Tag Archive for: tim

The Value of Side Projects

A friend asked me a few days ago about the pros and cons of doing freelance work along with your primary design job. Even though I approach the question as it relates to my work as a graphic designer, I think there are general principles here that apply to any profession.

The biggest benefits to pursuing side projects that I see relate to the variety of work. Along with my freelance design work, I get to work with this solid group of people at MJM, and I’m fortunate that there’s a lot of variety even within MJM. (MJM spends about half its energy and time working for non-profit clients, and about half working with clients in vision care and related fields.) The more I thought about the pros and cons of working on outside projects as well, the more benefits I saw.

Everyone wins

A broad range of work is good for everyone involved.

Your clients (all of them) get work that is more sophisticated, informed by a wide range of past projects. When a designer works in one brand or one voice for a number of years, it’s easy to let everything have that flavor. On the other hand, if a designer is regularly working in several contexts, it’ll be much harder to fall into a creative rut.

Working with a variety of clients, and therefore a variety of styles and voices, is one of the best ways to keep your mind and your fingers nimble. It may be the only way.

But clients aren’t the only ones to benefit. Your employers will find themselves working with a designer who is much more versatile, able to adapt his or her style with an agility developed by constant practice.

The designer may be the one who benefits most in the long run, in plain quality of life. None of us wanted to work in a creative field so that we could churn out the same work day after day. Working with a variety of clients, and therefore a variety of styles and voices, is one of the best ways to keep your mind and your fingers nimble. It may be the only way.

Access to a wide variety of styles

Working in a wide variety of projects give you access to a wide variety of styles and voices.

Along with our non-profit clients, MJM works with a number of organizations related to health care. The danger with health care design is that a lot of design in the industry ends up looking pretty similar. A lot of white space, clean, sparse layouts, blues and greens, nothing edgy or alarming (a lot like the interior of most hospitals, actually.) The value of having my hands in a lot of different projects is that each project influences and shapes the others. When I start designing a brochure for an eye care clinic, I may have just spent the morning developing a website for a non-profit, or laying out spreads for a cookbook. It’s likely, and I think beneficial, that elements of those projects will inform the clinic brochure. The clinic brochure will tend to be a warmer, more human, and more accessible piece than it would have been if I’d spent the morning designing other pieces for the health care industry.

The same principle applies in the opposite direction. When I’m working on the website for the non-profit, I’ll be able to selectively apply some of the tone and visual language of the clinic brochure, helping to give the non-profit a credible, trustworthy voice. Even though the aesthetic might be less formal, the information still needs to be well-organized and easy to follow, and I can also draw from the tools that I used in the clinic brochure to do that.

Renaissance men and polymaths

Working in a variety of fields helps give you a broader understanding of each field.

Having worked on a variety of projects in various fields, I have a toolbox full of strategies and styles to choose from.

Part of our role as designers is to organize and present information in ways that are accessible to a wide audience. We’re not generally designing for other designers, or even for other people in our same demographic. To be successful, my eye clinic brochure needs to be equally accessible to a 20-something college student, a 55-year-old farmer, or a 35-year-old IT worker. Having worked on a variety of projects in various fields, I have a toolbox full of strategies and styles to choose from. But working on that wide variety of projects has also given me the opportunity to learn a lot about a range of topics.

In the spirit of the ideal Renaissance Man, a broad range of knowledge and experience makes it possible to make connections that might otherwise be missed. (Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, but also a sculptor, architect, mathematician, inventor, engineers, etc.) When we know and understand more, we are better teachers, and we’re better equipped to present information to our audiences.

The dangers

There are some dangers, of course. There’s a limit to how much you can keep track of in the one head you have, and the more clients and projects you have, there is always the increased chance of losing the thread on a particular project. There is also the potential for the occasional conflict of interest between your primary job and a freelance client, or odd political situations to be aware of, but an open line of communication between all parties and an ongoing dialogue with co-workers should avoid or defuse those situations.

Moving back and forth between several styles and voices allows a sort of cross-pollination between those projects. That interchange of creative ideas gives me as the designer ready access to more options than I would have had otherwise. (And often speeds up the process, which is always a welcome thing.)

If nothing else, your side projects are a place to explore new ideas and learn new skills without asking permission or risking the credibility of the organization you work for.

