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5 Exercises to Level Up Your Design Skills

Actionable tasks that help you take your design further

My design journey started four years ago when I quit my job at a children’s sleep clinic to become a designer. I would read books about UX on my commutes to and from work. Every evening, I would spend 6 to 7 hours taking web development courses and learning what it meant to design. Everything was new and exciting.

After working for a few years, I encountered many phases of rapid growth and phases where I felt like I wasn’t progressing as much as I wanted to. Upon reflecting, I realized that I could create the momentum I needed to grow by…

  1. Identifying my personal growth metrics — knowing where I wanted to be.
  2. Finding challenging problems that work towards those skills.
  3. Get results by taking action.
  4. Reflect & iterate.

These steps helped me become good at noticing why I was stuck so that I could make adjustments to correct my path. It helped me consciously work on skills that aligned with who I wanted to become.

. . .

Identifying Your Personal Growth Metric

Every quarter, I ask myself -“How do I get from point A (where I’m at now) to point B (me at my best 5 years down the road)?”. From there, I’d have a clearer understanding of which skills I needed to work on to get there.

5 Exercises to Level Up Your Design Skills

Some examples of personal growth metrics might be…

. . .

Being in Motion vs. Taking Action

Career growth at any stage comes from practising the skills that you want to improve in. These are the skills that would get you from point A to point B. Oftentimes, we can get stuck thinking that we’re making progress when we’re really not. I’ve gone through many phases where I felt like I was going in circles with no clear direction.

In Atomic Habits, the concept of “being in motion” vs. “taking action” really illustrates this point. This has helped me break out of plateaus by focusing on making progress in areas that matter.

5 Exercises to Level Up Your Design SkillsCredit: James Clear

Being in motion is the act of planning, strategizing and thinking through how you can approach a problem. For example, writing article topics instead of writing an article with the intention to publish it or having a list of design problems without finding solutions for them. Doing these tasks make us feel like we’re making progress but we may actually be doing them in the first place to avoid the risk of failure.

Taking action is a behaviour that produces an outcome or result. In terms of design, this would mean seeking opportunities to identify problems and find solutions for them. Putting pen to paper and working through a problem. As a designer, our superpower is to empathize with people, listen and find solutions that address an underlying pain point. A design with impact on people requires action.

“Motion makes you feel like you’re getting things done. But really, you’re just preparing to get something done. You don’t want to merely be planning. You want to be practising.” — James Clear

If your goal is to grow your design skills, spend time taking action or finding solutions that will help you work towards the skills you want to develop.

. . .

5 Exercises to Level Up Your Design Skills

Example Tasks: My Travel Inspiration, Scoreboard console redesign, Brand Box.

1) Build a Personal Project

Early on in my career, I found myself learning new concepts in isolation — hoping that each of the parts would eventually come together. After working on a few projects, I realized that I could create projects on my own based on the skills I wanted to learn.

Task: Think about your personal growth metric or 2–3 specific skill areas that you want to improve on. Work on a project that requires you to put each of these skills into practice. You should have a finished project to show for your work.

Project Scope: A small project can be completed in one weekend where large projects may take a few weeks. Be sure to set your deadline.

For example: I built a responsive website from scratch using HTML, CSS, JavaScript and PHP in two weeks. I also touched on other skills I wanted to learn (Illustrator and CSS animations) to create a one-page travel inspiration site.

5 Exercises to Level Up Your Design Skills

My travel inspiration – conceptual sketch

5 Exercises to Level Up Your Design Skills

My travel inspiration – finished design

2) Redesign a Physical Interface

Designing in a completely new context allows you to think about different dependencies and consider “all the steps in-between”.
Task 1 (Design): Choose a physical interface. Maximize the four types of design affordances to make the object more people-friendly. Create a solution that best fits the context and restraints of a physical interface.

Task 2 (Verbal): Walk someone through how you would redesign a common physical interface like a stove or laptop (originally from Facebook’s Method for Hiring Designers). You should be able to articulate your design rational and how this design would then be implemented in the real world.

Basketball Scoreboard Console
For this task, I chose to redesign a scoreboard console that I remember using (or avoiding to use) when I was a scorekeeper in university. This exercise allowed me to be fully immersed into the process of design. I reached out to friends that were referees to learn what their pain points were. I’ve written about my full process here.

Basketball scoreboard console redesign

Feedback: Consider the tradeoff between creating a more robust design and one that meets the needs of a scorekeeper and the specific job they need to get done.

3) Create-Your-Own Design Challenge

Design challenges or whiteboard exercises are fun projects that every designer should practice doing regularly — even when you’re not looking for a job. Here are a few resources to help you get started: this list of 100 UX problems, whiteboard challenges by 100 days of product design… etc.

These challenges help bring to perspective that problems exist everywhere in our lives. You want to practice being the designer who sees a problem then goes to fix it.

Task: Create an actionable problem statement or point of view (POV) by looking for opportunities in your own life. Combine the following elements; specific users, their needs and an insight to frame your design challenge. Work on your own design challenge or swap challenges with a friend.

I like to use this template from the Interaction Design Foundation as a guide:

[SPECIFIC USER] needs to [TASK] because [INSIGHT].

5 Exercises to Level Up Your Design SkillsCredit: Interaction Design Foundation

Example: A new shop owner from a small town needs a tool where she can create and customize her own logo because it is the quickest and affordable way to share her brand with others.

5 Exercises to Level Up Your Design Skills Elaine TranBrand Box Project

As with any project, it’s very important to frame your design challenge. You don’t want to go too narrow (little room for exploration) or too broad (scope creep) with the problem space. Find the best solution within a given time frame by maximizing user impact and value.

4) Improve an Existing Application

Product critiques help you train your product intuition. As Julie Zhuo explains it — product intuition in its simplest form — begins with curiosity in exploring why some products and experiences work for people and why others don’t. Now, take that one step further by sketching out what improvements you can offer within the context of the application.

Task: Perform a product critique on an app of your choice (preferably one that you really love using or dislike). Conduct an audit OR sketch how you would improve the site or application. *This is not a redesign.

5 Exercises to Level Up Your Design SkillsCredit: freestocks.org on Unsplash.

5) Tell Your Own Stories

In design, it’s important to be able to articulate a specific problem space, why it’s important and guide others through a story.

Task: Think of a design topic that you think would resonate with others. Write an article and publish it.

Writing about design has challenged me to bring together ideas that are unique to my experiences, think from another person’s perspective, learn and share ideas in a meaningful way. I’m more than thankful for all the opportunities it has given me.

5 Exercises to Level Up Your Design SkillsUX Lightning Talk for DesignX, 2018.

. . .

Conclusion

Growth is often visualized as a linear path. However, self-reflection is very much a part of how we grow in our careers. Reflecting helps us stop to re-evaluate where we want to go as we make progress in order to set ourselves back in motion.

Practising these exercises will help you be selective in which skills you want to develop, challenge yourself in new ways and produce results that you’re proud of.

. . .

Thanks for reading! If you are interested in chatting, drop me a message at elainetran.tran@gmail.com or connect with me on LinkedIn.

Product Designer at Venngage. I tell stories about personal growth and design on Medium. If you'd like to reach out, I'd be happy to connect on LinkedIn!

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