Picking side projects that don’t suck

With so many ways to fill your portfolio (and time) how do you choose personal projects that help you build skills and your experience?

Everyone is doing a side project or a side hustle these days. And, if you have tried to start your own only to abandon it weeks (or even days) later, I hear you. Finding the right fit for your spare time can be tricky business.

There are hundreds of thousands of projects you could do at any given time. It can seem daunting and its hard to know which ones are worth your time and which ones waste it. There is no one size fits all, but there are different kinds of projects to help with different skill sets you might want to develop.

Not all projects are created equal

Side projects can range from volunteer work, one-every-day explorations, to even creating a product that brings in some passive income. When you pick a side project think about how much time you might want to dedicate for it, and how involved you want to projects to be.

Level 1: Just Form

Generally the easiest projects that take the least amount of time have the least complexity to them. These are your ten minute projects, or the one-every-day projects that focus on building technical skills. When I was in college I created a project where I practiced typography every day in a project that became 100 Days of Typography. The goal was to create as many different type treatments I could think of, each with different faces, sizes, color, and quotes

Pros: You can create a large amount of work in a short amount of time. These exercises are not complicated and have very little constraints. They are good for your design chops like squats are good for your legs.

Cons: These projects are designed to be quickly executed, so they lack the nuance that a lot of employers look for in a design process. They are not ideal to put in your portfolio, but perfect to share on social media.

📍 Examples of these Projects:
Daily Drop Cap
Thirty Logos Folio

💡 Design Prompts:
Daily UI Challenge
The Daily Logo Challenge

Sample from my 100 Days of Typography project

Level 2: Form + Content

Projects that look at content as well as form have a little more meat to them than projects that just focus on form. These are flyers for non profits, rebranding a museum, creating package design for a new food. Create or find practice briefs as a starting point.

Pros: These projects illustrate that you can design in order to reinforce a message or concept. You can do them for fun or for a worthy cause and they can help tailor your portfolio for different industries you might want to work for.

Cons: These projects take more time to do them well, and they don’t always have the context of who would interact with the design or where the design would appear. These are good portfolio pieces as long as you can show off your process along with it.

📍 Examples of these Projects:
M&A Festival
Resurrect Beer

💡 Design Briefs:
Summertime Graphic Design Projects

Example of practice design briefs from Briefbox

Level 3: The Trifecta of Form, Content & Context

These are projects that are as close to the real deal as possible. Projects like a UX redesign of a website with research and key outcomes, or an app that solves some real human problems. Projects that involve all three form, concept and context are usually the gnarliest, but they can also be some of the most rewarding. Companies like Slack, Product Hunt and Groupon started as side projects.

The key with this one is that you work on more than just how it looks. The form and content are closely connected with the context the design lives in. If its an app, who are the users? What are the problems they have? How might you solve it? Do research to learn about the people you want to design for then create something that you can get their feedback on. Think about these projects strategically.

Pros: These by far are the strongest portfolio pieces of the projects outlines. They can be modular enough to fit any portfolio style but provide enough insight to create a case study for it. They can demonstrate a range of both technical skills and soft skills and you can also get more experience in the work you want to do full-time.

Cons: These are projects that require a level of strategic thinking and planning that take extra time you might not want to spend. They can be easy to get off the ground but might take a while to really fine tune it.

📍 Example of these kinds of Projects:
Authentic Weather

💡 Design Ideas:
Create a UX Portfolio Without Much Experience

Pick the Project that Speaks to You

Before you rush into a project I ask myself these questions.

What am I passionate about?

This may seem like an obvious one, but really think about it. A few years back I wanted to create a brand for a music festival, but I don’t know anything about music festivals, and I don’t really care to find out. I think the idea of a music festival is awesome but to actually to the work didn’t interest me as much as I thought it would. I don’t go to music festivals really often so it wasn’t something I knew enough to make a decent project out of.

What is missing from my portfolio?

Do you want to get more into UX design or branding and identity? Package design or service design? Each area of design goes deep so creating projects that show breadth and depth will help you round out your skills.

How much time can I spend on this project?

Think hard about this because its easy to start a thousand projects and never finish any of them. When I graduated from college I started to work full time, I volunteered for a design conference and I took on a couple freelance clients. After a while I couldn’t figure out why I was struggling to keep up with everything. Ultimately you need to figure out what your priorities are in order to finish projects.

Who can hold me accountable on this project?

You don’t necessarily need a person, but makes everything so much easier. Goals are easier to achieve when you have someone who can check-in regularly on your progress and challenge you to keep going when you start to lose motivation. If you decide to do a one-every-day project, is there a community you can join? If you want to build an app, can you find a small team to hep?

What seems cool to learn more about?

Design and technology are always changing and side projects can be a great way to keep a pulse on the industry. Additionally, consider what hard and soft skills you want to learn. Is there software out there that you can download a trial of, or a project where you can practice communication skills? Follow your curiosity here.

There are many other questions you can ask before you start a project, but they will come in time. The more work you do, the easier it is to navigate what you actually want to do and what just sounds cool in theory.

What side projects have you started? Share them in the responses.