The Graveyard of Good Ideas

Years ago, I read in the preface of a collection of a photographer’s work about a book that was impossible to make. The book he was describing would never exist because it was a collection of  images that had never been created. This photographer (whose name I’ve forgotten) was referring to the missed images — the moment when a spectator walked in front of the lens, the moment his finger missed the button, the moment just before the picture was taken, or just after. The idea intrigued me enough that it’s stayed in my mind ever since.

I have a similar body of work. In the process of creating logos, or layout projects, or web designs, a lot of decent material hits the cutting room floor and is never seen by anyone. In a logo design, for example, we create a series of initial concepts, and a small selection of the ideas generated are shown to the client. The client identifies one or two as possibilities, and then we refine those further. The final logo is chosen and the art is finalized.

The process works well, but at each phase a lot of good ideas are discarded. The question is what to do with those good ideas? Some of the general ideas may apply to other projects, but if we’ve done our job well, those concepts and design solutions are unique to that client’s situation.

Unlike the collection of the photographer I mentioned earlier, the ideas in this collection aren’t lost — they’re on my hard drive gathering digital dust.  It’s hard to imagine a context where that collection might be displayed. Most clients would not like to have a handful of alternate, non-approved design pieces floating around with their names on it.  Because the concepts are inextricably bound up with the names and identities of the organizations they were created for, it’s impossible to make them anonymous without destroying the idea.

I’ve thought about ways to present this collection in the future, either on our site or in print, but for now our graveyard of good ideas is closed to the public.

(If anyone knows who this photographer is, please let me know.)

Typography: Form and Content

It’s not easy to consider the forms of letters without taking into consideration their meaning.

I recently traveled to see some friends and family in China and Korea.  While I was there, I was intrigued by the variety of typefaces used in signage and printed material for both Mandarin and Korean.  It presented a unique opportunity to evaluate a typeface or font without being influenced by the meaning.  (I arrived knowing next to nothing of either language, and managed to preserve my ignorance largely intact after spending a week in each country.)  When I look at a typeface containing words I can read, the meaning colors my impression of the typeface.

When I saw Chinese characters, however, I didn’t have any choice. The only thing I could understand about the signs and ads in China was the emotional tone or mood created by the way the characters were presented. Take these two signs, for example:

The first, by its crisp lines, conservative coloring and clean presentation, is clearly intended to be taken seriously. It presents itself as professional and respectable; dependable but not stuffy, modern but not informal. This sort of typography would be appropriate for a bank or real estate office, perhaps, but would feel flat on a sports drink or coffee shop.

The typography in the second image is loose, playful, casual. The informal shapes of the characters, with their thick, bubbly lines, along with the coloring of the sign, implies a relaxed atmosphere, a business or service where fun is more important than precision. This sort of typography would be appropriate for a pet store or fast food restaurant, but not for an insurance agency or auto mechanic.

I’ve included some other samples of Mandarin typefaces that I found in the streets of Chengdu.  They include hand-drawn characters, “serifs” and “sans-serif” varieties, and illustrated letterforms.

Written Communication: Avoid Mixed Signals

People evaluate you, and your message, not only by the words that you say but also by how you say them. Before you’ve said ten words, your audience will have formed opinions about your intelligence, your level of education, and your credibility. Whether they ought to form those opinions so quickly and on the basis of so little information is a matter of some debate, but that they form opinions quickly is an established fact.

There is almost universal agreement about what I’ve said thus far when the concept is applied to speaking. There does not seem to be the same degree of awareness when it comes to written communication. The same dynamics come into play when someone picks up your brochure, reads a sign in your office, or uses your website. Professionals who would never answer their business phone with a casual, “What’s up?” have no qualms about putting a sign like this in front of their receptionist:

The typeface used here is called “Papyrus” and has its uses—summer camp, amusement parks, or Roman ruins. But it is out of place in a professional office, where it unintentionally communicates “we are not very concerned about this sign, about confidentiality, or about typography.”

The lettering in this second image, on the other hand, presents important matters in a credible way.

The wording is the same, but the meaning is different.

Your printed material sets the tone for the rest of your interactions with your client or customer.  Take the time to craft the presentation of your message as well its content. You will communicate effectively with your audience and avoid sending mixed signals.