How Often Do You Try New Things?

Web design in complicated and requires a lot of time and knowledge — and patience. It’s no longer just embedded text background images and slices; it’s interactivity and dynamic content, it’s HTML5 and mobile development, it’s JSON objects and Local Storage.

No, I’m not talking about trying base jumping, I’m talking about how often you try new things in web design. Recently, Louis Lazaris of Impressive Webs wrote an article titled “Skills for Front-End Developers”  where he compiled a long list of “things” that a front-end developer (or web designer in my eyes) should know. There were forty-three items on this list, ranging from jQuery to the Canvas API. It may be a daunting list of subjects and technologies to know, and you may think that he’s completely off base in compiling this list. But he’s actually not too far off.

Web design in complicated and requires a lot of time and knowledge — and patience. It’s no longer just embedded text background images and slices; it’s interactivity and dynamic content, it’s HTML5 and mobile development, it’s JSON objects and Local Storage.

But beyond the many technologies to know and love, web design is also moving target. It changes all the time, month to month and week to week so if you’re not learning the new trends and technologies you’ll get left behind really quickly. Staying ahead of the game means you have to try and learn new things quickly. It’s an arms race. A race to better, more efficient designs, a race to embrace new technologies and methods before the next guy. It’s a huge messy world of languages, grids, typography, fonts, management systems and platforms — most designers tend to get really proficient at a few aspects of the web and neglect the rest. But while perfecting one or two aspects is great, what happens when the web changes tomorrow and those technologies are left behind?

I’ve compiled a little list of my own, a list of ways you can begin to try new things — not really a list of things to try, but a list of resources and ways to try them. I’ll go into detail on each one of them below but here’s the quick list of items:

  • Follow Design Magazines
  • Write About Stuff
  • Give Up One Hour a Day to Learn
  • Take an Online Class
  • Work on a Side Project with a Buddy
  • Join a User Group or Two
  • Become Bilingual
  • Do Something Other than Web Design

Read Design Magazines


Fifty percent of the web is made up of design mags. Okay, not really, but it sure seems like it. There are literally thousands of really great design blogs on the interwebs that publish regular if not daily content on design subjects of all kinds. I think my Reader is up to three hundred different magazines that I glance at on a regular basis and no I don’t read them all… that’s why catchy headlines are important.

If you don’t have a few favorite design blogs by now you need to find a couple. May I suggest I started with Smashing Magazine just like everybody else, I call it the gateway mag for web design. Just start somewhere and find those that interest you the most. Regardless of subject matter, most blogs publish so often that they can’t help but stay up to date on trends. Reading and participating in these design blogs will also bring you into the vast, open and friendly design community and making you a part of it.

Write About It


I started writing about web design about a year and a half ago. I started a weird little blog and just started to write about stuff I knew. Then I realized that one of the best ways for me to learn new things was to write an article about it. It forced me to research the topic, learn the technology, and digest what I learned via writing. It’s a great way to learn and try new things without all the pressure of project deadlines or a boss breathing down your neck.

Starting your blog is a great first step into exploring new things, plus, managing your own site can be an education in itself. But also consider writing guest posts for other magazines. Most magazine love guest writers and contributors because they can bring another perspective and tone their magazine as well as fill some empty publishing spots. Just hit up some of you favorite magazines and shoot them a few article ideas that you’d like to write about, I know they would be happy to have you contribute to their community.

Devote One Hour A Day


With so many design blogs and tutorials on the web just take an hour everyday to go through one of these online tutorials. Most online tutorials are an hour or so, they don’t generally require to much time on your part and they are a great way to learn new methods and tricks from other web professionals.

