How side projects made me a better designer

I think side projects are so important to work on as designers. They stretch our minds and our creativity. They allow us to work on our dream projects and do the kind of work that we want to do deep down but may not have the opportunity to explore during our day jobs. I used to think about all the cool things I could make, and over my career I’ve toyed with so many experiments and side projects. But when you work in house or for an agency, you don't get to pick your clients. Fortunately a lot of projects were interesting and challenging, others were like watching paint dry. And probably one of the worst things/fears you have as a designer is when you are forced to create 'bad' work. Or work that you are not proud of. It sucks but at one point or another in our careers we've all been there. So I decided I would just be proactive and create the things I dreamed of working on in my own time. That was something I could control.

My side project graveyard is a big one, which I’m sure you might be able to relate to. The excitement and enthusiasm is high in the beginning but the motivation ALWAYS fizzles out. As designers we have a tendency to want to redesign everything because we want it to be “perfect”. But more often than not there is no perfect, there's just procrastination. Open document, move 5px up, move 5px down. Close document.

There were a lot of side projects that served more like little experiments. Fun things that I wanted to make and design. Today we’d call them prototypes, but I built so many of these in flash during the early days. I’d see cool interfaces in movies and commercials and I’d try to recreate them. This was my creative outlet. And this continued on for many years post that. [Minus the flash part haha]

Most of my experiments were with either trying new technology [Touch interfaces, motion detection, apps, prototyping tools, chatbots] and me exploring new visual styles using typography, colour and composition. Inspired by interesting stuff that I would save as inspiration, such as apps, sites, books etc. Which was super fun to work on and help stretch my creative capabilities. If there was one downside it was that these were always half baked and never completed. I used to have a massive problem with finishing things. At work I had hard deadlines to work with, teams to lead and be accountable for but my own projects time just seemed limitless, and over time I’d just get bored and start something new.

There were also many business ideas that led nowhere. These were some of the failed attempts that spanned from high school to present day. To show you that it's not always a gravy train. A lot of junk occurs before you get any momentum.

1.Game company (highschool idea, we created a logo and realised we knew nothing about creating games)

2. Pleasesavedave. An online cartoon character that I created.The idea was that he was stuck in cyber space, and with every donation amount you could get him a TV, some shoes, food etc. He would update his story and life based on these donations. In total I made $50 from this. I was young and it was my brilliant get rich scheme.(inspired by the million dollar homepage circa 2005) I was 19 and naive haha. On a side note: My claim to fame is that I did manage to get my video on the frontpage of youtube. Yes this was the early days when youtube had a universal front page for everyone.

3. A seamless mobile ecommerce checkout experience. It was paypal meets shopify (this was pre the responsive design era). I created a few design screens but it never went beyond that. This was actually a great concept, but the commitment just wasn’t there to see it through. I worked on it with a developer friend of mine. But we were heavy on idea mode and not execution mode.

4. A chat scheduling app for family and friends. There were a few of us with a ton of experience involved in this project but it never got off the ground. And we had so many different ideas and there were a lot of hype meetings. But everyones vision for what it was, was not clear. In the end it never saw the light of day even though one of the partners was willing to invest $40k on the project. All that eventuated was a few preliminary concepts from me.

So as you can see the trail of misfires were plentiful, and usually that comes with side projects.

But through each one you gain a bit more wisdom. You understand just how hard it is to create and launch something. With each misfire it lead me to eventually launch successful side projects. (Such as this blog and newsletter you are reading right now)

So why do I advocate working on side projects as designers? For the following reasons.

  1. Side projects allow you to work on projects you are passionate about. You can create things you want or dream of doing. You can create things you can’t do during your day job. To showcase skills and talents that you have within you that haven’t been explored yet. To be able to do your “best” work.

  2. Learn other aspects that will stretch your comfort zone. Like marketing & sales for example.

  3. It will test the resilience and hustler in you to see things through. If you do manage to launch something it will test your ability to see things through. And how you can be accountable to yourself and others. Once you achieve this nearly anything is possible and becomes very empowering.

  4. Launch and ship something - an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) or MSP (Minimum Sellable Product). When you release something out into the world, if you’ve done it right then you are putting your heart on your sleeve. People might love it and pay you, or it might flop. That’s scary but a necessary evil. There are so many things you can learn from this process.

  5. You keep iterating on your product. This will help you with the ability to think objectively when you design. This is when you can try to chase that elusive thing we call “perfection”. How can we design the best possible experience for our customers and users. You'll learn how to measure this. Using data, surveys and user feedback techniques.

And for those reasons I think side projects are awesome for developing growth as a designer. Because you can learn so many different aspects from the marketing/business side as well as the design side.

Fast forward to present day and I’ve launched Verse, the Process Masterclass and Source. The biggest thing that helped me get these things off the ground was that I let go of the concepts of always trying to get things “perfect”. I focused on the process and worked on the idea of launch. test. iterate. Get it 85% there and launch it.

So key takeaways for today

Start working on your own side projects. They can be:

  1. Side projects that are experiments which you can use to work on your design execution skills. App designs, website design, layout and typography explorations. These will improve your skills greatly over time.

  2. Side projects where you can launch something tangible that people can use. And if you are feeling gutsy try monetising it. When people are willing to give you money for something it’s a vote of confidence. They are saying I believe in you and that is an incredible feeling. As a designer you should do everything in your power to create the best experience possible for them. That is your job.

In closing I highly recommend you block out time to experiment and work on your side projects. Work on it a few hours a week – make it consistent and a non negotiable thing like exercise or brushing your teeth. Don’t just do it when you’re “inspired”. Do it because it is an investment in your ability. Best of luck working on your side projects.