As 2016 comes to an end, I can’t help but reflect on some highlights from the past year. I added big brands like Google, Samuel Adams, and Chobani to my client list. I published a second book. I had my own line of Hallmark cards in stores. I taught 9 lettering workshops, painted 4 murals and traveled to 16 different countries. And I just turned 26 years old.
People often ask how I found success in the creative industry at such a young age, and while there are many factors, my number one answer is: side projects!
When I graduated from art school in 2013, I was no more talented or hungry than the next wide-eyed, recent college grad. But I was more resourceful and proactive. My first side project, Daily Dishonesty, started as a joke in college and turned into a 5-figure book deal. Another side project, Will Letter for Lunch, took me from zero chalkboard lettering experience to designing chalk murals for brands like LinkedIn and Microsoft in less than a year. These passion projects not only gave me fun, creative outlets, they kickstarted my career in ways I never thought possible.
Side projects have been (and still are) my secret weapon to success in the creative industry.
Here are 5 reasons why starting a creative side project should be the first thing you do this year:
1. Increase exposure for your work
Getting your work noticed can seem like an impossible task, especially when you’re in the early stages of your career. But the truth is, no amount of expensive, targeted advertising can replace the value of organic exposure! You are 10000% more likely to check out a link that your best friend texts to you with the message “OMG YOU NEED TO SEE THIS” than a sponsored ad that pops up online. My work has been featured in New York Magazine, Buzzfeed, and The Huffington Post - all because my side projects are funny and relatable, which makes them shareable.
The way we consume media and information nowadays is insane; we text friends while we check Instagram while simultaneously browsing through our Facebook newsfeed. A clever or thought-provoking side project can cut through the clutter and give your work the attention it deserves. The more places people can see your work, the more chances you’ll have to be hired. This is by far the most career-enhancing effect of a good side project.
2. Create a powerful portfolio piece
“We love it! But could you change the colors, use a new typeface, and make the logo a little bigger?” Sound familiar? For anyone who has ever done client work, you know that the idea or design you start out with is rarely the one you have in the end. Once in awhile you’ll get client who knows what they want and trusts you, but usually the final project ends up as some bruised and battered version of your original vision.
Having a side project can be the creative life jacket you need to stay inspired and motivated when your client work is less than thrilling. You can make exactly what you want to see in the world with nothing else getting in the way and no one having a say. Side projects are incredibly rewarding and powerful because they are 100% you.
3. Stand out from the competition
You could have a neatly designed website showcasing the perfect variety of projects, a shiny resume and cool business cards, but guess what? Every other creative has them too. The internet is a vast place; How do you stand out in a sea of other wonderful portfolios out there? Side projects! Entrepreneur and side project queen Tina Roth Eisenberg says, “Believe in side projects…I would never hire anyone who doesn’t have side projects. To me, that shows that someone has ideas, self-initiative, and can make things happen.” Not only does having a side project give you a unique portfolio piece, it also speaks volumes about your work ethic and shows off your personality!
4. Try a new style or medium
Have you ever seen something creative and thought to yourself, “I wish I could get hired for that kind of work”? Whether it’s a new medium (like sign painting) or industry (like food packaging), no one can hire you for something if you don’t have examples of it in your portfolio. If you sit around waiting for a client to *magically* ask you to do that type of work, you’ll be waiting for a chance that might not come. Take it upon yourself to practice and prove your capabilities by starting a side project that shows off those skills! Side projects give you the chance to steer your portfolio in your ideal direction.
When someone sees your work, likes it, and wants to hire you, it doesn't matter if it was client work or personal work. All they care about is that they like the artwork! The kind of jobs you want to get paid for are the kind of side projects you should be creating. With passion, dedication, and a few clicks of a mouse, almost anyone can make a project and put it online. Self-publishing is a game changer!
5. Enjoy a fun creative outlet
Last but not least, side projects are really fucking fun! Having a side project is what keeps me motivated and inspired when the going gets tough with client work, responsibilities, and just life in general. To me, a side project is the creative equivalent of a dog to come home to at the end of a long day. In total, I’ve created 6 passion projects that have each been successful in their own ways. Yes, some have turned into lots of paid work, while others are simply projects I feel proud to add to my portfolio.
But the truth is that the success of your project shouldn’t just be measured by how much press it got or how many Instagram followers you gained. Did you create a badass new portfolio piece? Did you gain experience with a new technique or medium? Did you create something you really love? The creative satisfaction you’ll get from making a side project is something that money can’t buy.