Branch out and do your own thing – it could end up being your full-time job. Jamie Clarke of Thin Martian offers the benefit of his experience.
Every designer should have a side project. But whether you are developing a world changing start-up, an enterprise to eventually replace your day job, or just something fun, you’ll inevitably be sacrificing your spare time. So it’s important to make those precious hours count.
Here I’ll offer a series of tips to help you on your mission, based on my experience of more than 10 years running London-based digital agency Thin Martian. Over that time, we’ve continually invested in side projects running in parallel with our studio work because we yearned to produce work of our own, rather than just for our clients.
Hit and miss
We began by designing our own calendars that we gave to our clients and friends. We progressed into online games, using skills developed for projects, and we even organised the Shoreditch Grand Prix, a pedal-powered charity race in East London.
Eventually we began creating and incubating a number of business start-ups adjacent to the agency. Some fizzled out, some remained small but self-sustaining, and a couple are now fully independent and operate globally.
We learnt many lessons the hard way but over time we identified strategies to avoid the pitfalls and raise the chances of our success, which I’ll summarise here under nine simple headings…
01. Start small and build up
It’s tempting to keep adding features and details to your project because you want it to be perfect from day one. Resist the temptation.
It’s important not to overcomplicate on your first iteration. Test the water and prove that it can work first. Producing the bare essentials and then iterating based on results or feedback is a proven method, plus it keeps any costs manageable.
Focus on your first version and worry about all the problems that might occur if you’re successful once they are closer to being a reality. For example you don’t need to build your own retail website when you could begin by using Etsy.
02. Follow your passion
Above all, your side project should be about something you’re passionate about.
If you have a day job then it’s going to be your free time that is sacrificed. Assuming that this job is paying your bills, you have the advantage of not having to focus on making money (for now). So it’s vital to focus on something you really enjoy.
If you are looking for an opportunity to eventually break from your day job and to generate income, don’t let this dampen your passion and guide all your decisions. Focus on great work and the money will follow, otherwise you may be setting yourself up for heartache later on.
Choose something familiar and develop more expertise in it
Your side project may be to learn a whole new skill from the ground up and this guide should still be applicable. However if you use this as an opportunity to master something you’ve previously enjoyed and already have some skill in, results will come faster. If these skills are also transferable with your day job, you’ll see a multiplying effect in your advancement.
03. Don’t worry about failure
You might find yourself thinking too hard about the details – this can turn into a form of procrastination. Before you know it you’ve found 100 reasons not to do anything. Naivety and determination have carried through many successful start-ups. Don’t worry about failure – what else can you absolutely fail at and still get back up and have another go? If your side project fails simply try again or try another project.
04. Lever your natural advantages
Being a creative means you have likely acquired some instincts that are useful for starting off a successful side project or business. Playing to these strengths will give you a head-start.
While producing work for clients you will inevitably put yourself in their shoes to look at the world from their perspective. To design effectively you must understand what makes their service or product tick. If you’ve been paying attention you’ll have learnt loads about how other businesses operate and how they generate revenue. This is critical for getting to grips with new projects and provides you with greater perspective of your own ventures.
You make things look great – for a living. Be it branding, packaging, interactive design or illustration, combining this ability with great ideas, ensures your project is attractive to customers and supporters. Without this start-ups can look a little goofy or feel clunky.
You’ve likely experienced working on several projects in parallel and have become adept at swapping your creative thinking from one task to another, sometime cross-fertilizing ideas to benefit separate jobs. This skill ensures that you can give your side project the focus and attention it needs even when you only have short bursts of time to spend on it.
05. Seek feedback
It can be hard to fully articulate your vision before you’ve started working on it. Talking to people is the best way to cohere your ideas.
06. Ignore naysayers
Listening to feedback doesn’t mean you have to take every piece of criticism Early on there may be people who will deter you and those that think you’re crazy, either because they can’t see the opportunity you’ve spotted or are concerned you might fail.
Believe in your project and don’t be deterred by naysayers. It’s more productive to bounce ideas around with people once you’ve taken the first few steps and your project is a reality.
07. Don’t outlay a ton of cash
I’ve been party to this. If you are going to shell out on equipment or software, you’ve really got to be sure your venture will fly. If you then later decide that it isn’t going to work then you’re stuck with the equipment or a financial commitment. Find innovative ways around the issues (maybe rent or borrow equipment), inventing a solution will deepen your understanding of the problem.
08. Balance your commitments
Your day job likely involves deadlines, goals and admin to ensure that your work is progressing effectively. You should apply these same high standards and care to your own project work. Don’t treat it like it’s a second-class pastime. Make use of the tools at your disposal to get organised: for example, Evernote for recording ideas, a task list for getting things done and your calendar to schedule your time. This will also help you maintain focus on your day job and not get distracted.
