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Thoughts on Why You Should Have a Side Project

posted by Matt Ward on Aug 26, 2011.

It’s a pretty common occurrence for developers and designers in this industry to have their own, pet side projects. Do you? If not, perhaps its time to consider starting something up. In this article, we’ll be looking at some of the benefits that come along with having your own side project(s).

As designers and developers, most of us are working on projects for clients on a regular basis. For most readers here, it will probably be the design and development of websites, or possibly even web or mobile applications. For others, it could be different forms of design, such as identity work or packaging. In any case, we invest hours and hours into the planning, execution and even revision of these projects.

Client work is certainly important, since it is often a large part of what helps pay the bills and bring home the proverbial bacon. Unfortunately, when working for someone else, we generally don’t have complete and total control over what we are doing. Yes, we have been hired to do the job, and yes that should mean that we—not the client—are making the design decisions. Still, a big part of the web designer’s job is to deploy his or her skills not only to create a totally awesome website, but also to help realize the client’s vision and develop solutions to their unique problems. This naturally places some constraints on the process.

In some cases, these constraints may involve working within standardized corporate guidelines for branding and identity. In other cases, it can be a matter of consulting on what kinds of layouts and interactions might make for the most effective and usable e-commerce solution.

Yes, occasionally, that odd project will come along where we are given the extensive creative freedom to take the project and/or design in pretty much any direction that we see fit (cherish and enjoy these projects whenever they come along). Even in these situations, though, all the creativity, energy and experience you pour into the work is still all for the primary benefit of the client.

That’s why I think that every single designer and/or developer needs at least one side project—something that is all their own, and which is entirely free of any kind of client direction or expectation. There are a number of great benefits to be derived from these kinds of projects. Let’s look at a few of them.

Passion

As much as you may have a passion for all things related to design and web development, that does not always mean that you will be working on projects that your are also passionate about. In fact, quite often you may find yourself working on designs and sites that are somewhat dull or commonplace. Unless you are in a situation that allows to turn down work that doesn’t interest you, this is likely something that you will find quite common in the world of client services.

A good side project can provide you with an outlet through which to truly channel otherwise frustrated passions. It can be something to embrace with enthusiasm, energy and vigour, and to throw your entire self into. It can also be extremely surprising how energizing a project like this can be.

If it’s something you are truly passionate about, you may find yourself putting long hours into the project, but coming away excited and full of energy because of it. Ideally, you would then be able to channel this back into the work you are doing for your clients.

It’s almost like a mini-design holiday to recharge your batteries!

Experimentation

A side project can also be a great area for experimentation and trying out new techniques, especially in the world of web design, where new technologies seem to be released on an almost monthly basis. Though there are always different perspectives on when these technologies may be ready for implementation on client projects, more often than not we will find designers and developers deploying them in some way on their personal sites.

CSS3 is probably the best example of this. While it is certainly not fully supported (though we are getting closer all the time), a wide range of designers are still using CSS3-based techniques on their own sites. In some cases, it’s used as just a bit of progressive enhancement. In other cases, it manifests itself in much more expressive ways, with all kinds of innovative and sometimes just plain whacky concepts (see this article for some examples).

Sometimes these experiments may not be the most practical or approriate uses of the technology, but they do tend to help keep our web-geek minds entertained.

Experimenting on a side project can also just help you further develop and hone your skills. You can attempt a number of different possible solutions to a particluar problem without having to worry about billing clients for that experimentation. Then, when the need for such a solution comes up in a project, you can impress the client with your skill, efficiency and knowledge in that area.

Remember, we always need to be learning and growing, and using a side project as a playground for various types of experimentation is great way to stimulate this growth.

Recognition

It’s a common enough desire to be recognized (usually in a positive way) by our peers, and side projects can help in this regard too, especially if they are of benefit to the community. There are all kinds of tools out there that people have developed and made available, and which have helped to establish their reputations within the community.

Take Tyler Tate for example. If you haven’t heard of Tyler himself, chances are you have heard of his 1KB CSS Grid, which is one of the more well known of the grid frameworks that have been commonly used over the past several years. More recently, Tyler has created another framework called the Semantic Grid System, which addresses the issue or semantics (or lack thereof) with class-based grids like the 1KB system.

1KB Grid System is the type little side project that can increase recognition for its creator

1KB Grid System is the type little side project that can increase recognition for its creator

Seemingly as a direct result of this new system, he also authored a recent article on Smashing Magazine, in which he discusses the concepts behind the new system (which runs of of LESS).

