Personal Projects: A Designer’s Secret Weapon

‘ve always been a huge purveyor of the personal project. This hobby/obsession of mine first reared itself sophomore year in college, when I was determined to have more projects to choose from at the end of my senior year. Let’s say I like to plan ahead. Okay, WAY ahead, sure, but it did serve me well. I surrendered every vacation, break, and late night I had to the promise of being the best I could; I mean THE BEST. By the time senior year came, I had triple the amount of projects as the rest of my graduating class, and a lot of personal projects ended up in my final senior portfolio; this was all the validation I need to continue this craziness.

Now that I’m a bona-fide real life professional world graphic designer, I feel as though the habit of creating personal projects is an utmost necessity in setting yourself apart from the herd. I thought I’d break down some pro’s and con’s of the personal project, and you can decide for yourself if it’s worth donating your free time to the collection and nurturing of your own passionate skill set. (Hint: It’s always worth it)

1) Creating a project in a field you are hoping to break into

Nothing says you’re dedicated to trying something new than doing it on your own! I may not have animating experience, but I have always wanted to create storyboards for animators to enjoy. Since 2008,  I’ve been playing around with storyboard and styleboard creation and have been approached by companies for that very purpose! In a way, it’s the upside of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because you are showing the world that you are so interested, you ain’t waiting around for anyone else to hand it to you! You are making your own opportunities, and who is going to turn that down?

2) Visual Awe/Envy

This happens to everyone, but what you do about it makes the difference between a successful designer and a mopey one (just one lady’s opinion). I love to stare at other designer’s work and try to pick apart how they got there. Chuck Anderson’s beautiful gradient work, Vault49 just tickles me pink with all of their gorgeous detailing, and do not. even get me. started. on Stefan Sagmeister.  How I deal with this unyielding envy is to try and emulate what I love it. If it’s the level of detail, I try to create something with that same intensity and focus. If it’s pithy typography pulled from a vulnerable place (and executed with such humor! oh Sagmeister), I work to add that into a type treatment or visually represent a poem in a poster. Things can be interpreted any way you choose; it’s part of the wonderful openness of postmodernism! Things outside of yourself are inspiring you? Wunderbar! Use this inspiration and flip it around to speak about who you are, and why it’s inspiring. Everyone loves to see process, you’re loving someone ELSE’S process, so why not create the opportunity for someone to love YOUR process?

3) Showing them who’s BOSS

Man I love this last one. Okay, so let’s say you’ve got a bad case of “I could so do that”, so put your money where your mouth is and do it. Hating on the last redesign/rebrand/ad campaign from one of your fav companies? Redo it. Show them how it’s done, and then send it to them. Explain why you felt the way you did, and unleash the brilliant case study created from your sheer genius. Whatever their initial reaction, they will look at you differently, and I would venture a guess that respect wouldn’t be far behind either.

Stepping up to the plate and showcasing how you think and work, especially that you have the chutzpah to demand the floor, will create such a separation from you and the pack. Leaders don’t wait to be handed the floor, and people interested in personal projects aren’t looking to stay safe in the cubicle! Don’t be afraid to embrace some not-so expected tactics, because you’re not looking for ho-hum results. Just don’t do a half-assed job. That’s probably key.

Of course there ARE some challenges with keeping motivated through personal projects, and in doing this for so long, I have definitely come across, and worked through, most of them.

How am I supposed to be motivated to work without getting paid? 

Ah the rub! Yes there is quite the ‘labor of love’ aspect inherent with personal projects, but the ends have to justify the means. Are you itching to climb the ladder or are you happy with the status quo? I am just an especially hungry Jenny, so I need to flex my design muscles on new and challenging projects.

There are too many choices left up to me! I am drowning in a sea of indecision!

Yep been there! Floundering around the abundance of choice can be just as debilitating as too LITTLE choice. How do I fix it? I start by creating a set of constraints by which the project will function. I treat myself, and this project, just like a client. There’s a schedule set up, inspiration hunting and sorting, and different iterations and options created. I’ve found that treating it like it’s a serious project helps me keep things (like my brain) in check, and far more manageable.

I started out loving this project, but now I flipping HATE IT! How do I get back on the love-train? 

This is really common! I’ve always loved the beginning of the projects, and by the time ‘production’ or ‘nitty gritty’ enter the picture, my mind is full of static, and I’m off playing reruns of cartoons behind my eyeballs. Happens to the best of us, really! The trick is to try and remind yourself just why you started ( and fell in love with) the project to begin with. If you can’t ever trace back your steps, then consider it a blessing that you THOUGHT you would enjoy this particular work, and simply don’t! Then cross this try of your list, and happily move on. If you CAN reignite that oh-so-fabulous-flush of the first concept, then it was just a blip of the design process, and you can carry on again.

A lot of issues and problems that pop up throughout the career of a designer are actually integral to the process of design itself. Learning to recognize how you work, what drives you and how you apply those feelings can help you in whatever projects you’re currently designing. Client or personal, both have end goals and needs and a slew of problems that can go wrong, but how you work through those problems are what define you as a designer to begin with.

I hope this little nugget of insight can help shed light as to how to set yourself apart, and how to find work that really appeals to you. What do you like doing to keep yourself motivated and happy with your work? Any tips and tricks you’d like to share?

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