Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills

Five Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills

Excerpted from Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills (How Books)

By David Sherwin

Spend ten minutes answering the following questions: “What are my three strengths as a designer? My weaknesses? What’s my favorite color? What designers do I love? What design work do I enjoy? What kind of work do I want to do in the future?” Then design a logo for yourself that is clearly informed by your off-the-cuff responses. Be sure to stick to the time limit provided—don’t cheat!

Hello, My Name Is

30 minutes
Identity development, illustration

My trash can overflows with crumpled-up sketches. On my desktop is a folder jam-packed with Illustrator files of lovingly executed logos composed of delicate, hand-finessed Bézier curves. It’s been almost three months, and no matter how many times I try to design for this client, I’m just not satisfied with the work.

This is a branding assignment for… well… me.

Identity development is the most poetic of the design disciplines, where all excess is pared away to reveal the pure essence of a client’s brand. But when it comes to self-promotion, most designers can’t easily gain the self-detachment necessary to summarize their own practice in an artful mark. (And without spending eons on the result.) That’s what makes this first challenge a form of self-help.

"Designing for yourself is worse than representing a client; it can be like having an identity crisis."
—AIGA’s Graphic Design: A Career Guide and Education Directory

In a second thirty-minute period, explore how you can apply your logo to a stationery system, a brochure and a personal web site.

This identity concept for Claire Kohler, a designer based in Seattle, came out of a productive twenty-minute class brainstorm where she turned the initials of her name into a “fast-forward” icon that could be used on business cards, stationery and other elements of a self-promotional identity system.

In the same brainstorming period, Mark Notermann designed this simple mark for his design services. “I started by just making some diagonal lines. The inspiration was originally in the shape of a lightning bolt, which quickly became a factory icon. I liked the factory icon, and felt it represented industry and workmanship… I chose a ‘safety yellow’ to keep with the industrial theme but keep the palette light and lively. If I’m lucky, it says ‘he likes to work hard but still has fun.’”

If this challenge freezes you in your tracks, try to design a logo for another designer. Jake Rae, a Seattle-area designer interested in specializing in brand and identity work, answered the questions associated with this challenge. Over twenty minutes, I brainstormed a number of possible logo solutions—this one being the most appropriate for his area of interest.

You were recently hired by a paint company to help them with a rebranding effort. For your first project, they would like you to design a 9" x 12" (23cm x 30cm) folder that will hold a revamped press kit and other collateral. Your client has given only one mandatory direction: The folder must have at least 90 percent white showing in the overall design.

I’m Drawing a Blank

60 minutes

White space… the final frontier.

These are the voyages of the graphic designer. Our mission: to bring balance and grace to an otherwise overloaded layout. To seek out opportunities to pare away excess and focus on what’s necessary. To boldly convey the appropriate conceptual idea to our audience.

Our quest for bold use of white space is what makes the following challenge so difficult—and the results that come out of it so rewarding.

"The single most overlooked element in visual design is emptiness."
—Alexander W. White, The Elements of Graphic Design: Space, Unity, Page Architecture, and Typeem>

Once you’ve completed the folder, determine how you can design a set of sales sheets that describe the characteristics of various lines of paint. Your sell sheets should clearly associate with the cover and feel integrated with your proposed brand aesthetic.

In a twenty-minute brainstorm session for this challenge, I sketched out an idea for a paint-by-numbers cover for the fictional Kingston Artist’s Supply catalog. The reader can flatten out the folder, purchase the paint colors noted in the legend on the back cover and start on their first masterwork.

A quick design sketch can express a visual idea just as thoroughly as a final, polished drawing. While brainstorming solutions to this challenge within a twenty-minute time limit, Jake Rae (4), Michelle Cormack (5) and Katharine Widdows (6) and all came up with simple, viable ideas that imply a range of possible design executions.

Shoot a photograph of an item that you carry with you throughout the day. Then design three print ads showing that product in three different ways: positive, negative and metaphorical. As an example, if you took a photo of your eyeglasses, you could have a glowingly positive ad for the pair that you wear, an ad for a competing product that uses your glasses as an example of what not to buy, and a third ad that uses the glasses as an example of the focus you need when selecting a mutual fund. Be sure to preplan your ads in sketch form before moving into execution.

Three in One

90 minutes
Photography, print advertising

While perusing a women’s magazine, a print ad catches your eye. There’s a happy woman picking dandelions with her young daughter, while the caption reads: “Because of cancer, Juliette’s mother only has two months left to live.”

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes it only takes a few words carefully selected by a designer to completely recast that picture’s story. Coming up with compelling advertising concepts requires this kind of artful spin through the intelligent marriage of word and image. If executed properly, these ads hit you square in the gut.

Want some practice with this style of advertising? Take on the following challenge.

