The importance of side projects

This was first published on my mailing list The Looking Glass. Every week, I answer a reader’s question.

Digital Illustration by Julie Zhuo

How should I approach side projects?

I understand the importance of side projects. But how do I know which one to pursue? How do I find a problem to tackle that has not already been tackled? I am entering the world of design and I want to start working on side projects. I just don’t know where to begin.

This question caught my attention because of the important role side projects have played in my own career.

Growing up, I spent most of my spare moments in middle school, high school, and even a part of college doing digital illustration. In seventh grade, my best friend and I discovered the Internet and through it the world of video game and anime art, and we were hooked. We started with Paint, then upgraded to PaintShopPro (gradient tool! Oh my!), then found the seedy underbelly of the Internet in our quest to get a copy of Photoshop for free. Our passion for art was so intense that we watched new video game trailers hundreds of times so we could capture the characters in drawing, devoured tutorials to learn new shading techniques, and learned how to make websites to share our art with the world. I learned about online communities through our little site Tyro Tinge, and later DeviantArt.

At the time, my parents viewed “drawing pictures” as a distraction from real life skills. Why didn’t I spend more time studying, or participating in clubs, or learning a new language, or — I don’t know, getting out of the house instead of being glued to my monitor and my Wacom tablet? Today, I tease them that the only reason I’m in design doing what I do now is because of that little art hobby. It’s how I developed an eye for aesthetics, learned digital design tools, and started building and designing websites.

But if I had selected my side project based on likelihood of it becoming a career, it’s unlikely things would have turned out this way. The point I want to convey is that the most important thing about side projects is that you’re doing something you truly enjoy. Side projects work best when they live at the interaction of “Things you enjoy” and “Things that help you practice a marketable skill.” In Venn Diagram form, here’s how that looks:

So, if your side project isn’t something you actually really enjoy doing, you might as well spend your time on your actual job. You’ll struggle to stay motivated, and you won’t pour any real passion into the side project.

If your side project isn’t something that helps you practice a marketable skill, then you’re just having fun :-) Which is fine as well, but let’s be honest about its purpose.

A good litmus test is that side projects are typically productive, not consumptive. That’s not to say side projects have to be 100% focused on production. For example, you may be interested in building an app, but not (yet) have the technical skills to do it. So step 1 would be to take an online course on app development. Then, throughout the course, you could work on the app, knowing it will take a while, but always with that goal keeping you motivated.

How do I find a project to tackle that has not already been tackled? Doing something original isn’t a requirement. You’re not trying to start the next unicorn company. You’re just trying to build skills. So, if you see something that inspires you, and you’d like to try your hand at doing something similar, go for it. You’re bound to come up with a few interesting and original variations in the process, but moreover, you’ll be learning how to create the types of things you appreciate.

What about building up more work for my portfolio? If your only goal is to bolster your portfolio but you’re not that interested in the work itself, it’s hard to muster up the motivation to do it. The only necessary outcomes of your sideproject are (1) your own enjoyment and (2) marketable skill development. If it happens to result in something for your portfolio, that’s a nice bonus… but that shouldn’t be the primary goal.

What if the side project I’m interested in isn’t related to my career? That’s awesome. You’re about to become multi-talented.

I’ve always been a fan of keeping a healthy mix of side-projects layered into everyday life. From building a cute virtual pets app (which my husband picked up and ran with), to various writing projects (novels, blogs, and now this newsletter), side projects give me an outlet for exploring new challenges and new ways to be creative.

I’m really glad this question came up, as I’d highly encourage anyone to make time for side projects. Don’t overthink it trying to find the perfect idea. Perfect is the enemy of done. Just get started and learn as you go!


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