I did a talk at Open House back in August 2017. Open House is a lovely project by Thompson Brand Partners where invited guest speakers, tell a story of what they’re about! I was very honoured to be asked. I’ve never really written a summary of a talk, I guess it doesn’t quite flow in the same way as speech but here goes.
Professionally, I’ve always loved giving a talk every once in a while (at least once a year), in addition to being able to share my story and maybe extend some ideas to others, it gives me a chance to reflect on how I work, what my work is and what it means to me and where I want to take it. I’ve found that sometimes what you put out in public becomes what you’re about.
After writing this and giving the talk, I realised I was really telling the story of what it’s like to be enamoured with the side-project mentality and how it can form the belief that side-projects are integral to entrepreneurial approaches to design.
Defining the Side-project.
Everyone kind of knows what a side-project is, or at least if you’re reading this you’ll be familiar with side-projects in some shape or form, especially in the creative industries.
In the conventional sense, a side-project is not usually classed as your main work or livelihood but it relates to your interests and passions. People call it many things, a side hustle a second job even, whatever you call it, there are many people who actively conspire to or engage in this sort of thing. I genuinely love spending a few hours a month on Hackernews or r/sideproject scouring patterns of what people are up to and supporting them in my own way, whether it’s giving feedback, being a tester or buying a product. I’m fascinated by what their motivations are and how they juggle making optimal use of their time while they have other work to do. I think it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t share the fantasy of running their own project. calling all the shots.
The case studies usually start with ‘how we bootstrapped xyz’ , or ‘how I made xyz in my weekends’ or ‘how an experiment led to something’ — I love the idea of a humble series of experiments that pay off, through a combination of hard work, perseverance and sheer belief, absolutely amazing projects emerge. I feel discovering how other people approach it is part of the fun. I’m also a huge believer that limited resources or having the odds stacked up against you can actually work in your favour (most of the time).
Recently during the most unlikely of events for me to lavish any attention on, a game of football, where my town’s team beat ‘Manchester United’ 2–1 I was reminded of the fact that it really doesn’t matter how big you are or how experienced you are, you can achieve results through sheer passion and desire. To me Side-projects are all about that, they’re passion projects and in terms of potential for success or risk vs reward ratio they can sometimes trump well organised, well funded, well resourced projects.
I spend a lot of time playing indie games and there are plenty of examples of passion projects like this in the indie gaming scene. Think Fez, Thomas Was Alone, The Witness, Hotline Miami!
Personally, I’ve never really called it a side project either. I nurture my healthy obsessions with an aspect of a project and do little experiments, get involved in (game) jams, post the results wherever I can see them being appreciated… I have a lot of them open at any given time and this has been my approach to things in general for as long as I can remember. Ideas cross fertilise each other. I don’t beat myself up if I can’t finish a project or get really stuck because there are more avenues for me to be exploring than one definition of that project and something learnt in one failed experiment can affect another.
Side always denotes something that’s secondary or inferior, or something that deserves less attention, or something that’s a bit sneaky even, ironically as much as I loved the poster TBP did for this talk. A bit on the side, sounds a little bit like there’s something sneaky afoot. Great branding though!
I’d like to challenge that notion though. There’s nothing sneaky about a side-project, even if you’re working for a creative company that owns your intellectual property. They should be encouraging side-projects. When you look around, especially in the most forward thinking of agency and product settings, this is happening more and more frequently and in a more formalised fashion.
Side projects are an essential attitude to work which ensures everything is fresh and the work you do has a healthy dose of yourself in it! Companies who embrace this naturally tend to do more interesting, more experimental work.
In some ways I feel it’s the side-projects that define you. They’re not your bit on the side, they’re the thing that keeps you motivated. The conversation that keeps going in your head. They are in sense core to who you are as a creative especially.
Why I work on side projects
This list isn’t exhaustive but with side-projects:
- I can try out new things, perhaps things I wouldn’t try during the regular course of my work
- Really stretch my abilities, and go out of my comfort zone in a good psychological space. It’s hard to work on side projects under pressure or with an unsupportive work or family environment. I’ve been lucky to have both.
- I work with my perceived weaknesses and explore my unknown skills, work out what my blind spots are.
