Why every designer should have a side project

BKWLD's creative director Jeff Toll argues that everyone should always have a pet or side project. Here he discusses their benefits.

We work in an industry chock-full of demanding clients and looming deadlines, all of which are exciting and pose unique challenges. But sometimes to refuel our passion and push our skill set forward, we must set aside time and create with true creative freedom: a pet project.

Let's be honest, our industry can beat us up from time to time, and it can be difficult to stay as passionate as the first day we got into the business. Reinventing yourself and continuously keeping up to date with emerging trends is half the battle. In order to stay a step ahead, we have no choice but to keep creating - and it should be enjoyable, otherwise what's the point? This is where I believe pet projects come into play.

Create something you've always wanted to create

I've always wanted to create a successful app. I've designed plenty of microsites and Facebook games in the past, but not a native app. If I'm being honest, the world of app creation is still something new to me, but it inspires me to seek out new information I wouldn't otherwise, and to broaden my skill set.

Dive into something entirely different than what is usually asked of you. If you're a designer, learn to code. If you are developer, learn to design. Your pet project could be as simple as designing a stylish Retina display app icon, dabbling with art direction you'd normally never get the change to explore or creating a fresh user interface. If you aren't sensitive about your ideas being seen, share it on Dribbble, Meer or Behance and get feedback from your peers. It's a great way to gain exposure and promote your newly found skills.

Learn to fail fast, salvage, regroup and improve

I'm currently salvaging and rethinking my original pet project app, an idea I've been working on for over a year, the reason being because someone else simply beat me to the punch. This can be a bit disheartening, but it forces you to push yourself to evolve your idea(s) and not be afraid to try a uniquely different approach. I'm always delightfully surprised when I completely let go of something I've put so many hours into, only to soon discover a far better solution. This is a discipline that is easier said than done, but can be very liberating and effective. Take advantage of opportunities like this with your pet project, and don't be afraid to let something go, start over, and make it better.

Trusting yourself to take bigger risks

Pet projects create a platform for taking risks you may not have taken with a client. By doing so, this will validate that you are capable of taking them. Continue with that confidence and bring it to your role at work.

Discover and share new tools

When I first started working on my app pet project, I discovered a handful of new tools, frameworks, resources and workflows – not only to help me create my app, but also to later share with my team at @BKWLD. Mobile design tools such as LiveView, Mockabilly, Proto, and Teehan+Lax's mobile PSD workflow have been great additions to our agency workflow.

Involve others and make realistic deadlines

Don't lock yourself away in a closet! Get others involved to help motivate you. I currently have my wife and brother-in-law involved in a pet app project. We schedule realistic deadlines and meetup dates to not only discuss our progress and ideas, but also just to hang out and stay motivated. Doing so allows for healthy interaction to help avoid burnout, while holding us accountable for deliverables. Oh, and we have a few beers of course. That's crucial.

Words: Jeff Toll