10 Creative Projects to Sharpen Your Graphic Design Skills

As a graphic designer, one of the most important things you can do for your career is to never stop practicing and developing your skills. The design industry moves fast, with new trends and technologies emerging all the time. Continuously challenging yourself to grow as a designer is essential if you want to deliver excellent work to your clients or employer and stay competitive in the field.

Just like elite athletes train relentlessly to maintain peak performance, elite designers must put in the reps to keep their skills sharp and push their creative abilities to the next level. The best in the business are perpetual students, always eager to learn and experiment.

In fact, a study by The Creative Group found that 65% of creative managers feel training and skill development are the most crucial parts of a designer‘s career development, even more than natural talent. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that graphic design employment will grow 3% from 2020 to 2030, adding over 23,000 jobs – but only the most skilled designers will be competitive.

So how can you build your design muscles and stay at the top of your game? Personal projects and creative exercises are key. Passion projects outside of your daily client work give you the freedom to learn new things, take risks, and grow without fear in a low-stakes environment.

Whether you‘re a total beginner looking to learn design fundamentals or a veteran designer wanting to branch into a new specialty, here are 10 project ideas and prompts to sharpen your skills:

1. Master Color Theory with a Color Wheel Project

Color is one of the most powerful tools at a designer‘s disposal for evoking emotion and meaning. But all too often, designers rely on the same familiar palettes without fully exploring the nuances of color theory.

To train your color muscles, try creating your own unique color wheel with Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. Start with the standard 12-spoke color wheel showcasing primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. Then get creative and add in tints, shades, and variations like complementary, analogous, triadic, and tetradic color schemes.

Use online tools like Adobe Color or Coolors to generate inspiring palettes and analyze what makes them work. Study the color palettes of top brands and designers to understand how they wield color psychology to convey specific tones and messages.

Then apply your leveled-up color skills to a real project prompt, like designing a set of paintbrush packaging or a series of color-themed social posts. According to a study by Reboot, using a signature color can increase brand recognition by 80%, so never underestimate the power of a strategic palette.

2. Hand-Letter a Motivational Poster

Typography is another essential building block of great design. While most projects call for carefully selected fonts, custom lettering can add a unique, personalized flair that sets a design apart.

To practice your handlettering skills, try turning an inspiring quote into a hand-drawn poster. Sketch out composition thumbnails to explore different layout options and lettering styles, from bold and graphic to elegant and ornate. Refine your chosen concept with pencil and paper, then digitize it with Illustrator‘s Image Trace or by hand with the Pen tool.

Look to legendary letterers like Jessica Hische and Louise Fili for inspiration and study their techniques. Hische offers an online course and helpful tutorials on her website to help you master the art of hand lettering.

Don‘t be discouraged if your initial attempts feel clumsy – embrace the imperfections and keep practicing. As designer James Victore advises, "Your work is a gift to the world. Create beauty and put it out there. Shrug off the critics and keep making."

3. Design a Cohesive Set of App Icons

App icon design is a surprisingly complex challenge. These tiny graphics need to be simple, recognizable, and memorable while conveying the app‘s purpose and brand at a glance. Crafting a cohesive set is great practice in boiling down concepts to their essence.

Start by choosing a theme for your icon set, like productivity tools, photo filters, or travel apps. Sketch out concepts for 5-6 icons, focusing on a unified shape language, line quality, and visual style. Consider current trends in icon design, but avoid cliches.

Once you‘ve landed on a direction, refine your icons in Illustrator or Sketch. Pay close attention to the pixel grid and use consistent stroke weights and angles for a polished look. Study the icon sets of your favorite apps for inspiration.

To really challenge yourself, animate your icons with subtle movement or interactions, like Lyft‘s playful car bounce or Duolingo‘s high-five. Basic After Effects skills will take your icon designs to the next level.