- It’s a bit like a formal structure to your hobbies, it helps your well being, allows you to follow your passions, it kind of helps you achieve a sense of progress, helps you become the most productive version of you through optimisation.
- There are many ways you can screw up side-projects if you have very rigid and predefined expectations from them , but part of the fun of it is discovering all of that and learning to work within or by extending your comfort zone.
- I love collaborating with people who are more capable than I am and side-projects are the perfect vessel for doing so.
- I love talking about and finding out about what others are doing. There’s a lot of learning in this process.
A bit about my past 8 years of professional work
I worked at RITH from 2009– late 2017 (about 8 years) The primary work we did was interaction design and software development. Most of the things I dabbled in making lived on screen but sometimes they involved a bit of physical computing too, I don’t remember anything that didn’t have an aspect of interactivity or computational thinking though. Naturally this broad definition meant the work was pretty eclectic and there was very little we didn’t take on if it interested us. In doing so, I actually always found there was enough parity between our goals and that of the client’s end users to do a really great job of the work and make sure everyone is on the same side.
There were just three of us while I worked there and we did almost everything ourselves.
The big secret to how we made it work at RITH in my opinion was this… we kept aspects of the side-project mentality and indeed any learning from our side projects constantly feeding into all our work.
A side-project or mention of it may have seemed like a little aside, but you could argue it defined our pitches to all the following clients and more importantly it demonstrated unequivocally that that we were heavily R&D focused.
I can give so many direct examples of this but I think it’s more interesting to acknowledge a personal history and dissect where the influence of side-projects came from for me. As it turns out sideprojects kind of define my very existence. If it wasn’t for them I may not have been born! (Dramatic Pause)
The sideproject way or being open to everything!
I spent some of my formative years in Iran. I was there during the height of of the Iran-Iraq war, and born shortly after a cultural and political revolution which had transformed the way people live, think and act.
Iran is one of the youngest countries in the world with approximately 70% of its population under 30, yet everywhere I looked I could see the result of crafts which had taken in excess of 10,000 hours to master by older craftspeople who have clearly learnt how to design and craft things on the job.
Anyone wanting to pick up on these things would also have to learn on the job too. The only way you could do that these days while you completed your regular academic studies (super important in Iran) of course was to learn that craft in the context of a side-project or hobby!
My mum and dad were both big on their calligraphy, and our house was full of art books, documenting everything from illustration to sculpture. So naturally I was brought up in a household where there was a lot of visual influence present. The Iranian equivalent of visiting stately homes and castles was visiting mosques, royal courtyards and palaces and of course they were laden with lots of visual influence, everywhere you looked.
The gift shops in all those places, or neighbouring bazaars were full of lovely handmade objects like these.
Everywhere I went, I could see the traces of calligraphy present. I particularly liked these zoomorphic bits as a child and still do.
The other big art and craft based influence was that both my grandmothers made carpets. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Persian carpet weaving, part of its process is a bit like pixel art.
Every single bit which makes up the pattern is knotted individually by hand and set into place. There are machine made carpets too, but the majority of them in existence are still hand woven and it’s no surprise that the machine made ones are less sought after and cheaper too. Some of the hand woven carpets comprise of over 12 million knots, that’s like accounting for every pixel in a photograph. Some are made out of precious materials such as silk and more often than not all the colours are natural.
It can take years for someone to complete a single carpet or it can take a group of people a shorter time to work on individual sections of a carpet.
So this is my mum’s mum, last year when I was in Iran, she told me the story of how they moved to Tehran in the 1950s;
She arrived with my grandad and six carpets she’d woven over the course of a few years in her native town of Tafresh. The idea was that they’d settle in this new city, find new work and have kids there. One of the first things they did was to buy a house with the sale of some of these carpets.
With this example in particular you can see how my work ethic has been flavoured by the notion and the origin story from my grandmother that you can make money from your craft, and it can be something special and lasting, something that takes you years to hone.
Pictured above is one of these carpets which she made. To me this a real testament to the durability of Persian carpets and to how fine the craft is. the fact that she uses it as a welcome mat is really interesting and says a lot about how she wants the world to know about her. Lesson : wear your side-project on your sleeve.
