My original garage printshop.

Always Have A Side Project

Advice for New Designers

I’m an adjunct professor, teaching (most often) Branding II to mostly seniors at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As the end of each semester approaches, I feel like I should give an inspiring speech full of life changing advice. I’m not the most eloquent speaker though, so I’ll leave that to someone else. I do, however, often pepper in advice throughout the semester, whether or not anyone is listening.

Some of the greatest hits:

  • If you end up doing freelance design work, charge more. Typically students are charging so little for freelance work they can probably double their rate without a problem.
  • Have a focus and a story to tell when you go on interviews and talk to potential clients. AKA Brand Yourself.
  • Have a portfolio that represents the type of work you want.

What’s the most important bit of advice? Always have a side project.

You landed a full-time design job. Maybe it’s at an agency that you’ve always admired, or an in-house design job for a brand you love. Maybe it’s a job that will give you some experience, and you can quit it in a year to get a better job. Either way, you should have a side project.

What do you mean by “side project”?

Preferably, a project that could potentially make you some extra money, and if things go real well, could become a part-time or full-time job for you in the future. Bonus points if it’s something you can do with your current skill set and it’s something you like to do.

Why have a side project?

Easy: 1. Extra income 2. Creative outlet outside of your 9–5.

Why I have a side project

I wrote a blog post about my “career journey” a few months ago. In it I talk about how our professional identity or our professional “brand” is connected to our job and our job title, but I would argue that it shouldn’t be. It should be connected to our career goals, our focus, what we like to do best, or what we are best at doing. Side projects can sound sexy and exciting, and often sound like a great idea when you start to get burnt out at your job. My advice: start one now, even if you love your job. It’s good for you.

One easy way to work toward those bigger picture goals is with a side project. I started my side project as an MFA student. In fact, the idea actually started as a class project. While working as a designer for the sun care brand Sun Bum, I started to ramp up my project into a real business on my own time after work. I learned how to screen print long ago to make merchandise for touring bands that I was working with in the early 2000’s while living in Baltimore. I used the skill on and off to make money in between jobs. When I moved back to Michigan in 2011 I was lucky enough to land a job at Sun Bum. It was a great experience, I was a part of a company that was growing rapidly, had a strong brand, and I was learning a lot. I had always been entrepreneurial, and had started multiple small businesses, but the things I learned while working for Sun Bum made me more interested in what it meant to create a brand.

I started an apparel line called “Grow Up Awesome”. Honestly, I started printing my own shirts because I had some ideas, and I knew how. It was a hobby, but I have a knack for turning my hobbies into businesses, so I immediately started selling screen printed shirts. I started doing local markets on weekends throughout the summer. Things grew quite quickly and ever since Grow Up Awesome has accounted for as much as 40% of my yearly income.

When Sun Bum moved the office I worked in across the country and I decided not to tag along, selling shirts offered me some financial stability during a pretty unstable time. It has also continued to be a creative outlet for me and the random ideas that fill my head. My favorite part is I have something that can grow, or scale back, as needed. I make more money by doing more markets, I make less, when I do less. So, the amount of money I make is directly tied to how much time I have to invest. Easy enough.

Get yourself a side project. Need ideas? I love to talk about that stuff. Send me a message. There is probably a way for you to make money off of the skills you have. Designers especially — you already know how to design products, you may just need a little guidance on how to get it done.