Designer Michael Flarup on Why Side Projects Are Good for Your Career
In order to succeed, UX designers need a sense of creativity and the ability to look at problems outside the box. One of the best ways to cultivate these abilities is to dabble in side projects throughout the course of your career.
Some designers have even made another career out of juggling a lot of different side projects. Danish designer Michael Flarup, who operates a one-man freelancing studio, PixelResort, is one such designer. Here, he tells us his philosophical approach to side projects, and how they’ve impacted his life and career.
Michael, you have almost too many projects for me to keep track of! Is Pixel Resort your “main” project?
My time is currently divided between three main jobs and a few smaller side-projects. First, I run my entertainment design studio Northplay. This is where I spend most of my hours working with my really talented team on games and entertainment products for ourselves and for clients. I then run Pixelresort. I have been making things for people around the world through Pixelresort for more than 10 years now, and it’s my retreat as a visual designer where I get to work on icons, logos, and UI. Finally, I work on my growing design resource platform, Apply Pixels. Here I offer industry standard design tools in the form of downloadable icon and UI templates. My normal days are usually a mix of those three initiatives.
A few side-projects are sprinkled on top of those. I run the co-working space Spilhuset in Copenhagen, and I spend an increasing amount of time on traveling giving talks, writing, and making videos on YouTube.
How has working on these side projects impacted your UX work?
The more work you’re able to do, the more diverse the projects you are able to work on, the better a designer you’ll become. Design is a craft, and like any craft you get better by doing it a lot. Side projects are the ultimate cheat codes for creatives. They allow you to create a venue for your creativity that is parallel or separate from your normal work. Side projects are usually fueled by passion, and to a much greater extent, you’re in control of the scope and the constraints. This means that the challenges you’ll face working on those side projects and the path you’ll take solving those challenges can differ from how you normally go about your work.
Side projects are kind of like little adventures or vacations that you go on. They’re exotic and different and when you get back from them you might have a different perspective on things (and some just end up staying on the vacation).
How has being involved in so many side projects enriched your professional and personal lives?
I thrive on being involved in multiple projects. Staying busy and juggling multiple challenges fuels my creativity. There’s obviously the simple benefits of training the whole spectrum of skills involved in making things. The way we solve one problem in one project might inform a solution in another. You become better at formulating the task at hand, at framing the creative challenge, at actual problem solving and execution.
But maybe more important than that, I find that being in many projects helps me avoid burnout. This might sound counterintuitive, as one always needs to be mindful of commitments and stress. However, by switching from one creative battle to the next, I have so far found that I’m more invigorated when I don’t work long stretches of time on the same challenge.
How did you get started working on so many projects?
It’s tempting to say I got involved by being bad at saying no to all the ideas that surrounded me. But I’m not entirely sure that’s correct. I think I have always had a healthy appetite for projects and adventures. Today, I’m actually very mindful of what projects I do end up engaging in. Slowly, I’ve become better at trying to value each idea and level of commitment needed to give me what I want from the experience. This is to the point where other people have started asking me my opinion on their projects, advising startups, and making workshops for smaller teams.
I never set out with the intention of being in that role, but hard work, late nights, and some very talented teammates and collaborators have enabled me to grow my skills. It’s not so much that I actively pursue being in many projects; it’s that I can’t help not getting involved when there’s so many wonderful things to make.
What advice and tips do you have for other designers who want to follow their passions and indulge in side projects?
A guiding light of my career has been a childlike pursuit of creative work that I genuinely think is fun. It sounds so obvious, but you’d be surprised by how many people don’t do this. We become what we work on, and when we work on something we’re consequently presented with more opportunities of that nature. It catches us in a loop that either reinforces the things we truly want to do or brings us further from them. Some aspect of the ‘do-what-you-think-is-fun’ mantra always makes it into my talks, and I usually present two circles to the audience.
One I call ‘The Circle of Fun,’ where I demonstrate how positive reinforcement of side projects and work that you find interesting helps you generate more work of that nature. On the next slide, I unfortunately present ‘The Circle of Boring,’ which shows how the type of work we’re doing, even if we find it uninteresting, has a similar reinforcement. Most people think that the ‘good projects’ are just around the corner, but that’s not how it works. I think it’s important to occasionally stop and look in the mirror to see if you’re in the right circle.