The Value of Practical Personal Projects
When it comes to design, there are generally two types of projects: client work and personal work. While client work is invaluable in its own right, personal projects seem to have this stigma attached as solely a means of expression without any practical benefit.
While this is often the case, prospective clients, job interviewers and pretty much anyone else you might show your work to is likely going to be more interested in the practical benefits of what you can do.
Why Start Personal Projects?
Through blogs, twitter, flickr and the myriad of other ways in which designers interact on a daily basis, hundreds of different techniques and styles visually impact us. I’ve found that over a period of time I build up a mental catalogue of things I like and don’t like, which I can then bring into my own design work.
Personal projects in any form represent a way to try new things, but one focused on something practical, such as building a website or creating a brochure, can have a greater benefit when looking for work than purely artistic projects. Besides job hunting, you could also turn some of these into side profits if it fits the nature of the piece (for example WordPress Themes, etc).
In this post, I will be detailing a recent web design project I initiated where I explored several different techniques which I then brought them together to create something I hadn’t attempted before. I gave myself a personal project as if it was client work, including measurable goals, a defined objective and a deadline.
The intent was to add something to my portfolio while learning several new methods I didn’t know previously, which I could then show to prospective clients or employers as a practical application of a personal project.
Principles of Practical Projects
There are five basic principles which can make a personal project practical and presentable. It has to be achievable, believable, definable, measurable and fun.
As much as you may want to, you will not be able to leap off a cliff and fly without something helping you stay up. Like any goal-setting, there’s no use in attempting something which you have no absolutely hope of achieving.
Challenge yourself but if you’ve never used Flash before, I wouldn’t recommend building a complex website using a million different effects just yet. In the case of my web design project, I gave myself several different objectives which, standing alone, did not pose a great difficulty. Together though, it was a project which resembled client work: nothing too impossible, but a series of smaller tasks which pushed my boundaries.
Don’t be lazy. Have some pride in your work, especially if you intend on adding this to your portfolio to show others what you can accomplish. This also introduces some of the more real-world pressure in not allowing yourself shortcuts to accomplish something.
For example, if you’re building a website, validate the code as best as you can. If you’re designing a poster, take it through the pre-press process. Also, add a deadline. I gave myself a day to build the one-page portfolio website. Starting around 10:30 in the morning and finishing around 7, with breaks in between, I accomplished my goal.
It helped that I had a preconceived idea of what I wanted to build, but that’s the whole point of these projects – to build on what’s bouncing around in your head and make it practical.
There is no sense in sitting down to create something practical without defining what it is you’re trying to do. In my case, I wanted to accomplish several different things which I had not yet tried but had stumbled across elsewhere and thought could make a website more interesting.
Taken individually, they were nothing too groundbreaking, but put together it would teach me several different things I hadn’t yet tried and would also add some more web design variety to my portfolio: my two overarching goals.
Set checkpoints for yourself. You want to be able to measure progress, both to keep up hope and keep yourself from giving up. For example, each step in my web project was a separate goal which I could tick off as I went. This kept the momentum going, even when one particular task would prove troublesome and I had to move on to another one. Seeing 5 checkmarks and one left unchecked was enough motivation to crack through that last hurdle to complete the site.
This almost goes without saying, but there’s no point in doing it if you’re not going to enjoy yourself. Personal projects represent a way for us as designers to explore new ideas which we might not get to try when doing client work, and the entire idea is to push your own limits and have a blast doing it.
Graphic design is one of those fields filled with pressure, time lines and expectations, and these projects give us a break from that while keeping our minds sharp. So by all means push yourself, challenge yourself, give yourself a deadline and always strive for more – but be sure to enjoy it as well.
Bringing it All Together
Creativity nowadays is as much about compiling and remastering existing work as it is about creating something new. This kind of a personal project combines the benefits of freedom from clients with the practical side of design, allowing you to show off your practical skills as much as your aesthetics.
By keeping track of some techniques you like and bringing them together, you not only learn a bunch of disparate tricks but also how to combine them together, bettering your workflow and yourself as a designer. While there is always a place for pure design-as-art projects, creating practical work allows greater accessibility to potential clients while continuing to show off your skills.