15 Ways to Expand Your Horizons as a Designer

Do you want to spend this year doing the same things you did last year – stuck in the same schedule, the same income bracket, facing the same problems? Of course not!

Everybody needs to take some time now and then to refresh, look at how they’ve been doing things, and then figure out how to climb a bit higher. Here’s a list of 15 ideas to help you break out of the rut and expand your horizons – some thoughts to inspire you and get you started.

#1 – Write Some Guest Posts

Not only will writing help you gain a reputation in the design community, it’ll also help you learn and clarify your own thoughts. There have been many times when I learned something new myself while writing an article.

A lot of designers have their own blog, and they should, but that can’t replace the fun and publicity of writing guest posts. Another benefit of writing for other publications is that you get to meet new people, and maybe even make some long-term acquaintances. It’s an enlivening experience. Go for it.

#2 – Try a Marketplace

There are a lot of great marketplaces out there, and what better way to gain some recognition and make some extra passive income? An excellent advantage of this kind of design work is that your creativity gets free reign – no finicky design illiterate clients to tell you what to do.

Probably the best ones out there are the Envato marketplaces like  ThemeForest and GraphicRiver, but there are many more if you’re looking for something else. Mashable published an excellent compilation of  40+ Places to Sell Your Designs, and Think Design Blog has another great post on Places to Sell Your Designs Online which even includes a list of blogs that pay for guest posts like I mentioned above.

#3 – Revivify Your Portfolio

In an increasingly online world, your portfolio site is an incredible opportunity –  and you can either cash in on it or blow it. Think about someone like Marius Roosendaal – he’s good, but what really got him noticed was his portfolio. Now almost everyone knows his name because they’ve seen his site in so many galleries and roundups.

Are you missing out on an opportunity like that? I know it’s hard to make time for it, but not investing in your portfolio is one of the biggest mistakes you can make as a designer.  You could even try just taking a week’s vacation and enjoy yourself rebuilding your portfolio. I don’t know about you, but I know I always have the most fun on my own projects anyways!

#4 – Release a Freebie

We all benefit from the great icons, vectors, themes, and more that other designers have given to the community. Why not give a little back? It’s a great chance for some recognition, and will quickly get people thinking of you as a ‘leader’ or ‘authority’.

#5 – Get Your Office Together

It amazes me how people will spend so much time in a horrible office setup when just a little bit of money and TLC could make it be a haven rather than a nightmare. Unless you’re like Joe in Joe vs. the Volcano, there’s no one stopping you from improving your workspace other than you. I think you’ll be amazed at how much better you could make it, even without spending any money.

You can try checking out Build Internet’s Make Your Workstation More Ergonomic and YouTheDesigner’s It’s Time for Your Dream Office if you’re looking for some ideas.

#6 – Learn jQuery

If you already know jQuery, good for you! If you don’t, what better time to learn? It is a very marketable skill because there is a lot of demand for it, which means it’s an easy way to increase your value and therefore your rates (if freelancing).

Also,  jQuery’s simple, expressive nature means that there is a very short learning curve, making it perfect for designers to get started easily. And once you get going, you’ll realize how much fun it is! There are a lot of great tutorials out there for getting started on sites like jQuery for Designers, NetTuts+, and InstantShift.

#7 – Read Some Good Books

Think about all the opportunity out there to learn from the experience, skills and wisdom of others through books. And many of us even have free access to whole libraries! I’d encourage you to pick out some good titles this year and just read them. They could be directly related to your job (freelancing books, photoshop how-to’s) or they could be less directly related like books on gardening or how to enjoy your family more.

It seems that it’s pretty hard to go wrong with a well-chosen book. As John Dawkins said, “The man who is fond of books is usually a man of lofty thought, and of elevated opinions.”

#8 – Attend a Conference

This one of the more expensive suggestions on this list, so don’t feel bad if you really don’t think it’s worth the price. Please do consider attending a conference, though. Think of the refreshing feeling of getting some new inspiration and connecting with fellow designers. There could even be one near your home! Smashing Magazine has a great list of web conferences, if you’re interested.

#9 – Try Freelancing

Probably a good portion of you have already taken the jump to freelancing – and will probably agree that it was the best move of your career. It’s not easy, but it is a wonderful chance for freedom and flexibility. If you’re still hiding in the bushes on this one, try reading The Roadmap to Becoming  a Professional Freelance Web Designer.

Accept the challenge and enjoy it!

#10 – Practice Using HTML5 & CSS3

There has been a ton of great tutorials and articles on html5 and css3 – so what are you waiting for? Try starting a personal project to show what can be done – maybe you’ll discover something new! It’s things like this than will get you recognized as a leader. The community is excited to confer traffic and recognition on the people that are producing the cutting-edge stuff – all you’ve go to do is make it to that edge.

#11 – Start a Side Project

Sometimes it can be pretty busy just doing the work you have to, but  the immense value of having at least one personal project makes it worth reevaluating your schedule and seeing if you can make that be one of your ‘big rocks’.

Both Six Revisions and Freelance Folder have published great articles on how those extra personal projects can benefit you. Don’t let ‘have-to’ work choke out those healthy creative projects that help you grow as a designer.

#12 – Befriend Some Fellow Designers

Don’t be spammy about it, but try approaching some other designers and just introducing yourself. Make it clear that you don’t want to get anything from them, you’re just looking for a new friend. Social media makes this easier than ever.

I lot of people will really appreciate it and think to themselves, “Wow, what a nice guy/gal!” You’ll gain a reputation as friendly and outgoing, and you’ll make some new contacts. The worst that will happen is that they’ll ignore you or say, “No thanks.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that’s much of a penalty to pay considering the possible benefits.

#13 – Charge Like You’re Worth It

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a ‘fair’ world. Books are still judged by their covers, which means that when you underestimate yourself, lack self-confidence or are too accommodating, people will take you for what you appear – not worth the money. The flip side is that when you act valuable and experienced, people will picture you that way.

That’s why Zach Dunn tells us to price like we’re worth it and Jason Cohen encouraged us to think about the experiment of doubling our rates. Don’t be unfair to yourself – recognize your value and affirm it.

#14 – Spend Some Time Outside

I believe that we are made to spend time outdoors – enjoying the sunshine and the cool breeze, breathing the fresh air, listening to the rain. I think that if you get in the habit of spending regular time outside, you won’t be able to help agreeing with me. You just feel better when you aren’t cooped up inside all day.

Fortunately, freelancing makes that a very real possibility. Of course, your climate and personal preferences may indicate another choice, but at least give it a try!

#15 – Invest in a Quality Toolset

Sometimes it can be hard to dish out the cash to invest in the really good tools, but think about it in the long-term: isn’t is worth it? In 5 years, won’t you value the professional appearance, productivity and relaxation that good tools will provide  more than the money, which will be probably be gone anyway?

I’m specifically thinking of software, invoicing services, and such, but it could be hardware, too, like setting up dual monitors or getting a back up system like the Time Capsule. Don’t spend money just for the sake of ‘having the good stuff’, but don’t skimp either when you think it will have long-term benefits.

Wrapping Up

There are a lot of opportunities out there for expanding your horizons and building a better future, so be inspired to keep yourself fresh and never lose your curiosity for discovering more about the world. Look for those opportunities to stand out from the crowd and be recognized, and feel free to share if you have any more ideas for other designers!