#57: Passion Projects (why every designer needs one)



A few months back a we brought a designer friend of mine, David Schwen (owner, DSchwen) into town to speak at our 99u event. He spoke about passion projects. His work is fun and goofy, but still clever and interesting. He has worked for companies like Target and Pepsi and has a few of the most popular shirts for sale on Threadless. But while David was working at these day jobs, he also kept doing fun passion projects. His passion projects got him a ton of followers which turned into some really amazing clients.
So what is a passion project anyway? A passion project is something you work on (sometimes outside of your actual day job) that gives you satisfaction or joy. It’s what you do to escape the things you do every day, it’s that thing that you want to do/create that you just enjoy.
No one says you will always get paid to do work you love. But, chances are, if you share the work that you do love with others, you will get work that does pay…eventually. Today I want to give you a few reasons why every designer NEEDS a passion project.

They fuel your creativity

Allowing yourself a project (or projects) that you can just do is one of the best things for your creativity. Especially if you are feeling discouraged or disenchanted with your work as a designer. Maybe you work at a company where the creative director does all the heavy creative thinking, or maybe you are only ever hired to do logo design but you really wish you could design a magazine layout.
Whatever it is that you feel is holding you back, a passion project is the shovel to dig you out.
Once you start a passion project, you will see how it fuels you. A passion project is like caffeine for your ideas, it wakes them up . We get so used to stifling our own inclinations for the sake of the clients needs or the target market’s attraction, that our true raw creativity becomes harder and harder to coax free. It is important when working with clients and target markets and budgets, etc. to not disregard those things, but when you find yourself able to work on a passion project, you will see how even in that somewhat more rigid client project, your ideas will become better and more impactful.

They make you remember why you love your work

Not only do passion projects fuel your creativity, but they also help you remember why you love your work. Creatives are a unique bunch of people. We like weird things and we like to design stuff that will make people respond.
I have found that even now, as much as I love to design, I can come to a point where I don’t love my work as much.
It was feeling really forced, not exciting. I sort of always felt like I didn’t have time for frivolous passion projects. Like, who has time to do work just for fun? Well, I had a lull in client work and I had honestly just had to fire a long-time client and was feeling kind of burned out. I started working on ideas for a poster series. I’m using my design process and knowledge of design and color theory, except this time it’s to express something that I want to.
One cool thing about the passion project is that you are your own target market.
When you do a passion project give yourself the opportunity to not worry about what people will think of it—it’s yours and yours alone and this will make you love your work again.

They create a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment

Passion projects also create in us a really valuable and unique sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. It’s proving to yourself that you can do something you set up for yourself.
Like setting a running goal or a healthy habit, pursuing passion projects boosts your creative stamina and helps you push yourself to go further.
Not that there isn’t challenge involved in paid client work, because there definitely is. But when you are challenging yourself and your own limits, many times you can go further than ever before. And when you do reach those unique and lofty goals you will feel like Rocky with two gloved hands in the air after a fun up those famous steps. Your creative confidence will be boosted by the fact that not only do you push yourself to new limits, but you did it just because you wanted to. Then you will have more confidence, a sense of accomplishment, a curated body of work to share, and a great sense of fulfillment.

They give you a chance to branch out

Passion projects give you the opportunity to maybe branch out from the design or creative work you do on a regular basis. If you do advertising design but you really wish you could do logos, then do logos! Create a logo design series for something in the public domain and use your imagination. Or maybe you do graphic design all the time and you really enjoy photography or mixed media, or painting, or lettering.
Whatever that limb might be, passion projects beg for you to go out on it and try something new or get back to doing something you love but haven’t made the time to work on.
You will never find the time to do anything–you have to make time. Make time to branch out and do at least one thing that you love just for yourself.

They allow for more experimentation and fun

Passion projects also allow you to experiment. Since you are doing it for yourself and for your own set of lofty creative goals, you have the opportunity to try new things and experiment.
You can experiment with new techniques in software, you can experiment with new physical tools you’ve never used or fools you’ve used but in a new way, you can experiment with literally anything.
This mindset is something that I have a hard time with so I’m sure that many of you do as well. Experimentation and play within the process and passion projects we have can propel our work into a space we never expected but that can be really exciting.
I spoke before about my friend David Schwen. Part of his creative process is spontaneous play with words and objects. He combines normal things in unusual ways and just experiments with them. When he comes up with something good, he goes with it, and shares it. This sharing ignites excitement for you and your audience.

They help you curate your work

What does it mean to curate your work? It means to have a body of work that is all related. We all have at least a dozen things that we are good or even great at. But what do you want to be known for? What one or two [related] things could you potentially do forever? What work do you create that when you’re finished you just feel that “ahhhh” feeling inside?
Curating is collecting the work you want to present to the world.
When you work on passions projects, it gives you the freedom to curate what you want to without waiting for clients to come along to give you work you wish you could do. Curating your work also gives people a point of reference for what you do and they want to follow passionate people. They help you curate what you want to be known for in addition to your client work.
Doing passion projects and sharing them is key to us not only doing our best work, but doing our best work for ourselves, then for clients who want to pay us to do what we love.

They beg to be shared 

Doing projects on your own for your own enjoyment is fulfilling. But I know that if you want to be known for something, you have to share it. I found that I was getting lots of branding jobs because the majority of what I was sharing was logo design. But when I started doing my passion projects, whether it was lettering or posters, I felt like I was actually sharing a part of myself. People want to see your passion, they want to feel like they know you by knowing your work.
Passion projects are the easiest way to show people who you are and what you can do. 
Having passion for what we are doing will always show. Sure, we can create good work by being good at it and liking it, but when we are doing somethings purely out of the desire to create something we love, that’s where the magic happens. Don’t get me wrong, I love the challenge of a client project. I love problem solving and researching and backing up all my answers by asking, “why?”, but I’ve come to realize that passion projects are almost like  creative energy bar for the rest of my work.

I’m currently working on a set of posters for myself. They are a literary author series that have a bit of a collage feel to them. After finishing each one of these posters, I feel incredibly excited, motivated, and fulfilled in my work and it’s a little addicting.
You will never lack for a sense of fulfillment in your work as long as you have your own passion projects to pursue.
So to wrap it all up today I hope that you have been encouraged to go after those ideas you’ve always wanted to do, or to come up with something new and creative just for yourself.
Not only is it okay to do something just for yourself, but it’s beneficial to your creativity.
So try it and share your passions, I promise you will be better for it. Design is a wonderful world. I hope you’ll join me here, because design matters.