How to Make Side Projects Work

You don’t have to choose between your personal passions and your professional career

We are more than our day jobs. No matter how much we love our work, no matter how much our work projects command our attention, everyone has ideas that go beyond the office and beckon us to explore them.

I’m an unapologetic fan of side projects. I even started and run a side project incubator (on nights and weekends) called Ship Your Side Project. We’ve helped dozens of mid-career tech and design professionals launch personal projects while working full-time jobs. I’m so passionate about them because I know how much side projects have helped me level-up in my career, gain new skills, and explore new ideas.

Prior to Capital One, I was an Art Director. My projects then had a stronger visual bent, which made sense given that my role was to define a brand’s visual direction and step in to execute on campaigns when needed. As a member of the Design Strategy team at Capital One, my day-to-day is much more focused on people—their needs, attitudes, and habits—and on the strategy to best align our customers, technology, and business practices. My side projects still have a visual component, but they’ve also evolved to have more commercial value and human impact.

And I’m not alone; I’ve met many other designers at Capital One with their own side hustles. These side projects take time and effort, but they also make us stronger designers and help us contribute to Capital One in new ways.

Now I know what you might be thinking — that might be great for you but I can’t pull off a side project! Think again. I’ve worked with dozens of people on their side projects and most of their concerns fall into three categories, which I will now debunk.

“I don’t have enough time”

Between yoga class, chasing after the kids, and catching up on Game of Thrones — it can be hard to imagine where the minutes might come from for a side project.

When I first stepped into my Art Director shoes, I thought the same thing. I had to set the vision for campaigns and products, while managing people and doing a fair share of the heavy design lifting. I turned to a hobby of mine — building digital collages — into a side project-cum-experiment called Creative Habit. Every day for a year I sat down to produce a design and post it to Instagram, in under an hour. My early designs were sometimes rough, but over time, I was able to expand my visual repertoire and became much more efficient about executing creative work under deadline.

Creative Habit

Your side project doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking—it can start out with just a few minutes a day. My colleague Janet Kim, who’s been recording tracks for an EP of electropop music for nearly a year, says the key has been “finding a structure and routine for myself”. You might surprise yourself at just how much you can get done when you take consistent action on your project.

“I have too many ideas”

Most creative people have lots of interests, and it can be easy to get overwhelmed at all the possibilities — should I start a podcast on motion design? Or start selling some lettering work on Etsy? Or try my hand at building an Alexa skill?

Sometimes all you need is a personal problem to solve. I was suffering from creative block and a friend showed me Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards with vague prompts to help you think differently. I was inspired to create a modern version that was digital so I could take it anywhere and share it with friends and colleagues who might find it useful too. To make it happen, I had to learn how to store phrases and randomly show them, style a website using CSS, and hack together a working product. When I launched The Genius Deck, it certainly didn’t have the cleanest code or the most seamless interface — but it worked, and thousands of people have used it to drum up new ideas. The skills I learned translated directly into prototype building and testing, which comes in handy sometimes for my design strategy work at Capital One.

My colleague Taurean Butler had a different kind of personal problem to solve. After scouring stores and the web for the perfect sock, he came up empty-handed. So he’s taking it upon himself to create the sock of his dreams. Despite having had little experience with visual design, he’s jumping in headfirst—discovering the joys of hacking things together and learning on the fly. “It makes work at Capital One more fun — I don’t have overwhelming fear when I don’t know something because I can make it a part of my learning agenda for my side project.”

“I won’t be able to stick with it”

We’ve all been there: inspired by a great idea, we start a new project. But then we lose steam — the project throws up an unexpected challenge and the hassles of life threaten to distract you.

Sometimes it’s the community that carries you. Inspired by a friend who had worked on the Hillary campaign, I decided earlier this year to highlight some of the incredible, but lesser known women who kick ass in STEM fields. Over six weeks in the spring of 2017, Beyond Curie raised over $32,000 from 602 individuals seeking to bring posters, books, and notecards of these women into their lives. My apartment was filled with boxes of envelopes and stacks of rewards and while I was thrilled at the reception, it felt a bit overwhelming.

Stacks of Beyond Curie decals ready for classrooms around the world.

But when I was feeling tired or under the weather, I thought of the women who came up to me after my speaking events, or told me their story as we huddled under umbrellas at the March for Science. I found out later that the posters even made their way into Capital One. Remembering the community that had formed around my project helped keep me going when things got tough.

Beyond Curie at the March of Science, D.C.

Choose a project that means something to you, and remind yourself of that purpose often. When we find work that matters, it becomes much easier to stay motivated and on track.

At Capital One, our teams lift each other up in difficult times. In the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, my colleague Hyatt Bailey, is bringing his work outside of Capital One to help our team stand up for social justice and be ready with action plans to respond to racism and sexism. Another example of how meaningful, important side work can play a crucial role in the workplace.

If there’s a passion in your life that you’re not able to express at work, consider making it a side project, and see where it could take you. Don’t let yourself make excuses about having the time, coming up with a good concept, or staying motivated.

The most impressive people I know are ambitious go-getters in their job, but they also invest in their creative passions. And rather than seeing them as distractions, they see those side projects as supporting activities that make them stronger and more innovative. They know the truth, which is that when we pick a project that matters to us, we make the time, the pieces fall into place, and we find the power to see things through.

Check out ONE Design’s open positions here.