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8 Exercises to Bring Out Your Inner Designer

Mercedes Lorenzo

Flex your creative muscles with these eight fun and easy exercises.

As any graphic designer will tell you, channeling creativity isn’t as easy as sitting down and flicking a switch. In reality, the process consists of equal parts inspiration and perspiration. The work of a designer relies on years of training, instincts honed from experience in the field, and a significant dose of good, old-fashioned hard work.

From word play to semi-structured doodling, these eight exercises will jolt you out of your creativity rut and push you to think outside the box.

1. Dictionary Short Stories

Challenge yourself to run a linguistics obstacle course with this exercise inspired by Twyla Tharp, from her book The Creative Habit.

Pick up a dictionary and choose a random word. Next, look at the words immediately before and after the one you chose. With those three words, create a short story — a paragraph long, minimum — that ties them all together. It can be as wild or as understated as you want, but the goal is to teach your brain to make connections it wouldn’t otherwise need to make.

2. Unchecked Drawing

If you work in a creative industry, chances are you have some freehand illustration skills, even if they’re a little rusty. In this challenge, you’re going to put those skills to the test.

Look around your desk for an object that stands out to you: your keyboard, perhaps, or an office plant. Draw that object as realistically as you can, but cover your hand with another piece of paper so that you can’t see what you’re drawing. When you think you’re done, take a look! Even if the finished product isn’t a work of art, this exercise will bring you more in tune with the way your brain processes imagery in its rawest form.

3. 30 Circles

In this exercise, you’ll hone an important skill: learning to produce high-quality work under tight deadlines.

Take a piece of paper with 30 blank circles on it. Then, put three minutes on the clock. With a pen or pencil, fill in as many circles as possible with variations on a design theme. The theme can be anything you want, from original emojis to creative watch faces. What matters is that you fill in all 30 circles with a set of related drawings before the time limit is up. That’s six seconds per drawing — ready, set, sketch!

4. Word Translations

We use different parts of our brain to write and to create graphic designs — but often, we’re tasked with channeling both to convert a written concept into an original infographic or other visual medium.

For this exercise, you’ll need to translate abstract ideas into typography. Start with words that conjure an emotion, such as “nervous” or “confident,” and write them in a font that you feel represents them. Then graduate to more challenging words that require a touch more creativity. This exercise will bring you in closer touch with the meaning that words are meant to convey, bridging the gap between written collateral and its visual representation.

5. Scribble Creations

Train your mind to see the potential for greatness in a seemingly unorganized project with this exercise.

On a large piece of paper, close your eyes and scribble for ten to twenty seconds. When you open your eyes, figure out how you can connect your scribbles in a way that makes them mean something. Whether you combine them into one large object or several smaller ones to create a scene, you’ll be challenging yourself to turn a mess into a masterpiece.

6. Blind Portraits

If you’re looking for an exercise that you can try out with coworkers, you’ll love this challenge.

Pair the group off and supply each duo with pens and paper. Then, instruct one member of the group to spend five minutes drawing the other member’s face, and vice versa. Here’s the kicker: as with exercise #2, the drawer is not allowed to look at their paper until the five minutes is up! Your group may be surprised at just how much their perceptions of what they were drawing diverge from the end result — or, in some cases, how much they align.

7. Interface Design

Sometimes we’re so used to seeing certain things in our daily life that we stop really seeing them. Try this exercise to see familiar objects in new ways.

Start by printing out a photo of an object in your office: a printer, a garbage can, or a water cooler, for example. Then, think of a new, imaginary purpose for that object. For example, maybe you’ve reimagined your office printer as a larger than life walkie-talkie. Use a marker to bring your design to life. Whatever the end result, this exercise will challenge you to look at design work as an act of imagination.

8. Iterative Drawing

The only thing more challenging than doing design work on your own is making sure your work is consistent with the efforts of a larger team. To get into a collaborative frame of mind, try this exercise with some of your coworkers.

With at least five people, pass around a piece of paper. The first four people will draw a random object in each of the paper’s four corners. The fifth person, however, has the challenge of drawing versions of each object that slowly morph into the object in the opposite corner. This continuum should meet in the middle of the paper, with one object that fits into the evolution of each corner drawing.

Mercedes Lorenzo

UX/UI Design Lead

Creative thinker and designer born in Uruguay. Believes that the key to success in a design team is collaboration, strategy, and adaptability.

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