09. Consider collaboration
Ask yourself whether your contribution can be completed alone or whether you would benefit from partnering with someone to expand your ideas. You can keep arrangements quite casual and as things progress, agree some terms in principle.
Words: Jamie Clarke
- Jamie Clarke is a designer and entrepreneur. A founder of the digital agency Thin Martian, he was previously head of design at Microsoft. He’s developed a number of successful start-ups and runs Type Worship, now the official blog of typography magazine, 8 Faces.
To add to Jamie’s great advice we spoke to a range of other industry voices. Here are some of their tips…
10. It’s not all about the money
“Sideline projects shouldn’t be about the money,” argues Manchester-based freelancer Matt Booth, who moved into app development using his existing Flash skills. “They are about exploring new techniques and technologies without the pressure of a client or a deadline.” His advice is to stop talking about it, and do it: “It’s all about getting something out there for people to see and interact with,” he adds. “It can be refined later, but it needs to exist first.”
11. Have big dreams
Based in Portland, Maine, Matt W. Moore runs an online store selling prints, posters, books and typefaces, as well as skateboards, surfboards and clocks. “It’s the energy and focus I put into these ‘sideline’ projects that ultimately keeps my phone ringing for client work,” Moore believes. “I love personal work, so if I can afford it I’ll do it, regardless of the likelihood of sales. Don’t think of them as sidelines: think of them as dream projects. And enjoy yourself!”
12. Consider your goals
“Consider whether your goal is profit or exposure,” advises Florida-based Joshua Smith, aka Hydro74, who’s in the process of producing custom playing cards, coins and poker chips to serve as business cards.
“It’s all about margins. If your selling-cost breaks even, then you’ve already lost money on it, unless it’s strictly for self-promotion. But for me, extra income is a by-product: the relationships I build through my sidelines help fuel the core part of my business.”
13. Keep exploring new options
Argentine designer and illustrator Leandro Castelao likes to spend at least one day out of his working week on sideline projects, and sells prints online. “I’ve started giving some time to exhibitions, as well, as I’ve found that these can be very important for promotion,” he adds. “It’s all about challenging and exploring. I don’t really think about the money I’ll get, but sometimes I’ve received a commission because of a personal print, and that can really make it worthwhile.”
14. Work hard to work less (eventually)
Freelance designer Alan Wardle also runs the streetwear brand AnyForty. For Wardle, the rewards are creative, rather than financial: “I invested a lot to get it up and running, and put any profit back into new ranges. For the first two years I worked on it for six hours every night, and all weekend. But now I only need to spend an hour or so a day, unless a new range is about to drop.”
15. Practice, practice, practice
“If work has quietened down for a few weeks, I’ll throw myself into something self-initiated,” reveals Huddersfield-based freelancer Jeffrey Bowman. “For me, it’s about keeping going. Sideline projects give me the chance to step back and try something new: use them to challenge yourself and your practice. It’s a chance to be free, and give back to yourself and others. You don’t want to become a machine that reproduces the same work, visual style and ideas.”
16. Find a really good printer
“Invest in a really good printer,” suggests Israeli-born, New York based illustrator Tomer Hanuka, who sells reproductions of his work online. “Prints should be as high quality as original art or silkscreens.” Any seemingly daunting outlay should be compared to the cost of a limited-edition run with a professional printing firm, and Hanuka advocates spending $1,200 or more: “Yes, these are expensive machines, but the investment should pay for itself,” he insists.
17. Don’t use cheap packaging
Hanuka warns against skimping on packaging when selling your work online: “Resending damaged prints can be costly,” he points out. “Make sure your packing is super solid. I put the print in a plastic sleeve and tape that between two hard backing boards, which are in turn inserted into a sturdy cardboard envelope. Another route is to use a tube, if your prints are on a lighter paper that rolls naturally.”
18. Step out of your comfort zone
“Customising products is definitely something I’d like to do more of,” says Birmingham-based freelance illustrator Tahgasa Bertram, aka Sweaty Eskimo. “I find most of my commissioned work is for print and web, so I try to avoid this type of work when I do personal stuff,” he continues. “Recently, I’ve started working on personal projects that keep me away from my Mac altogether: drawing on walls, skateboards and anything else that I can apply my style to.”
19. Turn a sideline into a product
Through his sub-brand Legacy of Defeat, Hydro74 also designs and sells custom typefaces: “It’s a minor side business that was built to create a residual income that can support various endeavours, or assist me during dry months,” he explains. “It’s always relaxing to take a hobby and make it into a successful sideline, and the beauty with digital products is that there’s nothing invested except time, so they tend to be pure profit that you can reinvest.”