When you get into the Design field, you might get the impression that everyone around you is working on at least one side project. A colleague is working on an app in her spare time, another just launched a podcast, a third is running a popular blog… I don’t want you to think that you need a side project to be successful or happy though. I’ll just encourage you to read through the list of benefits in this article and decide for yourself if a side project could be worth the time and effort.
The side projects I’m writing about are first and foremost in UX and UI, although a side project can be literally anything you want. You’re also guaranteed to experience many of the benefits covered below, regardless of the project you choose. So even if you can’t stand the thought of pushing another pixel when you’re finally off of work, this article should still be worth your time.
Get more experience (without a job)
This part should be pretty obvious. Side projects will enable you to practice. Do more personas, more user journey maps, more wireframes, more mockups, more prototypes, more usability testing. For this reason, side projects can be particularly valuable for new Designers. The challenge young designers often face when looking for their first job is a requirement of previous experience in the field. Even when hiring for a junior position, many companies want to see a portfolio of past work.
In essence, work experience is required to get your first job — and a job is required to gain work experience. Good luck getting started in Design then! While your side project may not pay the bills, it could be a fast track to your first salary.
Try new tools and methods
Using Figma at work, but hearing everyone rave about Adobe XD being the s***? Wanting to do more moderated usability testing, but struggling to get the time and resources allocated at work? Whatever it is, a side project is a great outlet for exploring new tools and methods, and adding new skills to your CV.
Discover what you love and don’t love
Especially if you’re new to this field, learning about the myriad of potential career paths can be overwhelming. Should you focus on UX, UI, Service Design, Product Design, Interaction Design, User Research, Frontend Development, or perhaps an 8th thing that hasn’t even been named yet? Exploring all your options to figure out what you love, and don’t love, will take time. Working on side projects is a great way to speed up the process.
Live out your creativity
While the role of a Designer is generally a creative one, I know of many Designers who aren’t creatively fulfilled by their day jobs. It’s not because their day job is (necessarily) “boring” or doesn’t allow them to express their creativity. It’s usually because they just want more or something different. Setting aside requirements for financial viability or business potential, a side project lets you work on whatever you want, while being as creative as you want.
Show your dedication and passion for Design
One thing is the hours you put in, which is already a big boost to your CV and portfolio. Another is the signal this specific kind of experience sends to potential employers, colleagues, partners, and the Design community at large.
If I’m considering you for a job, seeing a side project in your portfolio tells me that you love what you do and that you’re committed to learning, exploring, and growing as a Designer. That’s the kind of person I want on my team!
Experience multiple roles in a project
Depending on the scale of your project, and how seriously you take it, you’ll also have the opportunity to wear multiple hats along the way. Start out as a Researcher and Product Strategist to get your project going. Think as a Project Manager to make sure you have and stick to a plan. Be a one-person team of UX and UI Designers. For the wannabe-unicorns out there, throw in some Frontend Development to bring your design to life. And why not be a Marketing Specialist and find a market for your project while you're at it?
Turn it into a business
This may or may not be your goal from the outset. Designing an app based on a need or problem you experience in your daily life, with no intention of taking it beyond the prototyping stage, is completely fine. That’s how I’ve approached side projects myself. However, your idea and ambitions might take you beyond that, and end up bringing in a little extra income on the side, or even turn into a full-time thing for you.
Last but certainly not least, a side project should be fun! Pick a project that’s aligned with your interests, or builds on an existing hobby, or solves a problem you experience in your daily life, or team up with a friend to make it a social activity.
Basically, do whatever you can to make your side project as enjoyable as possible. If you can dream it, you can do it. That’s the whole purpose.
Working on one or more side projects can benefit you in so many ways, regardless of the project and your ambitions for it. Just consider your options, find inspiration in your everyday life, and start dabbling! When you do, I hope you’ll enjoy the process, and perhaps even share your journey and the benefits you experience with the rest of us.
I plan on writing a lot more about the how of side projects in the near future. Until then, check out these articles by some amazing creators.