass. Even if you throw away everything you do at the beginning, working through the process will teach you things and help you feel more comfortable with your newly adopted techniques.

 The final design will probably only reflect a slight shift in your personal style, and that's ok. In fact, that's GOOD. You want to evolve your old style, not destroy it. Starting big lets you play and learn, which lets you grow. Then you can take those too-big concepts and boil them down to something worthwhile.

 The end result? You'll learn a new way to communicate through design. And you'll find out that even if you're not as talented as you'd like to be, you aren't as horrible as you imagined either. "More often than not, I've found, a rut is the consequence of sticking to tried and tested methods that don't take into account how you or the world has changed." Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

WDD Staff

WDD staff are proud to be able to bring you this daily blog about web design and development. If there's something you think we should be talking about let us know @DesignerDepot.

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