What do you do to practice design and increase your design skills?
Simple: I design.
When you do something full-time and beyond, there is no need to practice anymore. Experience and knowledge comes from constantly applying your skill to real-world problems or tasks.
A wise man once said:
Only a drummer with no band sits alone and practice drums
As long as your role at your company (or the requests of your clients) totally encompasses your design interests.
I love working on side projects with zero constraints or risk of wasting time. As a bonus, I've built up a broad set of skills that often find useful at work (for ex: I taught myself to program on the side and now I can build interactive prototypes with complex state when I need to).
Full-time and beyond...meaning work + whatever hobby projects you have. =)
As Marvin said, what skills are you referring to?
I work on software skills by finding excuses to use tools I'm less familiar with. I'll also set aside a certain amount of time for experimentation. During this time I'm basically just messing around to see if I can come up with any happy accidents. I'm never concerned with the end product, it's all about surprising myself. Sometimes I get lucky, other times I end up with a big pile of crap.
As for design... The best way I've found to practice design is to assign myself design problems. I'll actually write myself a brief, complete with goals and constraints. After the project is finished, I'll review my completed work in relation to the problem outlined in the brief. I'll also seek external feedback which is essential so you don't wind up in some mind vacuum where you become 100% positive you're a complete genius or a horrible, no good fraud.
Anyhow, It always comes down to the design problem(s) for me. It's not always about being a better artist or technician, improvement is about becoming better at solving those problems in the most simple and elegant way you can muster.
Your second paragraph was really inspiring in a 'this must be the direction I turn next'. I'm absolutely guilty of the mind-vacuum you talk about.
Do you have any examples of your self-briefing, goals and reviews?
As i don't get to design much in my current role (and that's what I love to do) I spend a lot of time mocking up 'fake' websites at home. I just go home, have a look around the web for some inspiration and then open up Photoshop to see what I can come up with! I then save them all in a folder which can potentially be used for clients at a later date! Basically building up a template archive.
If you’re like me, something in your repertoire will always be rusty… or out right missing.
If you want to improve your eye for typography, make a conscious effort to observe examples of appealing typography. You’ll begin to notice how movie posters and menus are set, or how your favorite websites use color and size to distinguish different bodies of text.
I personally just spent the past week studying contrast, the elements that support and sabotage contrast, and improving contrast within my designs. (Before that, a big one for me was typography.)
Pick one dimension of design you want to get better at, and study/practice it until you get a nagging feeling that something else isn’t up to par.
To Increase Skills? If i'm not already using skills i want to develop during my day-to-day I create a project that will give me the ability to develop it.
I keep my ear to the ground/web and look out for different opinions and processes and see if I can improve on them or improve myself because of them.
What design skills are you referring to here? Photoshop, problem solving, research?
As a general method that might incorporate many of those aspects, I found that finding problems which fascinated me and solving them with the skills I had or wanted to learn to be helpful. Then talk about the solution with other designers (preferably designers better than yourself).
I mainly meant problem solving.
This is really hard to explain since for me 90% of my problem solving (the form of elements) is done intuitively. For the things that actually require thinking you just have to break out design methodologies until you come up with something you like.