Begin anywhere

Posted by David Gillet on 04.02.15

An incomplete manifesto for side-projects

Most designers I meet have some kind of side-project on the go. Side-projects feel like an essential way to maintain creativity and gain new skills in a competitive market, especially for those of us who freelance and don’t have the luxury of learning on the job. I’ve tried to have a personal project ticking along in the background for the past few years. The ticking’ sound they make is sometimes deafening, as they can demand more attention than it’s possible to give them!

Side-projects often require heading into unchartered territory without the support systems and advice that usually come when working within an organisation. I find myself returning to Bruce Mau’s excellent Incomplete Manifesto for Growth” again and again as a source of inspiration at key moments in a side-project’s life; it’s a virtual mentor that I call upon when indecision rears its ugly head.

My own side project, 12 by 12, is a year-long series of photo-challenges set by renowned photographers. Every month a new challenge is issued and group members are invited to interpret it by submitting their responses on Flickr or Instagram. The members are a mixed community of amateurs and professionals, needing different types of inspiration and levels of support, and the project has to constantly evolve to keep the community growing and engaged. It’s enormously rewarding but also quite challenging at times.

I’ve picked twelve points from the Manifesto that I’ve found invaluable over the last few years, hopefully they might provide some inspiration for your own midnight oil-burning endeavors! 

Begin anywhere

After deciding that I wanted to start a side-project the initial euphoria of being free from budgets, time constraints and unreasonable clients soon wore off and I found the blank page and blinking cursor that stared back at me paralyzing. So I took the decision to stop over-thinking and dive in and create a photography app. It was a shonky affair that never really worked very well, and Apple rightly turned up their noses at it. But I was off!


The phone app turned into website which eventually mutated into a vibrant online community. Taking Mr Mau’s advice to explore adjacencies and postpone self-criticism made the difference between throwing in the towel and allowing the idea to evolve into something I could have never foreseen. 

Don’t be cool

As Bruce Mau says Cool is conservative fear dressed in black”. The beautiful thing about extracurricular work is that is provides an opportunity to fly off on tangents that challenge the design zeitgeist and which your peers or clients might find uncomfortable.


It’s easy to hold on too tightly to your side-projects, strangling them with your own sense of perfection. I found opening the project to other people’s input made it feel like it was a much bigger than just my own baby’.

During the first year of my side-project I invited a number of trailblazers to join me and form a team to help manage the submissions. This made all the difference; their hard work and opinions gave the 12 by 12 the momentum it needed.

Stay up late

Less advice but more an inevitable consequence of trying to rinse more productive time from the 168 hours every week provides. But it’s reassuring to know that this time away from some of the distraction of our busy lives provides space enough for flow states’ to open up. 

Be careful to take risks

Although it’s frustrating, I understand why many businesses are risk averse; they have suppliers to pay, investors to satisfy, mouths to feed. Side-projects are frequently free from these internal pressures, so it would feel like a waste not to plunge into the pool from the high board now and again to see what happens. 

As my project entered its third year I decided to extend the period of time members have to respond to a challenge from two weeks to a month. I’ve yet to come across a photography challenge project which has such a extended time frame for people to create work in; it felt like a big gamble. Would people get bored, loose interest, drift off…? Not so far at least! In contrast the extra time seems to have to broadened and deepened the work created for each challenge.

Forget about good

What is *that*? It’s terrible, you’re terrible… Call yourself a designer, pah!”…{wakes up, splashes face with cold water}. It’s the nightmare feedback that every designer fears, or is that just me? And it can occasionally feel like fear of this imaginary situation can turn a great design solution into a good one. Personal projects allow one to strive for something great with a safety net that mistakes are allowed. 

Make mistakes faster

Before Move fast and break things” was a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, Make mistakes faster” was helping designers to iterate ideas quickly. As often as I can I try to tweak the way in which the 12 by 12 project interacts with its audience or challenge-setters. Most ideas fall flat on their faces or, worse still, go completely unnoticed, but the odd one takes off and becomes part of the project’s culture. I’ve given up trying to predict which ideas will live or die, as more often than not I’m wrong!

Read only left – hand pages

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, or so they say, but I’ve found too much knowledge about a topic can also have a paralyzing effect on creative endeavors. So taking Bruce’s advice I now stop absorbing information when my head feels three-quarters full, leaving enough wiggle room for my imagination to get to work.

Organisation = Liberty

Behind the creative pulse of 12 by 12 lies the beating heart of a Google spreadsheet! Although dull as hell, having everything well organised, scheduled and shared in one place means the admin overheads, and there’s *a lot* of them with a community project, can be dealt with more swiftly dealt. The myth of a split between creatives’ and suits’ is what Leonard Cohen calls a charming artifact of the past.”

Take field trips

Even with a side-project that has collaboration at its heart I often find myself spending most of my time on the project communing with people through a keyboard and mouse. I can end up feeling quite disconnected from the project and the people involved in it. To remind myself why I started the project, the 12 by 12 team now meets up every 6 months. Encountering people in real life is a reinvigorating shot in the arm. 

Stand on someone’s shoulders

Many designers can be control freaks, especially when it comes to their own self-initiated projects. It’s their chance to do it right” (again I might be unfairly extrapolating from my own MO!). This has lead me to faff around, or pixel‑f**k as one colleague puts it, to an extent that an idea with great potential never gets off the ground. So for 12 by 12 I decided to build the project around the existing photo platforms Flickr and Instagram. They’re far from perfect but without their leg up the project could have languished in the nice idea; never going to happen” pile.

So those are the 12 points from Bruce Mau’s work I find most helpful when it comes to the sometimes exploratory and experimental world of side-project. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend reading the full Incomplete Manifesto for Growth”.

Written by David Gillett

Image by David Gillett