There are a ton of online tutorials written by industries professionals, but here are a few of my favorite places:

Take a Structured Online Class


Online tutorials are a great way to learn new things but they generally only provide small pieces for you to chew on. Sometimes is nice or even necessary to dig deeper into a subject or language. But for most of us full-timers auditing a college course or going back for a Master’s just isn’t in the cards. That’s where a structured online course can fill the gap. Most colleges and universities offer either online course auditing or continuing education courses, continuing education courses are generally cheaper and most of them are aimed at the working professional, so most of the courses are shorter.

iTunes University also offers a lot of great college level tech courses via Stanford University, MIT, ETSU, UC Davis and more. In some cases these tech courses are free to download and are the same courses taught on campus — minus the bookstore.

If you’re not into the whole college course thing, sites like TreeHouse and provide video-based courses and differing member ship packages so that you can customize your education. Both sites provide excellent courses written and taught by industry professionals who really know and practice what they preach. Most of these video classes are self-paced but still offer the structure and deep theory that you would get from a college course.

Not to brag, but more to illustrate, I actually just enrolled in an online AJAX class through my local community college’s continuing education program. It’s a six week, professor lead online course that was surprisingly inexpensive — 95 bones. It doesn’t start until the first of the year so I’ll let you know how it goes, but it looks very promising.

Start a Project with a Buddy

So you’ve just gone through a bunch of jQuery and HTML5 tutorials online and you’ve implemented a few things on your work related stuff, but your boss isn’t really hip to new tech yet so you’re fairly limited. I’ve found that one of the best ways to learn/apply new knowledge is to work on a side project — build something for yourself. Build a new web app for mobile or a funny website, but build something that you care about.

It’s also nice to find a buddy and build something together. Chances are your buddy knows more than you about most things, so it’s a good opportunity to learn from them. I have learned a great deal of stuff just working on even small projects with friends, they all have their levels of expertise on stuff so it’s nice to pick it up from them. Plus, it’s a good way to stay busy, maintaining friendships and apply the new tech knowledge that your boss refuse to believe in.

Join a Group

If the friends you know aren’t into the same stuff as you, or just being pricks about not wanting to work with you on your latest Internet scheme, I bet if you did a little bit of research right now, you’d be able to find a user group in your area on pretty much anything form WordPress to design to Javascript. User groups are great places to meet people, find jobs and just learn more about a particular technology or interest. I prefer the live meet up groups versus the online discussion groups just for the sheer interaction level, but online groups are also a great way to learn and meet people in the community.

Groups and communities can provide you with a lot of benefits and opportunities.You can learn from presentations and classes, you can meet people in your same area of interest, you can network with others to find jobs or freelance opportunities and in some case you can win free stuff! The WordCamp community is basically how I got excited and learned about WordPress. I’ve learned an awful lot form attending WordCamp events, met really good people who have furthered my education and even gotten a freelance job or two.

Learn a New Language


You’ve probably seen a developer at work wearing his new “I Ride the Rails” t-shirt from his priceless collection of ‘I’m smarter than you’ t-shirts collection, but you probably didn’t realize it had something to do with the web — maybe just a new gaming meme. Learning a new web language can be challenging if you’re like me, but in the age of web design it’s a great way to keep up. I’m generally only fluent in HTML and CSS, but I can speak a little PHP and Javascript — even a few dialects like jQuery and Prototype.

Learning even the basic syntax of other languages not only teaches you to be aware that they are out there, but they also expand your knowledge of web programming in general. Learning new languages can actually be pretty fun once you get past that awkward phase where everything is flying over your head, but once you enter the bull shitting realm you’ll be able to use what you know to write and share your own snippets. Oh, and if you still don’t know what Rails is, then might I suggest Rails For Zombies.

Get Outside the Box


Since the web can sometimes be this super overwhelming place of intertwined media and technologies where once a month a new technology is king, it’s important to get out and remember why you started designing web sites and apps in the first place. It’s good to get outside the web and learn something else every once in a while. Go buy an oil painting book and learn to paint. Try your hand at comic book illustration, or go take a class in woodworking at your community college.

These types of outside learning experiences may not seem to apply to the web at all, but they actually do three things: add more design knowledge to your brain, give you a different perspective on design, and allow you to re-kindle your passion for design and creativity. Doing other design related things like drawing or painting allow you to refocus on core compositional principles and help you see things in web design that you haven’t noticed before and be able to apply them.