How your childhood influences shape your side-projects
I used to spend hours, on the edge of carpets, like a racetrack, with my little toy cars.
I would imagine these tracks were roads, very colourful ones at that, and every so often i’d come across a little error. A single knot out of place, (there’s actually beautiful philosophy behind it, message or comment and I’ll explain it), so it was hard not to spot it.
Bits that I found very intriguing, were the errors or the asymmetry. The things that were slightly out of order always stood out.
Fast forward 20 years.
I chose to go to University.
At that time Multimedia Design was in the throes of the golden age of Macromedia Flash Pre-loaders. In the very first year of my studies, while it seemed everyone around me was trying to do the neatest things, I had a secret side interest, I was interested in things that didn’t quite look perfect, they were deconstructed and mangled. where this was digital it really caught my interest. So I absorbed myself in the technical and artistic exploration of failure.
I nurtured this interest during my studies by collecting ‘found’ glitches, I didn’t even know what they were called at the time. In 1999 there was no one formally talking about them bar one person. There was no mention of the glitch aesthetic till I discovered Ant Scott’s blog and website (Beflix.com) which had these glitches featured with a little description on them.
This carried on till my final year where I wrote the first academic study on the visual glitch aesthetic.
This same interest carried on even when I had graduated. I started soliciting submissions via a site and an email address for a coffee table book of glitches. Within a year I ended up with over 1000 submissions, a lot of which were definitely book material. The process of turning that into a book however was one of the most complicated side-projects I’ve undertaken. With zero to little experience in print, I naturally gravitated to one of the best graphic designers I knew in the north, Joe Gilmore (Qubik), who then collaborated with Christopher Murphy (Fehler) to make the book vision happen for myself and Ant Scott.
Following the development and publishing of the Glitch book. I carried on experimenting with games. I always had an interest in making games and playing them, so naturally this ended up filtering into the work I did at RITH too. I designed more games and did little fragments of them than actually developing a fully featured game but it’s safe to say there was at least one that I spent over 10 years on. REON. From 2004–2015
sometimes you’ve got to know when to quit on something though.
For me it came when I asked for some advice from someone who does incredible side-projects of his own.
At the point I asked for advice, my work on REON was very fragmented (I had screen designs, world building stuff, little code fragments) and although I’d learnt a lot in the prototyping phase and in the visual design generation. It really didn’t amount to a game. So my friend Thomas Noppers gave me some advice.
Here’s what Thomas said.
Thomas: Reon seems dead in its current state. All those notes you made amount to a big pile but I’m sure it’s not the only good game you can make. For your peace of mind it’s probably best to either declare the game dead and buried or to take back control.
In all honestly it was such a relief to hear that. I was faced with a collaboration on REON with a programmer friend of mine which hadn’t progressed much due to various mutual stresses on our time and a lack of a clear vision / parity on what to make so to hear Thomas say that, helped tremendously and gave me the impetus to delve into exploring another great idea for a game which my wife actually came up with. A narrative driven physics based puzzle game set in space, where you bash into things or collect them.
I set about prototyping visuals for it, and doing little code experiments and even found a new collaborator on the music side.
While my Lonely Cosmos game project is ongoing, the mentality to develop a side-project and push for something I could finish realistically, rather than have as a design exploration like REON also resulted in me working on revamping visuals on another game. Frustratetris which I worked with Martin Cox on. In this case it was a matter of developing visuals and environments for an existing game in which the visuals were not the main focus initially for Martin.
To me side-projects are an indication of forward thinking future potential.
They are all about nurturing a working attitude that keeps you motivated as a creative and allows you to sharpen your skills in areas which you really love or areas that you want to experiment in.
Over the past 13 years, although in my day to day work I was managing accounts and doing minimal art direction on things I produced for clients, in my spare time I was working fairly intensively on designing things that interested me in areas I wanted to develop.
- I loved the idea of publishing a book so I started a book collaboration.
- I loved games so I started to make games.
- I loved libraries so I started working at RITH on a project that gamifies the library.
- I love visual computation, so I started to develop little processing sketches that generated interesting visual output.
When you’re working on side-projects it never stops, you’re constantly seeking and refining, in fact if you’re anything like me you’ll find yourself doing little side-projects while you do side-projects.