It’s a simple example, and one that was at the forefront of my mind, having recently read Tyler’s article, but it is a clear demonstration of how a meaningful side project can actually help establish yourself in the community. Without his experience creating the CSS grids, maybe Tyler doesn’t get the chance to write for Smashing Magazine (though he probably would—he has also recently written for A List Apart), potentially losing out on an excellent example for exposure.

A Little Extra Coin

Let’s be honest—it never hurts to make a little extra money, especially when dealing with the unpredictable ups and downs of the freelance life. Side projects can sometimes help in this area too. You may create an awesome web service, and sell some advertising space. Or maybe you just sit down and create something which ends up growing far beyond what you expected it to, to the point where you either sell it off or it becomes a viable business onto itself.

One great example is the site DesignNewz. Originally crafted by my good friend Jon Phillips (formerly also of SpyreStudios), this popular design news site was conceived, crafted on WordPress and then launched all in a matter of hours. Over a period of time, Jon watched the site grow and flourish, to the point where he didn’t have the resources to manage it. So, he put it up for sale and made a bit of extra cash off the project.

DesignNewz was originally a side project that has grown into something much larger

DesignNewz was originally a side project that has grown into something much larger

Today, DesignNewz continues to deliver content and has even seen a network of related, sites that sprung up around it.

On a larger scale, we can look at something like Dribbble. I am not as familiar with the specifics behind its founding, but from what I’ve read and heard about the site, it certainly seems as though the site was originally launched as a collaborative side project of Dan Cedarholm and Rich Thordnett. Having now processed nearly twenty billion image pixels, it has grown considerably, featuring thousands of members, paid (pro) accounts and income from advertising.

Of course, not all side projects are going to become the next Dribbble, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t make a little extra cash with your project too!

What Should You Do?

By this point, I hope that you can see that there is true value in having and developing some kind of side project. The question that remains, however, is: what kind of side project should you have? Well, that depends most strongly on a single variable; and that variable is you.

What do you want to do?

There is no right or wrong answer here, and it manifests itself differently for everyone. One common choice is the design and development of a personal blog. It could be a design blog, but it doesn’t have to be. Well known design author Andy Rutledge has his Design View blog, where he writes about design-related topics, but he also has blogs about bonsai and cycling, two of the other things that he loves.

You don’t need to create a blog though. You could create a new framework, theme, application, typeface or even a book or printed magazine (Elliott Jay Stock’s lovely 8 Faces comes to mind). Moreover, a side project doesn’t even necessarily be design-related at all. Personally, the project that I am tackling at the moment is a fantasy-based novella, which I hope will be the first in an ongoing series. There are some design related elements (a website, book covers), but they are more or less peripheral. The real focus is creative writing.

I hope to have some preview material available my mid-september so stay tuned!

So, I hope you can see the real benefits of a side project, and in In closing, I will simply ask: what’s your side project?

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Comments

Aug 26, 2011

Michael says:

Inspiring article, Matt. Been following you for a while on Twitter but just haven’t made the time to read the blog.

Thanks for posting this. Going to think of a side project now :)

Aug 26, 2011

Margaret Massop says:

Thanks for this post, Matt.

I myself run a website where (Dutch) people can make their own family tree website (www.uwstamboomonline.nl). I do this next to my webdesign business (www.web-wise.nl).

I have two more arguments to plead your case.

The first one might not count for everyone, but I like to always have a project to work on, even on days when work from clients is low. If I feel like designing or developing, I can.

And second, I like to be in contact with the visitors of my website. I gain knowledge from that. Normally I am only in contact with clients, and not their visitors.

Thanks again,
Margaret

Aug 27, 2011

Sam Donga says:

Hi,

i have red the article.

thank you

Aug 27, 2011

Daniel Mckendry says:

Is definately a good idea to have a side project, it gives you first hand experience on how a website is run depending on what your project is that is, lets potential clients see that you already have a popular website of your own sand they’ll see that you have a good idea of what you are doing.

Aug 30, 2011

Kerby says:

I love this post. The tips you gave are right. I love your thoughts about one’s “passion” in design. Keep it up.

Sep 17, 2011

Kevin Flores says:

Matt: Your post is well thought out and your examples are a great way to remind us all that side projects of passion are achievable and purposeful.

I’ll definitely re-read this and share it with colleagues.

Thank you!

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