For me, one of the hardest things was finding creativity when coding. Writing code can seem like such a task, just a necessary evil of reproducing your brilliant designs, but I’ve actually discovered that writing code is just another medium for creation, just like painting or sculpting. It’s only been through recent study of architecture and industrial design that I have found the technical side of the web to be creative. Learning new things outside of the the web design world allows you to see it differently or even from a new perspective.

How often do you try new things?

As web creators there is a lot to learn out there and there have been specific lines drawn in the past as to who knew what. Previously the web consisted of graphics designers, developers, user experience specialist and project managers. But today those lines are becoming more and more blurry day by day. Users demand more interaction and this means that we, the creators, must interact more as well. Try new things often, if not daily, even if this means you’ll never become proficient at any one thing you try, even a small experience with one thing can make a huge impact.

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Patrick Cox

Patrick is a UX Designer and Researcher at Instructure (Canvas LMS).. He also enjoys family, snowboarding, sports, bacon and is jealous of your beard.

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  1. This is an amazingly motivational article. I so badly want to break into web development, but can’t seem to get over that hump to truly devote myself to it. I’m hoping to apply some of these techniques in my life. Thank you Patrick.

  2. Great post, I started reading this magazine like a month ago, and all the content is great, and the tutorials AMAZING! Congratulations and happy new year.

  3. Loved it! I always find Codrops to be the best source for jquery tutorials, but this article got me thinking about my career… I value that inmensely.
    Thanks a lot!

  4. “what happens when the web changes tomorrow and those technologies are left behind?”

    you talk about flash ^^

  5. This is fantastic and so true. It’s very applicable when working in-house at an agency as things can get stale and “comfortable” very quick.

    Get out of your comfort zone and try something different! Knowledge is power – so is experience 🙂

  6. Thanks for providing such great scripts and fresh ideas. you guys are rocking…. HNY 2012…. Good luck!!

  7. Hi Patrick,
    is always pleasurable read your articles!
    Happy new year for you and for all Codrops people !!!

  8. Really motivating article, thanks a lot!

    I’d add an “advice” that is “don’t dedicate so much time to social nets like facebook, twitter, etc.”.

    We often read a lot of things from social nets and then get trapped into these readings and stories wanting to cover all. But readings are this, only readings, without practice are almost nothing.

    “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
    – Confucius


  9. Good article. But for me, all of this should be a given, an expectation of any front end developer/designer. It’s not anything “extra” – these are core parts of your job and if you’re not doing them already, you’re not really doing your job.

    Also, do read design blogs, but not too much. Don’t read them so much they actually detract from your actual work.

  10. Micheal, excellent point “do read design blogs, but not too much.” I’ve had periods or days where I’ve been so caught up in reading blogs and articles that I don’t get any of my real work done.
    Design blogs are great for staying current and finding inspiration, but real work experience is priceless education.

  11. Don’t forget books, even if they are old-fashioned, lol! There have been a ton of great books published (or revised) in the last several months regarding HTML5, CSS3, jQuery, etc.

    And I agree that having your own side project is a fantastic place to have a sandbox of your own to try new things. It also tends to lead to cross-pollination, where techniques from work will end up in the side project and vice-versa.

  12. Great post! It’s daunting how much a web designer has to know these days. Especially if you’re applying for a position within an organization. Go ahead, jump on Craigslist and see for yourself.

  13. Hi Patrick,
    I loved the attitude of your post, I think in our field (both web design & development) one should always have some sort of playground to experiment new things and techniques. Sometimes these experiments will end up to be only personal experiments, sometimes they will turn out to be something valuable, you’ll know only when you’re finished! If you’d like to check it out, this is our last “experiment”: have fun!

  14. Amazing ! Marvellous ! So encouraging / inspiring. Being an aspirant web-designer/developer requires encounter of such amazing posts. Thank You so much for this.

    And the site looks so good. Returned to this blog yesterday, after long time and seems so good.