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The art of side projects

Personal projects are considered a must for every creative, but where to even begin? Here are our tips and tricks for making it happen

Illustration: Anat Warshavsky

If you’ve ever attended a design conference (ahh, remember those?) or heard a talk by any renowned studio or individual, you know the drill. At some point, they will always show an enviable side project. Notoriously known for being crucial to a studio’s success, personal projects are always referred to with a kind of romantic flair—they are created with passion and idealism, reflecting hopes and dreams. They might fail miserably or succeed beyond your expectations, but will always serve their purpose, of expanding your creative education, and all by yourself.

Sounds pretty awesome, right? As a beginner though, getting your head around side projects could feel like a project of its own. How do you initiate them? How do you make the time when you have a dayjob? And are they really worth all the effort?

We’ve gathered some insights, tips and tricks from industry insiders sharing their stories and side projects, in the hopes you’ll find the inspiration to create your own.

Authenticity is key

Danny Miller, Co-founder of Human After All, a certified B-corp design agency, believes authenticity and passion are a fundamental starting point, “When you’re just starting out, it's very hard to stand out and compete—there are so many great talented designers and studios out there. You need to find your thing, what it is that makes you special—that will help you secure projects via that one thing. Having a side project is a differentiator, it shows the world what you care about, what is your passion. It’s an opportunity to show your craft and abilities in its purest forms without limitations of clients. For us, that project was Weapons Of Reason, a publishing project born out of a desire to understand the world around us. We wanted to communicate the complexity of issues that matter to us, and bring our specific skills to do so. A side project needs good reason to exist - otherwise it won’t stick. Passion is always a great reason.”

The power of collaboration

Side projects are a perfect opportunity to engage with other creatives, ones you might not have had the chance to work with otherwise. If you’re a freelancer, that could prove to be vital in keeping you going.

“When we’re working alone, it’s very easy to get in our own heads, forgetting the energy and potential which comes from collaboration. Working solely by yourself is the surest way to feel burn-out”, says Jenny Parker. Parker is the New Product Development Manager for Motley London, and chief-collaborator in Makers House. Of her experience she says, “Starting out as a jewellery designer I was very much under the notion that the only way to work is by going solo—doing it all by myself. There’s this ethos you’re taught during school, that if you’re not doing everything yourself then it’s not worth it, a sort of martyr-guilt conscious. You don’t realize how much you need support and someone to bounce ideas with.

While I was doing shows and exhibitions, I was introduced to Georgia Bosson, a textile designer and founder of Makers House—a creative community designing exhibitions and events and a platform for designers to meet each other and collaborate. It was basically her own side project, her idea was to bring people together to create shows by and for themselves. We soon realized we complete each other in many ways, and while we share very similar views on the industry, we each bring a different quality to the table, which is natural as we’re from different design practices. Having each other’s feedback and opinion was priceless for development and progress of the project. This collaboration also provided us with a safe space to make mistakes. You’re sharing the learning experience and gaining honest feedback from someone whose opinion you value .”

Know thyself

Side projects provide not only a chance to learn how to collaborate, but to deepen your learning about your own abilities. Parker adds, “Working on something new and having someone by my side, reflecting what my strengths and weaknesses are, really helped in getting a solid idea of my own skill set. Not only that, you also gain perspective as to how these skills might be transferable to the real world. I used to think my practice was really narrow, only teaching or doing very specific things in my line of work. While working on Makers House I got to discover how much I like working with people, helping them present, price, or talk about their work.

It was a chance for both of us to discover what we wanted from our own personal careers. We helped each other grow and figure out who we are and what should be the next steps for us together and separately.”

Have fun!

Making your own project fun might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised to discover how crucial that is. Danny says, “When I look at applicants' portfolios that include personal projects, you can tell the difference if something was done just for the sake of doing, or if there was fun and real passion behind it. Don't create something just as a means to an end.”

Jenny adds, “When we started thinking about what should be the next Makers House project, we knew it had to be fun, it had to be something we want to do, rather than need to do. For us, that meant venturing out to a new adventure—producing our very own podcast. We were desperate to engage in conversation, and to serve that part of ourselves that yearned for community which was so missed during this past year. It was also a way for us to indulge our private dreams of broadcasting. I mean, who else would let us host a podcast? No one! So we gave ourselves this opportunity to have fun.”

Set your boundary

Side projects have a tendency to die away without closure, making them feel like defeat for no real reason. Danny offers a tip to avoid this scenario: “Always set a boundary, an end point to your project. The same as you have with clients and paid jobs, so should be the case for your own projects. A defined ending makes it hard for a project to just fade away, and allows you to celebrate its existence and achievements. For example, with Weapons of Reason we decided in advance we will only create 8 issues. Knowing exactly how and when the project will end provided us with clear intentions and guidance—both for us and for the readers.”

Focus on the wins

And lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself. Remember there are always positives and wins to look at in any project—focus on them! Jenny believes, “When you’re just starting out in creating projects for yourself, you’re at your most vulnerable, so make sure you’re looking after yourself. The best advice I can offer is not to measure the success of a project against money. Instead, try focusing on other things: how a certain project helped you meet new people; how you managed to add potential clients to your mailing list; gained followers on social media; received priceless feedback; learned a new technical skill. Eventually, those goals are so much more valuable than if you managed to break even financially. Those are your wins.”


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