Experiment, Experiment, Experiment

by Tom Kenny (@tkenny)

Sometimes design ideas come easy, usually accompanied by the feeling of being on top of the world but this isn’t always the case. Far from it. If you can form great design ideas quickly and easily every single time, I would love to know your secret!

What happens when we don’t knock it out of the park on our first attempt? It can often be hard and frustrating. When it happens to me, I sometimes even question myself as a designer, although that’s the extreme case.

What I normally do to get out of this hole, is experiment. I basically try a number of different things to see what works. It can take more time but I eventually hit upon a standard of work I’m happy with. I know I will eventually come up with something at least good enough if I trust my system of experimenting.

Marc Edwards talks about this approach when working with an old art director:

He’d intentionally try different and crazy things, knowing that most wouldn’t work. He didn’t care. He didn’t care and it didn’t matter — we’d end up in places we never would have if we over thought the layout. The question wasn’t “what is the best way?”, but “what are the many ways?”, deferring judgement until the last possible moment. Judgement may feel good, but it has no value. The value is in the outcome.

And the outcome was often solid, stunning designs that were unconventional. Non-obvious solutions. From the outside and to other art directors, it appeared magical. But, from within the process, far less nuanced and intentional.

James Clear points out a passage from a book called Art & Fear, demonstrating why doing more work leads to better quality work:

The ceramics teacher announced that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.

Well, grading time came and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity!

It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat around theorising about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

It’s not just about learning from your mistakes. You will almost certainly discover a better and more efficient way of designing and building websites as a result of experimenting.

How do you Experiment?

Experimenting at it’s core, is just about trying different things and figuring out what produces the best results. It really is as simple as that.

Experimenting can be trying seemingly random things in Photoshop. I find it much easier to experiment in Photoshop than in the browser, at least from scratch. Once I have a solid “foundation” formed in Photoshop, I occasionally switch to finalising the design in the browser but that is an exception rather than the rule. Experimenting in code is cumbersome due to the added layer writing code creates so it isn’t conducive to forming the best results from experimenting.

Colour Experimentation

If you’re having difficulties with colour schemes, there are a number of tools you can use. When I’m struggling with colour, my go to tool for colour inspiration is Adobe Color CC (formerly Kuler) by Adobe. The first thing I do is explore the most popular colour schemes as you can see a number of different combinations at once:


Experiment with these as much as you can. Sometimes you’ll immediately stumble across one set that will work well but it’s more likely you’ll have to experiment for a little while to get that perfect colour theme.

Adobe Color CC also has a feature where you can upload an image to select colours from. This is a fun way to experiment, especially if you’re into photography like myself. Your photography can work to help your design with little effort.


Its fine to look at design galleries (such as dribbble) for inspiration despite what anyone says. Just make sure you don’t simply copy other designers’ work. Instead, think differently and view them as windows looking out to new directions you could experiment with. As the example from Art & Fear above shows, if you do more work, you’re more likely to create better work. Use the design galleries to experiment with different styles but don’t blindly copy. Don’t lose sight of the fact you still need to create the appropriate design for your project, rather than copying something else because it looks nice or because a competitor does it that way.

If nothing is working in terms of “being inspired”, I simply step away from the problem and take a break (see my article on The Overnight Design Test for more). Returning to the work later gives me clarity. In the thinking of doing the work, your mind can get clogged up, impairing your ability to solve the problem. It’s hard to take yourself away from the problem as the more frustrated you get trying to do the work you know you can do, the harder it actually becomes.

Experiment with Personal Projects

Personal projects are the perfect way to experiment, where you’re free from the restrictions of business owners. You can literally work on creating anything you like, which can be experimental in itself. I myself experimented selling WordPress themes, which has been a bigger success than I imagined. I haven’t made any themes for a little while for various reasons. Mainly because I didn’t really enjoy the process but I’m glad I gave it a go because I’ve learnt so much about selling my own work which will come in very handy in the future. Ultimately, it led me down the path I wanted to explore and experiment with, even though selling WordPress themes isn’t the mode of transport I want to take anymore.

To be able to experiment on your own projects of course takes extra time. The common complaint is people claiming they “don’t have the time” and I can certainly understand where they are coming from but once you realise you have to find the time, everything changes. Personal work doesn’t have to take up all your free time, or even most of it. Even dedicating a few hours a week can bring benefits. Creating WordPress themes didn’t take up all that extra time for me because I was already designing building WordPress themes in my day job.

The best way to consistently work on you own project is to build up a habit of doing so, not trying too hard initially. Work on creating a small habit for 2 weeks to a month and then increase it gradually over time. Committing to 2 hours a week is a good starting point, doubling or adding 2 hours every 2–4 weeks until you reach a comfortable point.

Many of the tools and resources you use in your own work, assisting you in being more productive and creative, resulted from other designers and developers experimenting with their own projects. The web is a better place and you do better work when experimenting.

Be at Your Best More Consistently

I find experimenting (combined with the overnight design test) to be the most reliable way to create my best work. Sometimes a design will “come together” without much experimentation at all but most times I need to focus my efforts on experimenting through at least 2–4 different designs before creating work I consider good enough.

Be More Unique

It’s harder than ever to create something unique but the best way you’re going get as close to possible to uniqueness is to experiment.

There are endless combinations of great design you can create on the web. Keep experimenting.

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by Tom Kenny

I’m a freelance web designer and front-end developer with over 7 years of experience designing for the web. Follow me on Twitter here.