4. Reimagine a Movie Poster

Movie posters are fertile ground for creative exploration. The best ones capture the essence of a film in a single striking image through a clever visual metaphor or juxtaposition. They‘re all about distilling a complex narrative into one unforgettable graphic.

For this project, choose a favorite movie and challenge yourself to reimagine the poster art. Watch the film with a critical eye and jot down key themes, moments, and symbols to potentially incorporate into your design. Dive into the genre‘s visual tropes and cliches so you can subvert them in interesting ways.

Gather inspiration from masters of the craft like Saul Bass and contemporary designers like Akiko Stehrenberger. Study how they use minimalism, clever typography, and double exposure effects to create impactful, iconic posters.

Sketch out concepts in pencil to quickly iterate on ideas. Pick a direction and flesh it out in Photoshop, focusing on striking imagery, surprising juxtapositions, and expressive typography.

Take a cue from Olly Moss, who reimagined 22 classic movie posters for a 2016 show in San Francisco: "The only rule I gave myself was that my image had to do more than simply depict a beautiful bit of design or illustration; it had to encapsulate the film in some way. In many ways, creating posters is like journalism: telling a story within a limited space."

5. Code a Responsive Single-Page Website

Print may be where many designers start out, but interactive design skills are increasingly in demand. Designers who can code their own designs have a huge leg up in the industry. Even if you ultimately work with a developer, understanding the basics of front-end development will make you a better web designer.

To get your feet wet with web design and development, try building a responsive single-page site from scratch. Keep it simple with a focused purpose, like a digital resume, online portfolio, or basic product landing page. Wireframe the layout and user flow before diving into visual design.

Focus on best practices like intuitive navigation, clear visual hierarchy, and content that scales smoothly across screen sizes. Refine your design in Photoshop or Sketch, then use basic HTML, CSS and a framework like Bootstrap to code it up.

Look to websites featured on siteInspire or Awwwards for cutting-edge design and development techniques. Consider adding subtle interactions and animations with CSS or basic JavaScript to really make your site shine.

6. Create an Infographic that Tells a Data Story

Infographics are a powerful tool for transforming complex data into compelling visuals. The best ones strike a balance between aesthetics and clarity, using graphic elements to enhance the story, not distract from it. Designing an infographic is great practice in organizing information and visual problem-solving.

Start by finding an interesting dataset around a topic you‘re passionate about, or use a data visualization prompt for inspiration. Use Excel or Google Sheets to analyze the data and pull out key insights. Sketch out different visual approaches to convey the narrative, like charts, graphs, maps, timelines, or flowcharts.

Study the infographic work of industry leaders like Giorgia Lupi and Information is Beautiful for fresh ideas. Focus on finding meaningful data stories that will resonate with audiences or challenge their assumptions.

Refine your concept in Illustrator, paying close attention to typography, color, and visual hierarchy to lead viewers through the information. As data journalist Alberto Cairo advises, "An infographic should be a tool for the reader to explore the data, not just a mere illustration of what he/she can also see in the text."

7. Brand a Fictional Restaurant from Scratch

Branding separates forgettable businesses from beloved household names. It‘s about crafting every customer touchpoint, from the logo to the website to the product packaging, to create a cohesive experience. Tackling a complete branding project is the ultimate test of your graphic design skills.

For this exercise, dream up a fictional restaurant concept and build out a comprehensive brand identity. What type of cuisine do they serve? What‘s the vibe and personality? Who‘s the target customer? Let your answers guide your design decisions.

Develop a moodboard to establish the brand‘s aesthetic direction. Design a memorable logo and extend that visual language across menus, signage, packaging, uniforms, and a simple website. Look at the brands of popular restaurants like Sweetgreen and Shake Shack for inspiration.

As you work, consider how every element fits together to express the restaurant‘s unique story and values. Bounce your designs off friends and family to make sure the message is coming through loud and clear.

To add an extra challenge, create a set of branded social media templates and animate the logo into a short motion graphics bumper. These bonus elements mimic real-world brand needs and let you flex your design muscles in new ways.