"The secret of all effective advertising is not the creation of new and tricky words and pictures, but one of putting familiar words and pictures into new relationships."
—Leo Burnett

Make a storyboard for a TV ad adapted from your favorite ad from the sequence.

Designer Michelle Cormack chose a USB memory stick as the foundation of her three advertisements. For her positive ad, she created a company called Stroller whose USB sticks help you bring your memories everywhere. In her ad that focused on a negative attribute of the product, she conceived of a cloud-based file sharing service that could back up all of your digital files—and then arranged a photo shoot in her home that showed the risks of leaving copies of your data at large. And for the ad that was meant to show the product in a metaphorical context, she used the USB stick as a literal replacement for a woman’s memory in a public service announcement.

You’ve been asked by Nespresso, the manufacturer of classy espresso makers that depend upon coffee capsules instead of loose grounds for their perfect output, to create a web application that lets people control their espresso maker via the Internet.

What kind of ways would you want to provide this kind of power to the everyday espresso drinker? What would this web application look like? How would it be deployed? Would it be just for you, or would you be able to participate in a virtual espresso-loving community? Pour yourself a cappuccino and get to work.

Ready When You Are

90 minutes
Interactive media

In this age of Internet-enabled gadgetry, I wouldn’t be surprised if my refrigerator started talking to my toaster. Formerly dumb devices that crowded our kitchens and bedrooms are now driven by embedded operating systems instead of rudimentary circuit boards. This allows us a level of unimaginable integration between all of the things that surround us.

Which brings up a great question: What will we do with all this power? Most of us couldn’t program our VCRs, let alone these newfangled digital videorecorders, and I just had a five-minute argument with my microwave regarding how to defrost vegetarian chili. (I lost.)

It’s up to us—the designers of the world—to help shape the future of how humans interact with these fancy machines. And we should start with the most important appliance known to man: the espresso maker. With this challenge, put all this newfound connectivity and control to great use.

“In Seattle, you haven’t had enough coffee until you can thread a sewing machine while it’s running.”
—Jeff Bezos

Determine how you would promote the rollout of this web application for the greater Nespresso community. Would you tease it on their web site? In their stores? And how would your overall grand vision translate into other cultures, languages and markets?

Mark Notermann created an iPhone application, the iBarista, which “extends the coffee connoisseur’s experience beyond the last sip. The espresso capsule would leave a digital stamp when utilized in the brewing machine. This would be sent via Wi-Fi to the owner’s online account where data would accumulate about the user’s drinking habits. The user can rate his brews, and orders can also be automatically created with this data.

Donnie Dinch’s solution exploits the touch interface of the iPhone to allow anyone with his app and the appropriately equipped espresso maker to pinch and choose the level of foam, milk and espresso desired in their latte, cappuccino or other coffee beverage.


You are a famous ceramics designer tasked with an unusual request: Come up with a way to reinvent a dish, cup, bowl or glass for one extraordinarily specific use. Don’t aim for maximum utility. Instead, fulfill a need for dining ware you’ve always wanted in your cupboard, whether it’s a plate designed to manage your portions at dinner or a cup with a lemon squeezer included for your lemon tea. While you’re at it, try to incorporate sustainable materials into your design, so your creation can return to the earth after it outlives its use.

Let’s Dish

120 minutes
Product design

The plain white bowl rests all alone on the kitchen table, awaiting your desired input. In the morning, you fill it with strawberry yogurt, nuts and granola. In the evening, your spoon clinks against the rim as you slurp down red lentil soup drizzled with mint-infused olive oil.

When designing products for our kitchen, such as plates, bowls and cups, we intentionally create shapes humble enough to fit any context. We are trained how to utilize them at an early age. And over time, we learn to adapt the use of those products to more narrowly defined needs. In this challenge, consider how you can do just that—and create something artful and extraordinary as a result.

"Products never speak for themselves. Someone had to teach us that a chair is meant for sitting on, that a spoon is for putting food into the mouth."
—Paul Mijksenaar and Piet Westendorp, Open Here: The Art of Instructional Design

After you’ve determined your ideal dish design, how could you brand, package and sell it in a sustainable manner? Does your initial idea suggest any further ways to extend your thinking into flatware?

Industrial designer Tithi Kutchamuch provided the structure for this challenge with her project “A cup of…” In this project, Tithi created teacups whose forms were contingent on specific types of tea: lemon tea, rum tea, iced tea and so on. “Each drink has its own typology of vessel, e.g., beer mug, wine glass, coffee cup, milk bottle, etc. [But] how about when we mix the drinks? [Mixing] two typologies creates a new function and ritual of drinking… [and] symbolism at the bottom of the cup.”

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Excerpted from Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills by David Sherwin. Copyright © 2011. Used with permission of How Books.