Side projects are the lifeblood of creativity. Whether you want to become a better illustrator, venture into a new artistic field or simply remind yourself why you got into this game in the first place, a well-planned passion project has the power to boost your craft, build your reputation and even win you work.
Take letterer Jessica Hische, whose side project Daily Drop Cap raised her profile and brought in a number of new clients, including Google and The New York Times. Or Tina Roth Eisenberg - aka Swiss Miss - who was so successful in her self-initiated ventures (breakfast lecture series Creative Mornings and design-led temporary tattoo business Tattly) that her client work has been on hold ever since.
But finding time for self-initiated work is an art in itself - as any designer or illustrator facing tight deadlines, difficult clients or a debilitating case of imposter syndrome will know.
So how do you get a personal venture off the ground? From getting started to staying motivated and more, leading creatives offer their top tips, tricks and techniques for launching a successful side project…
01. SCHEDULE SIDE PROJECTS LIKE CLIENT WORK
“Personal projects always seem to get in the way of commissioned work,” admit Montréal-based creatives Julien Vallée and Eve Duhamel, founders of design studio ValléeDuhamel. “The studio monopolizes a lot of our time, and we can’t make those kind of projects after business hours because our personal time is so limited.”
Their solution? Treat side projects in the same way as client work: “Don’t see them as side projects. Schedule them like you would commissioned work, with the usual milestones, and follow your usual process.”
Their latest self-initiated piece, A Very Short Film (pictured), follows the journey of a girl in a yellow dress as she enters a strange world. As the pair point out, non-client work like this is a good way to keep the community and potential collaborators up-to-date with their evolving artistic process - and there can be commercial advantages too.
“Clients come to us for what we can do, and what we've done in the past. They’re usually a bit anxious to put their money into a project that has no tangible references,” they explain. Through their side projects, Julien and Eve show the work they want to be commissioned to do in future.
02. GET CREATIVE WITH YOUR TIME
If you can’t take time out of your working day, try waking up an hour earlier - or allocating an hour later in the day. “I always carry a sketchbook with me, so I can draw or write down any new ideas from early morning until late in the evening,” says graphic designer Iancu Barbărasă.
One of his most successful side projects, Picturing Thoughts - an ongoing venture in which Iancu converts thoughts into graphics - has proven particularly helpful in helping promote his services as a freelancer in London. As well as recording the unique artworks online, he’s published several in an A5 booklet (above), which he’s sent to potential collaborators and the design press.
“Sometimes I spend an hour or two working on it, just before breakfast, when it’s still quiet and my mind is fresh,” he adds. “But probably the easiest way to make time is to use your commute for ideas - working on the train, tube, bus.”
03. MAKE IT FUN
“We all have enough things in our lives that we'd rather not have to do, so it's about finding something that's really rewarding and enjoyable,” reasons Jon Cockley, co-founder of UK-based illustration agency Handsome Frank.
In 2015, he teamed up with an old school friend and design agency The District to launch Old Friends Brewery, a microbrewery creating American-inspired craft beer (above). “As well as learning the art of brewing, we were interested in seeing how good design and a strong brand could help us grow things from day one,” he explains.
With five small children between them, the project is very much an extra-curricular activity assigned to evenings, weekends and the early hours of the morning. “Personally, I really like the fact I'm doing something more physical with a tangible end-product,” he says. “Handsome Frank is a very creative business, but we're not actually making things ourselves, so it's nice to get my hands dirty."
04. MAKE IT A HABIT
When you’ve found a period in the day that works for you, turn it into a habit. After all, it’s harder to maintain a side project when you’re constantly fighting for pockets of time - and you’ll find friends and family will be more accommodating if they understand when you’ll be busy working on it.
Need to claw back some hours? Try ditching the TV for a month. Whatever you do, though, make sure you’re still getting some downtime. Yes, a good side project will help recharge your creative batteries, but don’t neglect friends and family, or sub out your social life or exercise. Working constantly is the fastest route to burnout, so plan your week in advance and prioritize what’s important. [Image: Iancu Barbărasă]
05. REMEMBER YOUR PURPOSE
Side projects can lead to future commissions, rescue you from being stuck in a rut, add new skills to your creative arsenal and provide a shot of inspiration for that completely unrelated client commission you’re struggling with. Viewed as valuable, craft or career-enhancing activities, they become easier to assign time to. Just make sure you have some goals.
This doesn't mean you have to know where your side project will take you - that’s the beauty of non-client work; unexpected outcomes are the aim - but it does mean having a reason for starting and sticking with it, whether that's a specific skill you want to master or something more general, like creative growth.
If you’re motivated, side projects offer an opportunity for true creative freedom. “That’s why we invest in them,” reflect Julien and Eve at ValléeDuhamel. “Use this time to make something that might propel you to a place that no client could.”
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