8. Design and Prototype a Mobile App

With over 2.7 billion smartphone users worldwide, mobile app design is an explosive field for graphic designers. App designers mix visuals, interactions, and user experience to create seamless, engaging products. Designing an app from start to finish is an amazing crash course in modern digital product design.

Begin by choosing an app concept that solves a real user problem or fills a market gap. Really get to know your potential users and their needs through surveys, interviews, and observations. Define the app‘s key features and user flows before starting any visual design.

Study Apple‘s Human Interface Guidelines and Google‘s Material Design system for industry-standard best practices. Look at compelling app designs on Dribbble for creative inspiration.

Wireframe your key screens with a tool like Sketch or Figma, focusing on intuitive navigation and clear visual hierarchy. Get feedback from potential users and iterate relentlessly. Then add visual polish with your own unique UI kit, iconography, and branding.

Prototype your app with InVision, Principle, or Framer to test out the flow and interactions. Conduct user tests to validate your design decisions and spot areas for improvement before finalizing the design.

9. Craft an Animated Explainer Video

Video is dominating the internet, with explainer videos being especially popular for startups and product launches. These short motion graphics blend information and entertainment to introduce a complex concept in a simple, memorable way. Adding motion design skills to your toolbelt will make you a more well-rounded, in-demand designer.

Start by choosing a product, service, or concept that could benefit from an explainer video, like a new app, a tricky scientific principle, or an innovative nonprofit. Write an engaging script that hooks the viewer, clearly explains the topic, and ends with a strong call-to-action.

Next, storyboard your video to plan out the flow and key moments. Study the structure of successful explainer videos by top companies for ideas. Focus on clarifying the message and keeping viewers engaged.

Bring your storyboards to life with appealing illustrations or iconography in Illustrator or Sketch. Keep the visuals simple and stylish. Then, animate your graphics with a tool like After Effects, incorporating smooth transitions and dynamic movements. Record a professional voiceover and add music and sound effects to complete the video.

For inspiration, look to leading animation studios like Giant Ant and Oddfellows. Their work showcases how visual storytelling, clean design, and clever metaphors can make any topic fascinating.

10. Enter a Design Competition

Want to see how your skills stack up against other designers? Entering a design competition is a fantastic way to stretch your abilities, build your confidence, and get your work in front of industry leaders. Plus, the deadlines and guidelines can be a healthy source of external motivation.

Look for competitions that align with your interests and career goals, whether that‘s a logo contest, a poster design challenge, or a complete branding project. Resist the urge to go with your first idea – push yourself to generate as many concepts as possible before settling on a direction.

As you refine your design, consider the competition criteria carefully. What is the client looking for? What will make the judges take notice? How can you put a fresh spin on the prompt? Polish every last detail and triple-check your files before submitting.

If you don‘t win, don‘t sweat it. Use it as a learning experience to identify areas where you can grow. Analyze the winning entries to understand what set them apart. Stay positive and keep putting your work out there – you never know who might see it.

For a list of current competitions, check out resources like Print Magazine‘s and Design Crowd‘s contest pages. Some popular annual contests include the AIGA 50 Books | 50 Covers for book design, the Communication Arts Design Competition, and the Adobe Design Achievement Awards for students.

Go Forth and Create!

Ultimately, the key to becoming a better designer is simple: never stop designing. Make a commitment to yourself to always have a side project or creative challenge on your plate. Carve out time every week to play, experiment, and learn without the pressure of client demands or a boss‘s expectations.

As you work through these projects, don‘t get discouraged if the results aren‘t perfect right away. Every master was once a beginner. Embrace the process and find joy in the act of creating. With practice, critique, and an open mind, you‘ll be amazed at how far your skills can grow.

So what are you waiting for? Pick a project from the list and start designing! Your future self will thank you. And who knows – your passion project might just catch the eye of your dream client or kickstart an exciting new phase in your career. Now go make something awesome!