Ask a Designer #11: How Do I Start a Side Project?
Graphic designer, educator, and writer Nika Simovich Fisher (@labud.nyc) is our resident advice columnist for our Ask a Designer series, where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in the creative industries. Today, Nika walks us through the steps of starting (and finishing) a personal project, from research and planning through to completion.
How do I kick off a design side project? Do you have any tips for research, moodboarding, sketching, wire framing, etc? I find it hard to just begin a project without clear and detailed requirements. What does a general process look like?
Thanks for reaching out! Starting a personal project can seem like a nebulous endeavor, but a little planning and organization can go a long way. You mentioned that it’s hard to start a project without clear and detailed requirements. When you don’t have these types of guidelines, you’ll need to develop them for yourself. Doing so will help you complete the project, but will also provide information about your own practice and preferences for getting work done in the future. Every designer’s process is distinct, but I’ll share a little about my own. To begin, I’d first divide the project into three phases: research, planning, and completion.
Before beginning a project, it’s helpful to ask yourself several questions so that you understand your goal, and have a metric to review your progress against. At the end of this phase, you should be able to answer what your project is about, who it is for, and why you’re making it.
While these questions may seem overwhelming, jotting down a few initial points without too much judgement can get you started, and as you continue researching, you can add on and refine them.
In an advertising class I took in college, my professor said “write hot and edit cold”. To this day, I like to stick to this process of getting started without the pressure of it being perfect.
Research can embody several different forms including observing, reading, collecting, and interviewing experts. But before you begin researching, you should have an idea of where you’ll document and store your research. For my research, I like to use are.na, a platform with a thoughtful and design-focused community, because of its ability to combine text documents, external links, and images in one collection. You could also use Notion, a folder on your computer, or Google Drive to do this, as well. Once you’ve set this up, you can start researching.
You might start by reviewing what other projects have already been done and taking the time to explore who made them. Seeing what else is out there can give you more information about your project’s topic, and can also highlight potential opportunities for doing something new – whether it’s a new perspective on the topic or a different visual strategy.
Interviewing people is another helpful aspect to researching your project. Depending on what your project is about, you could consider interviewing experts about your topic (historians, educators, researchers) as well as people who might interact with your project once it’s created. Both types of interviews can provide clues on how to make your project clear and detailed, as well as what kind of needs your audience might have. When conducting interviews, make sure to take notes and/or record the conversation with permission and avoid asking yes/no questions. Come prepared with a few thoughtful questions but also treat it as an informational conversation.
Once I understand what my project is about, I’ll start fleshing out the content requirements. Content is the meat of your project – it can range from photography, illustration, copy etc. Each project has different needs, but developing a list of all the pages or pieces you’ll need to design is super helpful. I like to do this phase before the design so that when I get to the design phase, I can design more realistically quicker. In web-based projects, a sitemap or wireframes that focus on hierarchy can be helpful. Outlines are also sufficient!
Visual research is also important. As you learn a little more about your project’s goals, you’ll need to begin fleshing out what the project will look and feel like. In this part of the process, I like to review what my project is about and jot down a few descriptors on how it should look and work. How might someone describe my project? Try to think of specific phrases and adjectives and avoid ambiguous ones like “clean” or “modern.” If these are the words you’re coming up with initially, try to unpack them in more detail – what specifically do you mean by “clean?” Should it be direct in tone of voice or do you mean free from ornamentation? Once I have a few phrases I’m looking for, I try to look at a variety of projects that fit this description and analyze how/why they’re communicating this mood. Try to find a wide range of examples, including both art historical and contemporary designs. By unpacking these details, you can start to sketch out visual treatments and research typography that can help bring this project to life.
After thinking through your project, speaking to people about your project, establishing your content needs, and beginning your visual research, you should evaluate your project’s goals that you started with and see if you can clarify it. Try to be as concise as possible. For an initial read, try to explain the project to a trusted friend and see if they’re able to follow along. If they can – great, move on to the next phase! If not, try to find out where the confusion is and see if you can articulate it more precisely.
Having a clear project description and research provides a purpose to your project, but to get it done, you’ll need to find time to do it. First you’ll need to be realistic with the available time you have to complete this project. It doesn’t matter how much or how little time you have, but have an estimate of how many hours per week you can realistically put into it as well as when you’ll work on it. Since this is a personal project, I’d suggest allowing for a generous timeline that allows you to take your time and enjoy the process. Next, I’d divide the project into several phases: big picture sketches, edited sketches, refined final design, and then production.
Consider how much time you’d like to spend per phase and then put the timeline on a calendar.
I create an agenda at the start of every week and breakdown my to-dos into actionable chunks, this might help you hold yourself accountable without getting overwhelmed by the timeline. If you need additional encouragement, consider setting calendar notifications or, if you have a friend who would also like to complete a personal project, you could coordinate and set up joint work sessions once a week.
With your research, content outline, and organized production calendar, you’re finally ready to build your project! Obviously the project’s needs will shift based on what type of project it is, but the phases I suggested – big picture sketches, edited sketches, refined final design, and production – should be a good starting place.
Big picture sketches will be your first pass at concepts for the project. In this phase, you might try challenging yourself to have as many divergent options to experiment with. I try to have at least three different ideas at this phase, and they’re fairly rough and gestural. Avoid getting hung up on the details and instead focus on large graphic moves that set the tone for a visual system. I tend to focus on typography in this round and begin to experiment with content – photography, illustrations, writing etc.
From these sketches, I start editing them down and pulling out what I’m responding to. I like to have at least a day in between big picture sketches and this round so that I can assess everything with fresh eyes. Sometimes something that looked brilliant the night before doesn’t look quite right the next day.
If I liked a gesture the previous night and still like it the next morning, it tends to mean it’s a keeper.
I’d start fine tuning the visual system and testing it out on a few key pages and iterating until I have a complete design. Depending on the type of project, you can then move on to producing it and getting it up and running.
Because this is a personal project, feel free to take as long of a time as you’d like with it. Sometimes thinking about the project as an iterative and evolving experiment takes the pressure off of you for “nailing it” the first time, and allows you to receive feedback on it and change it over time. When you have something that’s complete (at least for now!) consider sharing it with your peers [SuperHi's Slack community is great for this] or intended audience and have a few questions that reflect your project’s intentions. Remember that you’re doing this project for yourself in your own time, so don’t forget to enjoy and luxuriate in the process!