August 17, 2017

My stupid side projects

What can we learn from them?

“Side projects are stupid” he declared into the microphone.

Tobias van Schneider paced the stage as he declared to a room of hungry designers and developers that side projects were stupid.


When I saw the title of this talk I knew I had to go and see it. Me, a self-proclaimed side project addict was offended at the statement. With a few side projects under my belt, I was eager to hear him out and see if I could be convinced.

To my surprise I discovered he was right. 

Side projects are stupid — whether they’re a form of creative or self expression or a silly app you made, they don’t have to be serious. They can be fun and playful, a break from our everyday work.

The beauty about side projects is that they’re limitless. You have the freedom to explore and create whatever you want. If you’re spending all day at your job on serious work, why not make your side projects a little fun and stupid?

As Tobias talked I discovered I’d had several stupid side projects without even realising it. Whether they were for fun or entertainment, these side projects still taught me valuable lessons that I still use today.

2011: YouTube channel

In 2011 from the corner of my student dorm I opened PhotoBooth, switched it to video mode and pressed record. What followed the next year was a series of rookie videos I’d create by myself during down-time from university, and post them to YouTube.

This was 2011 — vlogging hadn’t yet made it into our vocabulary. YouTube was still finding it’s place in the world of memes, indie filmmakers and the average Joe. People like PewDiePie had barely been around for a year.

My channel was named femscollegelife (now retired – sorry 🙃). After having spent the previous year in the USA I was inspired by American college life, the one we see on TV and movies. I wanted to give a glimpse into what college was like in New Zealand (much less mundane and dramatic, in case you were wondering).

This side project was literally stupid. It had no purpose, goal or audience. I had no strategy and just uploaded videos whenever I felt like it. I didn’t care how many people watched it. For me it was pure entertainment to create them. While other students were out partying, I was in my room creating videos – could’ve been worse.

It’s no surprise that after about a year I stopped and waved goodbye to my 70 subscribers. 

2013: Cooking blog

Two years later I grew hungry again to do something with my spare time. I’d always enjoyed cooking and had thought about creating a cooking blog for years, but avoided it due to the perceived effort required. In 2013 I finally decided to give it a go.

Maintaining a cooking blog is hard work. Imagine trying to cook a meal and take photos at the same time. Meanwhile your flatmates are in the background asking when dinner will be ready because they’re hungry. 

For each recipe I’d have to do research, purchase ingredients, prepare, cook, take photos, plate nicely, take photos again, write the recipe, write the blog post, edit photos, publish, share on social media…

Desired Cooking (still live!) was my first stupid side project that I really poured love and time into. In the span of a little over a year I made about 72 recipes.

I call this project stupid because, like femscollegelife, there wasn’t much purpose to it. I wasn’t trying to become a cooking social media star, run cooking workshops or take it too seriously. However it was my first experience with showing up weekly to create content.

This blog took a lot of work. 

Towards the end of it I realised that cooking was not a passion of mine but a hobby. I was pouring a lot of love and energy into this project, but decided I’d rather pour it into a passion, not a hobby. 

I didn’t want to jeopardise the fun and enjoyment I had for cooking by turning it into something that became a chore. So I gradually stopped posting.

2014: Hand lettering blog

It was around this time that I stumbled upon Seanwes and his toolkit for hand lettering. I was looking for a new creative outlet and felt drawn to the idea of creating analogue artwork. It helped that my friend Charli Marie was also drawn to this art form, so we started practicing lettering together.

I made some pretty awful lettering pieces which I posted on Instagram and my lettering blog Love Letting. Eventually I even created and sold a t shirt on Cotton Bureau with a custom lettering piece design.

Quickly I invested in the tools required to be a ‘great hand lettering artist’ — naively thinking this would actually work. I spent hundreds of dollars on high quality paper, pens, lead-pencils, erasers, stencils and rulers. I’d pour myself for hours in Illustrator perfecting my artwork and wrangling with vector points.

Soon I found myself attending my local Type Meet, where we’d get together and draw letters. Next I enrolled in a hand lettering workshop — to be run by the one and only Jessica Hische.

I poured hours into this craft, but again it was stupid. I was creating art for the arts sake and learned that I didn’t really want to be a hand lettering artist. Still, I kept posting my evening and weekend doodles for a little while.

None of these stupid projects lasted longer than a year, but the lessons learned were consequential. While most of my side projects now I take pretty seriously, the principles learned remain the same and are what I still use today.

I learned that not every project needs to be taken seriously. There’s something special about doing something purely for fun or entertainment — your creative boundaries seem to slip away, giving you this feeling of freedom. 

Perfectionism no longer holds you back. I found myself creating purely for enjoyment.It was refreshing to not to have this pressure of having to please anyone, even myself.

The possibilities are limitless. Side projects don’t have to have rules or boundaries. You can take it as far as you want or keep it small. They can be useful and educational, or dumb and silly.

What are your stupid side projects? Recently I’ve been getting into photography, so maybe that’ll be my next one!

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