The value of personal side projects
Posted on April 23, 2013
In the early summer of 2005, a man walked the streets of New York City, wearing a grey wig, a beard, a pair of ski goggles, and carrying around a stack of stickers. The stickers, each shaped like a speech bubble, would be carefully peeled and pasted on advertising billboards inside train stations and bus stops. He did this ever so subtly and carefully, so as not to alert anyone—especially the cops—of his illegal activities.
Curious onlookers would question the man on what he intended to write on those speech bubble stickers. “Nothing,” he nonchalantly replied and quickly moved on.
Over the next few days, these stickers would be filled with handwritten messages; some were witty, others were suggestive, but all commonly written by public civilians. The stickers quickly gathered media attention and interest from around the world.
The man behind the stickers (and the wig-beard disguise) was Ji Lee, a creative strategist and director at Facebook. At the time, he was working as an art director for a major advertising agency, Saatchi and Saatchi. The project wasn’t part of a commissioned campaign but rather a passion project that sprouted from Lee’s frustration of corporate monologues in advertising and churning mundane work for some of these clients on a daily basis with very minimal creative freedom.
As Ji Lee stood on stage recounting his past experience in a CreativeMornings talk in 2011, he remarked that the project lead to a few fines for vandalism, several lawyer’s letters and a job at Droga5, one of the world’s most respected advertising agency known for advertising campaigns that are disruptive and viral in nature.
The Bubble Project grew as a culture movement and found itself in cities like Bueno Aires, Argentina and London, UK. That and a few other curiously awesome side projects took Ji Lee’s career to new heights: he was Google’s creative director from 2008 to 2011 before his current appointment in Facebook.
While The Bubble Project was gaining national fame in early 2006, Jessica Hische was emerging as a wide-eyed fresh graduate from the Tyler School of Art. Hische was hired soon by Headcase Design in Philadelphia, USA to work as an illustrator.
When Hische wasn’t at work or when she wanted to avoid work, she found herself drawing drop caps and posting them online every day. At its prime, the project site was receiving 100,000 visitors a month. Hische calls her side projects ‘procrasti-working’ where she uses the time she would spend procrastinating to work on a personal passion project, helping to make her more productive.
During the winter season of 2006, Hische decided to self-fund a set of postcards she designed for Christmas. She sent the set of postcards to 250 art directors she admired; none of them replied, except for Louise Fili, a graphic designer famous for her expertise in lettering work.
Fili contacted Hische for an interview and 3 weeks later, Hische found herself in New York City working for Fili. Hische described the experience as, “Getting paid to go to graduate school to learn from a master of her craft.”
Today, Jessica Hische works at her own studio in San Francisco. Hische counts The New York Times, Penguin Books, and Google as some of her esteemed clients. She continues to work on her own non-commissioned side projects and has built a sizable following over the years.
Before Ji Lee ended his CreativeMornings talk at the Galapagos Art Space, he shared interesting personal projects of other creatives he has known. Wants for Sale by Justin Gignac sells art at the same price of the item illustrated, with 100% of the sales going to charity. The project Make Something Cool Everyday enabled its creator, Brock Davis, to commit to a daily schedule of creating a new piece of creative work outside of his own work commitments. Both projects were massively popular with netizens and apparently earned Lee’s attention and admiration.
Regardless, whether the projects were hits with netizens or not, the creators themselves had immensely benefited from the entire learning and creative experience. As Lee adds, “Personal and professional projects complement each other. It’s all about having fun. If it’s fun, I’ll always find time for it.”∗