How personal projects can help you attract new work

People & Culture

UK Head of Art Paul Rider explores the the benefits of taking on passion projects, along with some thought-starters to help you kickstart some of your own.

At We Are Social, our teams work across a real range of clients and projects – from large, integrated campaigns for brands such as Adidas, Dr. Martens, YouTube, Audi, Stella Artois and Lego, to purely animated social assets. To do this, we have a brilliantly talented team of in-house designers, but we also collaborate a lot with external creatives with skill sets we don’t have in-house. That means I’m constantly looking through photography, video and illustration portfolios for creatives who are pushing the boundaries of visual expression and excellence.

Personality and passion can help you stand out
When looking through portfolios, what really excites me is seeing a personal project that someone has executed off their own back, with no other intention than to create. It’s great to see work for briefs, clients or brands, but more personal projects that show personality and passion are a great way of standing out.

Where a brand would have guidelines to inform the look of a piece of work, a personal project strips away all of those restrictions and guidelines. No brief, no client and no rules; a daunting but exciting blank canvas.

You never know where a passion project will take you
Sharing personal projects can also lead to paid work. In fact, a lot of client-based work can totally come from, and be inspired by, an unfiltered personal project.

For example, for our Dr. Martens AW19 Tough As You campaign, we collaborated with London-based photographer and director, Alex De Mora. I’d been aware of his portrait photography for a while, but what stood out for us was his experimental work – his off-the-cuff street and travel photography – which matched our art direction perfectly. This led to a brilliant collaboration and a visually dynamic campaign.

Do it for yourself first
That being said, another benefit of creating personal work is that it can be created with only your satisfaction in mind; it doesn’t have to be based on a university brief or day job. In this way, creating work for yourself has an unbelievable sense of freedom: What’s next? What have I always wanted to try? What haven’t I done in ages?

There are two great quotes from David Bowie on working in this way. Firstly, “I’m just an individual who doesn’t feel that I need to have somebody qualify my work in any particular way. I’m working for me.” Of course, we all need praise, but it’s liberating to make work without the regular boundaries.

And secondly, “All my big mistakes are when I try to second-guess or please an audience. My work is always stronger when I get very selfish about it.” Which I think can apply to starting out on a personal project – do it for yourself first.

With all of the above in mind, if you are inspired to get a new personal project on the go, but are unsure of where to begin, here are some thought-starters and examples to help you out.

1. Try something new
Personal work can be a great opportunity to try something new. To open your creative thinking, try an activity that is completely different to your regular practice or discipline. If your work is predominantly digital, for example, try something tactile like ceramics or letterpress. Here are a couple of examples:

by Jenny Hayashi
Jenny is a design director, and started doodling over photography through a period of work frustration, with no other intention than to give her creative brain the outlet it needed. She developed a dynamic style that has since led to commissions form the likes of Refinery 29, Samsung and Adobe.

Doodlebombing by Jenny Hayashi

Youseven by Wil Barker
Multidisciplinary creative Wil makes stuff because he loves doing it. From colour grading video, shooting stills and video in his own style, to hand-making bespoke garments in his spare time, he does it for the love of creating beautiful things. He is also inspired by this brilliant Saul Bass quote, as seen on his site: “I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.”

Youseven by Wil Barker

2. Collaborate with a friend
Having someone to bounce ideas off of is a great way to get started. Think of what you can both bring to a project; can one of you shoot stills while the other designs a magazine with those images? Can you collaborate on one piece of work by sharing an image and each adding to it, changing its visual direction?

Days On Repeat by Olivia Harris
A collaborative photography project about how Londoners came to terms with the first – but not last – national lockdown, Days on Repeat is a limited edition book by photographer Olivia Harris.

I love the idea of creating a project as a response to the situation around you. To do this, Olivia teamed up with writers Alice Spawls and Dominique Sisley to bring the lockdown experience to life through photography and a series of essays.

Days On Repeat by Olivia Harris

3. Use everyday life or cultural events as a springboard
If you can’t think of a subject or theme for personal work, why not take a walk and see what you could collect or observe from everyday life? You could even lean on events such International Women’s Day, Men’s Health Week or even sporting events to help inspire ideas. As an example:

Martin’s Good Signs by Martin Dennison
Design director Martin documents bad (but good) quirky shop signage, by isolating them on black and taking them out of context. This project is done purely for fun, with no rules or restrictions on the theme, but Martin has captured a real niche execution.

Martin’s Good Signs by Martin Dennison

4. Challenge yourself to learn a new software or technique
Learning something new will instantly give you a fresh perspective on your work. This could be learning a new discipline as a way of creating work, like After Effects, Letterpress, Riso printing, Premier Pro or digital photography. You could even try a challenge like 36 Days of Type, a project made solely for experimenting.

Kinetic Type experiments by Jake Farmer
When designer Jake was a recent graduate, he started a self-initiated project of type experiments, just to push himself in the use of the software, posting an animation daily. This led on to the development of his own style, which in turn helped to get him a permanent role where he now works on brands such as Adidas, executing social content in his unique style.

Kinetic type experiments by Jake Farmer

5. Pick a photography theme
Everyone pretty much has a smartphone at their disposal, with a decent camera in built, so why not pick a theme and shoot that subject, then change the theme. Some starting points; close-up compositions, night time streets, abstract compositions, self portraits, textures.

Street photography by Rachel Olagunju
Rachel is a creative who has a really distinctive style of photography. Vibrant and graphic in nature, she takes street photography to another level by treating it with bright coloured overlays. This is now influencing how she shoots live events, too.

Street photography by Rachel Olagunju

The sleeping cab drivers of Tokyo by William Green
I was having a portfolio review with photographer William Green when he showed me this project at the back of his book, and it’s stuck in my mind ever since. While in Tokyo, he noticed a trend of cab drivers sleeping in their cabs. Culturally, this is a sign of how hard they actually work, to be seen sleeping this way. I love the voyeurism of this series, and the impact.

Remember that you’re in charge
As these examples show, personal projects can be as big or as small as you want it to be; from fully-formed and polished pieces, to experiments in photography or typography. You could be playing with digital software or screen-printing a fanzine. It’s worth remembering, though, that taking on a personal project should be fun, not a way of adding more pressure to your pre-existing workload. So if it starts to become a burden, stop and have a break, or start something else. You’re in charge!

This article was originally published in Creative Lives in Progress.