As a self-taught designer, I've always used side projects as opportunities to strengthen my design skills. But sometimes, I just wanted to be handed a task purely for practice sake. I was worried that my own biases would give me design challenges that I'd find to be easier, so I created a system of paper slips to generate random challenges for me.
It worked by arranging multiple piles of slips, each in groups: clients, briefs, and conditions. The client stack would include things like the first colony on Mars, or Nike. The briefs stack would contain challenges such as design a landing page, or create a geometric logo. Finally, the conditions stack would contain a special modifier for the task, such as completing the design in an hour, or only using pen & paper.
I'd mix the slips of paper up and take one from each stack, producing a highly variable challenge for me to practice with.
While at YouTube, I wanted to give back to the design community in a way that directly helped designers strengthen their craft. Practicing design is the best way to get better at it, so I set out to make my paper slips a proper product. The only problem: I didn't know how to code.
I blocked off one weekend in February, nabbed a solid domain name (www.sharpen.design), and decided to study up on what it would take to make a random generator. The above gif is the result of the first version - really boring, but functional.
My good friend Anthony Gibson is a coding wizard - let's just make that known up front. I showed him the project, and he was elated. We decided to team up to build out a scalable tool from my foundation, and the outcome made waves.
Anthony took over much of the production code, building out a brand new backend framework - while I focused on the UX and IxD.
We launched on Product Hunt late one night, and went to sleep not thinking much of it. By the time we woke up, we were climbed to the top of Product Hunt's design tools list, and were in the top-10 on the frontpage among all launches. We held the #1 spot on Reddit's /r/designtools list for well over a week, and a bunch of websites wrote up some unsolicited press about the site.
Since then, we've taken Sharpen to meetups and hackathons as an ideation tool. We're hard at work on the v2, which will release in 2018.