Should designers do personal projects?

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January 17, 2012
As creatives, most times we feel like we can do it all, or we are put in a position to do it all. We typically take on a 'Jack-of-all-trades' mentality, that can either help or harm us. For some odd reason, there seems to be a discrepancy of sorts when it comes to doing the work for ourselves. Some designers feel like of course we should take on that Jack-of-all-trades mindset, while others just feel like it makes sense to pass the work off and let someone else do it. The truth is, they're both great ideas but vary depending on your situation. How creative are you? What is your skill set? What kind of things stress you out? All these questions should be taken into consideration when determining whether or not designers should do their own personal projects. Keep in mind, that for the purposes of this argument, we will say that a personal project is any type of work that contributes to yourself and your services. For example, we are talking about business cards, websites, etc.

Yes, do personal projects

Doing your own work can be extremely beneficial, especially if you are in a place where your client work is slow or you are just starting out and need some things to keep you occupied. Doing your own personal work from start to finish can sometimes be much more fun than client work and can teach you a lot about yourself and your style. Keep reading to find out some reasons why designers work on their own projects.

Beginner's luck

If you are at the very beginning of your design career, it's kind of hard to offer services to others, especially if you are lacking the proper portfolio. Most times folks aren't going to give you a chance if they don't know you or know your work. The best way to counterattack this to make your first client yourself. Let's say for example, you are a graphic designer who would like to offer their services to the public. Well, to start off, you feel like you need to print up some business cards because you'd like to give them to some friends, family, and colleagues. That's a great idea, but if you don't have any work to show for, how are they going to know your work? Take the time out to really create your own business card and whatever other pieces you feel like you need to offer your services. There's no need to run and grab a template if you can do it yourself. As we are talking about personal projects essentially for your services and for promotional purposes, don't forget that it's okay to create conceptual art and put it in your portfolio. There's this preconceived notion that all work in your portfolio has to be paid client work, but that is a falsehood. It's okay to create a mock up, or some sort of conceptual art to let your viewers see what you are capable of. Whether you are a beginner or not, if there is a new technique you want to try out and show off, make something up. It's totally fine to add imaginative work to your portfolio. It could quite possibly be the work that gets you in with a client!

Growth and technique

Doing personal projects really buys you time inside of whatever program it is that you may use. No matter your how good you think you are or how good others think you may be, it's always great to have practice under your belt. Being involved with your personal projects allows you the opportunity to grow and be solid in your craft and allows you to become more familiar with techniques. One thing that is extremely important to designers of all types, is their workflow. You may be an awesome web designer, but you don't want it to be a pain in the butt to get done what it is that you need to get done. Personal projects help you figure out your workflow better because when you're working on your own things, (hopefully) you aren't as strict on yourself and you feel more free to create (than say, if you had a big near-deadline client). With your client work you want to try to be neat and color inside the lines—hopefully you loosen the reins a bit when it comes to your own creative projects. Growth in whatever you do is necessary. Developing your technique and your workflow inside your programs of choice is absolutely necessary to the success of what you're doing.


Along with practicing and streamlining your workflow, you want to be able to experiment on some things. Experimentation, along with practice, really helps you figure out new techniques and helps you come up with your own style. Most times with commissioned projects, we aren't as prone to experiment, but with our own personal projects, experimentation should be heavily utilized and looked forward to. Depending on your target audience, the work you end up doing could be extremely repetitive. You may be known for the way you put together really clean, minimalistic web designs. There's no foul there, but it's nice to be able to step outside of yourself if necessary—if not to add a skill, then to be able to have a general knowledge of said skill. You may also have a skill set that is closely related to another—there may be times where you are asked to carry out those tasks by a client. Now it's all up to you whether or not you want to increase your skills, but it is good to be able to experiment and research so that you have some clue about related skillsets. As a strict graphic designer myself, I don't know a ton about web development, but I have experimented enough to know what works and what may not work. I have enough knowledge to know, if I can't do the task, I can point you in the right direction. This is what experimentation can do for you.

Added personal touch

What I think is most important about doing your own projects is the personal touch and flavor that's put on it. Yes, you can tell someone your style and the things that you like but no one can really portray it and put it down as best as you can (especially if you have the ability to do so). Most times, the work that is done for yourself is and can be the first that people see of you. Are you okay with that first impression being work someone else has done for you? It also makes sense that if you are known for a specific talent to carry out that specific talent for yourself. For example, if you are known for developing great WordPress themes and such, when you need your own website, make it a WordPress site and develop your own theme. That acts as a free advertisement and folks can know and understand how great you really are. If you were to outsource your website and a client wants a site much like yours, they're more than likely going to skip out on you and hire the company that worked for you. If you are in a position where you want people to under your vision and your brand, it's probably best that you do as much of your own work as possible. Quite frankly, when you outsource, most times you end up being lumped together with other clients that are doing similar things and then you lose your personality and what makes you different. You never want to risk losing that by not doing your own personal projects.

