Are passion projects worth doing?

I’m a big fan of passion projects and have been for quite a few years. I remember hearing about this idea a while back at one of the Phoenix Design Week conferences: several speakers that year were up on stage simply because one of their passion projects made it big.

What is a passion project?

Ok, so what is it exactly? I could use the Google and give you a definition from someone else, but here’s how I personally define it: it’s a project that is created simply out of the desire for a designer to see it come to life. There’s much more to passion projects than that, but the foundation is purely because we, as designers, want to see an idea become reality (even if it only makes it as far as our portfolio).

The entire thing is fueled by, you guessed it; passion! It’s something we care about so much that we don’t give a shit if it pays or not. It could be a problem in our community or a visual design of a fictitious brand we thought of with some friends. Whatever it is it’s something that comes from the heart, not from a client. Although, I would say some client projects could become passion projects, but we’ll address that later.

What are some examples of passion projects?

Not all passion projects are created equal. Some are curated in a day then never touched again while others become so big they evolve into a full-time job. I’ll share some of mine that I’ve worked on and admittedly became nothing more than a shiny portfolio piece (which is ok!).

mtb phx branding

MTB PHX – Mountain biking brand. I had created this identity because I ended up getting back into mountain biking a few years back. My love for biking goes back to my childhood and when I finally purchased a new bike and took it to the trails for the first time out here in Arizona – I was hooked. I noticed that the mountain biking clubs in the Phoenix Area were sub-par, and though they had a great following they lacked proper branding (this is purely for mountain biking alone – there’s some incredible biking brands here).

I designed the identity over a weekend, then crafted mini-standards as well as a jersey and some decals which I had printed through Etsy. It was fun and I thought maybe it could evolve into something bigger. It could grow a bit more, but I wanted to create it for me. Because I wanted to. Not because someone was asking for it. There’s still a chance this fires up down the road.

dsfcu mobile app concept

Desert Schools App Design – This spawned from a real project, which can sometimes happen with passion projects. I was brought in on the first mobile app design for Desert Schools Federal Credit Union several years ago. It was an exciting time for the team because it was our first time being able to work on a mobile app. However, because we were a part of marketing, we realized that our role was simply to guide in proper logo usage and provide colors & icons for a template that was pre-made by an outside company. Oh joy.

It happens, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me from taking a crack at designing my own mobile banking app based on all the insight around our members. I cared so much about this project that I turned it into a passion project knowing it could never be used. If anything, I was hoping that down the road the development would be brought in-house and we could use one of the teams designs (maybe this one) as a foundation.

Looking back though, I realize the process of designing a mobile app depends on the current users needs, and my design would not actually be the best path in the future. Still, I wanted to design something based on the current times back then, users, and demands of the credit union. It was fun and I was able to work on it while furthering my development in UI design (professional development is something most companies, including the credit union, encouraged for all employees).

Is it worth the work?

Yes. Hell yes. You know why? Because it’s something you care about. It’s a playground that helps you learn and grow. I look at passion projects not as something that will actually become real someday (though that’s would be awesome), I look at them as an opportunity to expand and refine my skills. Not all passion projects are portfolio worthy, but the lessons and feedback are extremely valuable.

I’ve heard a new phrase circling the design community called “unsolicited work”. Basically saying that passion projects (especially for or around real brands) are a waste of time and demeaning to our community. I can see where they’re coming from – it’s free work. You post it online and someone could easily take it or make something similar. It’s work that you could get paid for, maybe.

Don’t yuk my yum.

There’s plenty of examples where passion projects evolve into a job though. First person that comes to mind is Andrew Kim – who took a school project, pulled a 180, and created something he was really passionate about. You may have seen his redesign of Microsoft’s brand (pictured below). Now, he’s extremely talented and I’m not sure this one project was the reason he ended up working on the Xbox team, but I’m sure it contributed.

microsoft concept

To those who say that passion projects are “unsolicited work”, I say: don’t yuk my yum. It’s not for everyone, but don’t squash those of us who care so much about what we do we actually create for fun, not just for a paycheck.

So yes, passion projects are worth doing, but only do them because you truly want to.

Have any passion projects of your own? I love seeing them, so comment below with a link to your favorite!

2 Comments

  1. Great article and I still love your work. Being able to do both at one time is both rewarding and enjoyable. Keep up the great work. Jack

    Like

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