Hit a Plateau? You May Need a Side Project

Let’s be honest: as important as practicing the fundamentals is to improving your lettering, it’s not always the most exciting thing. When lettering begins to feel like a chore, a good way to spice things up, reignite your passion, and keep your creative juices flowing is to develop a side project. A good side project starts small, and scales up as you decide to commit more time to it - it doesn’t need to have a perfectly coded, dedicated internet home. Some side projects work best with a dedicated website, Tumblr, or Instagram account, but most are fine if they’re just something you post on your existing accounts in addition to your regular work. Integrating it into your existing web presence leverages your current followers for feedback on the project and makes the project a part of your personal brand, while a dedicated space for the project gives it some permanency.

Benefits of a Side Project

They keep you creative and productive.

A big part of culture while working at Google includes encouraging employees to spend 20% of their work time exploring other creative pursuits or working on side projects. Google found that this increased productivity, happiness, and collaboration among their teams. Google benefited immensely from this side project policy - 20% projects are credited with the development of many of Google’s products - and your lettering work can benefit, too.

Your regular lettering work will improve.

Creative hobbies have proven time and again to can increase work performance, and help employees bounce back from the stress of their everyday work. When your deliberate lettering practice begins to stress you out, your productivity (and rate of improvement) will suffer; it’s time to develop a side project!

The right side project will inject excitement into your lettering, and motivate you to keep going - in both the side project and your regular work. The lettering you do for your side project will also act as additional practice to improve your overall lettering skills.

Bonus: You might gain notoriety (but don’t bank on it)!

Many lettering artists have gained notoriety for their side projects, because side projects are naturally shareable content. The common theme or interesting twist the work is united under makes a side project more shareable over your regular body of work. (“This guy does calligraphy” isn’t quite as interesting as “this guy does calligraphy with vegetables.”)

However, notoriety should not be your motivation. A side project should excite you, and that is what will make a project great, which is what will make people want to share it. Focusing on notoriety will kill the side project magic.

Types of Lettering Side Projects

There are a few different structures you can build a side project around. Most end up being a cross section of at least two of these structures - a numeric technique-focused project, for example, might have you practicing vintage lettering styles every day for 100 days.

Set a numeric goal or deadline.

Numeric side projects are pretty simple. Pick a content area, topic, or tool, and commit to doing it for x number of days, or x number of words or letters. Numeric goals are generally centered around something you want to explore or focus your practice on for a limited time - they’re a great way to challenge yourself to learn a new tool or technique. Terence Tang recently completed 100 days of calligraphy videos - he committed to posting a video of his calligraphy process to Instagram for 100 days in a row.

Focus on a specific lettering tool.

A side project can be a great way to learn how to use a new lettering tool (or think outside the box and use a non-tool as a tool), and really see your progress from start to finish. Trying new things is an important way to reinvigorate your love of lettering and create a well-rounded body of work. Calligrapher and letterer Ian Barnard used vegetables as calligraphy tools, to inject some fun into his work. He wasn’t worried about perfection - he was focused on experimentation.

Focus on a specific lettering technique or style.

If there’s a specific lettering technique that intimidates you but you’d like to try, a side project is a low-risk way to feel it out. Maybe you’d like to practice blackletter calligraphy for a week, or create a series where you’re drawing representative type for different words (like drawing the word lightning to look like lightning, for example).

Focus on a specific topic or content area.

Topic-based side projects frequently don’t have a specific end date, so they’re great for an idea you have that you think you’ll be able to continue to come up with content for. Some great examples of these are Lauren Hom’s Daily Dishonesty, and Shauna Panczyszyn’s We Need To Talk. Both of these talented ladies stumbled into a content idea from something that struck them in their everyday life, and developed fantastic side projects around expanding on that idea.

The best content-based project concepts tend to come about organically. I purchased some Crayola markers to try some brush lettering techniques with them, and realized it would be fun to create lettering pieces with all of the old craft and art supplies I loved as a kid. Thus, my Throwback Thursday lettering series was born!

Choosing Your Side Project

Be ambitious, but realistic.

Don’t overcommit. Unless you have nothing to do all day, setting a goal of creating digitized, ready-to-print pieces under a specific theme every day for 100 days is probably a recipe for failure. A good side project pushes your creative boundaries and skills, but realistically and in a low-stress way. Set enough constraints to give the project some definition, but don’t box yourself into a stressful, too-serious undertaking. Jessica Hische’s Daily Drop Cap is a great example of evaluating your deadlines to maintain quality and make sure you're enjoying the project. She initially wanted to put out one alphabet a week, but realized that would be too much to keep up with and adjusted her (and her followers') expectations. 

Find an idea that truly inspires you.

Shauna Panczyszyn’s neighbor left garbage out on the porch, attracting raccoons, and she hand lettered a note to leave on his door about it. Her friends loved the note and wanted similar passive aggressive notes - enter “We Need To Talk.” A side project doesn’t have to be life affirming or world changing - it just needs to spark something in you that will make you excited to generate content under that theme. In fact, many creatives think stupidity is the key to a great side project idea - the less seriously you take it, the more stress-free and exciting it is to work on.

Set deadlines.

Set deadlines within the project to make sure you’re committing to working on it. This deadline shouldn’t overwhelm you or stress you out - you should look forward to the next time you get to work on it. If you commit to working on the project more frequently than you can handle, you’ll burn out on the project and it will become a chore. The best part of a side project is that you can structure it however you want - and you don’t have to make it public until you’re ready.

What’s your project?

Side projects are a fantastic way to boost your creativity, try a new skill or tool, and learn to not take yourself and your work too seriously. The right side project will be a source of stress relief and excitement, and will make your regular work much more enjoyable and productive.

What are some of your favorite side projects? Do you have a side project of your own right now?