No, don't do personal projects

There are some designers who feel like personal projects should be done by a third party. Much like doing your personal projects, there are some benefits to not doing your own work. When you think about outsourcing your personal projects, it's best to take into consideration your business strategy, your common stressors, and much more. Again, below are some reasons why some designers choose to employ others and let them do the dirty work.

The small things

Simply put, giving the smaller tasks to a third party can really decrease your workload and your stress levels. You can focus on work you feel needs to be done (things close to deadlines, really big clients, etc.) and pass off smaller tasks, such as business cards and brochures, to others. Of course, this is all with the assumption that you've already handled the larger tasks, such as the website, the logo, etc. What is really popular is to hire these third parties to make updates and changes as you move further along with your brand. It can get to be a bit much to update every single thing yourself, especially when it may be hard to find time—or it's easily forgotten because it's just not that huge of a task; however, it must be done. If your personal projects seem to always need updates and changes, you may want to think about outsourcing.

Time is limited

Some of us aren't beginners and some of us are actually swamped with tons of commissioned work. Depending on your business and your strategy, focusing on this type of work may be all you want to do. If that's the case, you may only have the option to have a third party help out with your personal projects. There are times when after you feel like you've really gotten to a place of some success, sometimes you might want to re-brand. The projects you did for yourself when you just started are no longer representative of you, or you feel like your business is going in a different direction. Re-branding (especially visually) is extremely important if what you had and where you are going are two different things. Just imagine, if you are a web designer who did dynamic websites, but wants to change to focus on mobile responsiveness, there may be some visual re-branding you want to do. If your time is limited and wrapped up by your clients, it's probably best that you bite the bullet and outsource. You want to find a way to manage your time and your projects as best as possible.

You don't know how

No matter how much you try to fake the funk on some things, when it's time to actually sit down and create something you have no clue how to do it—or it just may not be of the quality you want it to be. We talked about how it's nice be familiar with different skillsets, but most times, if you don't have it, then you don't have it. And you should be familiar enough with the skillset to know when it is time to reach out to someone else. For example, as a designer you may want to create a promotional video for yourself. You have a nice digital camera that shoots in high def, and you even have iMovie or Final Cut, but perhaps that's not quite what you had in mind. You know you want multiple angles and camera tricks and all types of fancy stuff—so it sounds like you may want to outsource. What you don't want to do is stress yourself out by trying to learn a completely new skill while trying to create something you know you want to use. It's a great way to learn but it's also one of the quickest ways to get stressed—you have to determine if that's worth it, especially if you have a pile of client work to do and you're trying to squeeze years worth of knowledge into a small personal project.

A different outlook

It's easy to get caught in the act of using the same techniques, same programs, and same workflow that you use constantly. Now, there's nothing wrong with being efficient but there is an issue when all your work begins to look and feel the same. There is a fine line between having a style and having the same base, just changing a thing or two. If you feel like all your work is looking pretty much the same, you may want to call on an outside opinion. Even if you are creating work that does not look different, it is good to have a different opinion. Many times, it's hard for us to step outside of our roles and see the much bigger picture. Having an outsider's opinion can go far, not just by the look and design of things but also in helping you figure some things out with your brand and services. Outsourcing your work doesn't have to just be about giving someone else your workload, but it can also be a partnership that helps move your personal visions further.

Which one?

Both of these 'methods' sound so simple, but the truth is, a lot of designers make a bunch of mistakes by choosing to outsource or not to outsource. I don't believe you have to stick to one method because both are appropriate depending on your situation and strategy, but it is important you use the right one at the right time. Doing your personal projects is completely up to you and your capabilities, but if you are a designer of any sort and have some sort of general knowledge, you should definitely have some sort of hand in your personal projects. I'm not just talking about telling someone what you want to do, but actually doing something and being a large part of the creative process. Ultimately, with whatever work you are doing, you don't want to stress or burn yourself out. If that means you have to pass some work along to someone else, do that. You want to make sure you take as much care of your creativity as possible. Do you prefer to work on all your personal projects or not? When have you outsourced?

Kendra Gaines

Kendra Gaines is a freelance designer from Virginia, USA. Connect with her.

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