The Value of Practical Personal Projects

The Value of Practical Personal Projects

When it comes to design, there are generally two types of projects: client work and personal work. While client work is invaluable in its own right, personal projects seem to have this stigma attached as solely a means of expression without any practical benefit.

While this is often the case, prospective clients, job interviewers and pretty much anyone else you might show your work to is likely going to be more interested in the practical benefits of what you can do.

Why Start Personal Projects?

Through blogs, twitter, flickr and the myriad of other ways in which designers interact on a daily basis, hundreds of different techniques and styles visually impact us. I’ve found that over a period of time I build up a mental catalogue of things I like and don’t like, which I can then bring into my own design work.

Personal projects in any form represent a way to try new things, but one focused on something practical, such as building a website or creating a brochure, can have a greater benefit when looking for work than purely artistic projects. Besides job hunting, you could also turn some of these into side profits if it fits the nature of the piece (for example WordPress Themes, etc).

In this post, I will be detailing a recent web design project I initiated where I explored several different techniques which I then brought them together to create something I hadn’t attempted before. I gave myself a personal project as if it was client work, including measurable goals, a defined objective and a deadline.

The intent was to add something to my portfolio while learning several new methods I didn’t know previously, which I could then show to prospective clients or employers as a practical application of a personal project.

Principles of Practical Projects

There are five basic principles which can make a personal project practical and presentable. It has to be achievable, believable, definable, measurable and fun.


Keep it within reach!

As much as you may want to, you will not be able to leap off a cliff and fly without something helping you stay up. Like any goal-setting, there’s no use in attempting something which you have no absolutely hope of achieving.

Challenge yourself but if you’ve never used Flash before, I wouldn’t recommend building a complex website using a million different effects just yet. In the case of my web design project, I gave myself several different objectives which, standing alone, did not pose a great difficulty. Together though, it was a project which resembled client work: nothing too impossible, but a series of smaller tasks which pushed my boundaries.


Don’t be lazy. Have some pride in your work, especially if you intend on adding this to your portfolio to show others what you can accomplish. This also introduces some of the more real-world pressure in not allowing yourself shortcuts to accomplish something.

For example, if you’re building a website, validate the code as best as you can. If you’re designing a poster, take it through the pre-press process. Also, add a deadline. I gave myself a day to build the one-page portfolio website. Starting around 10:30 in the morning and finishing around 7, with breaks in between, I accomplished my goal.

It helped that I had a preconceived idea of what I wanted to build, but that’s the whole point of these projects – to build on what’s bouncing around in your head and make it practical.


Define the Project

There is no sense in sitting down to create something practical without defining what it is you’re trying to do. In my case, I wanted to accomplish several different things which I had not yet tried but had stumbled across elsewhere and thought could make a website more interesting.

Taken individually, they were nothing too groundbreaking, but put together it would teach me several different things I hadn’t yet tried and would also add some more web design variety to my portfolio: my two overarching goals.


Set checkpoints for yourself. You want to be able to measure progress, both to keep up hope and keep yourself from giving up. For example, each step in my web project was a separate goal which I could tick off as I went. This kept the momentum going, even when one particular task would prove troublesome and I had to move on to another one. Seeing 5 checkmarks and one left unchecked was enough motivation to crack through that last hurdle to complete the site.


Don't make it a drag!

This almost goes without saying, but there’s no point in doing it if you’re not going to enjoy yourself. Personal projects represent a way for us as designers to explore new ideas which we might not get to try when doing client work, and the entire idea is to push your own limits and have a blast doing it.

Graphic design is one of those fields filled with pressure, time lines and expectations, and these projects give us a break from that while keeping our minds sharp. So by all means push yourself, challenge yourself, give yourself a deadline and always strive for more – but be sure to enjoy it as well.

Bringing it All Together

Creativity nowadays is as much about compiling and remastering existing work as it is about creating something new. This kind of a personal project combines the benefits of freedom from clients with the practical side of design, allowing you to show off your practical skills as much as your aesthetics.

By keeping track of some techniques you like and bringing them together, you not only learn a bunch of disparate tricks but also how to combine them together, bettering your workflow and yourself as a designer. While there is always a place for pure design-as-art projects, creating practical work allows greater accessibility to potential clients while continuing to show off your skills.

Posted Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009 · Back to Top


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17 Comments 10 Mentions

  1. Joël Cox Author Editor

    Couldn’t agree more. However, designing for your self is a lot harder than a regular client ;-). Six Revisions had a great write up on this recently.

    Joël Cox’s last blog post..Review: De wet op internet


  2. Edmundo Jr. Author Editor

    Deadline… for myself? I think this is a good idea, because I have many projects in progress and I can’t finish them. Well, let’s try and see!

    ps.: nice little monkey picture, where you found this?


  3. Kayla Author Editor

    I do find that setting checkpoints for yourself is incredibly helpful. I started doing it once I got overwhelmed at work with too many tasks, as a form of organization–but then it transferred into an everyday practice with my blog. I now see much better results, and spend left time dwelling/doing nothing about the things wrong with my blog.

    Kayla’s last blog post..A Guide to Simplistic Web Design


  4. Mariano Author Editor

    Agree completely. Treating your personal projects as they are for clients is really helpfull, of course until the point where you stop having fun, be careful.

    I also get a lot “nice.. are you making money with that?” when showing some personal project and it’s difficult to explain why money is not the primary goal.

    Keep on with the great posts!


  5. Brandon Cox Author Editor

    I definitely think most of my unique and creative lessons have come out of the risks I’m willing to take on personal projects, but there also has to be that discipline to put clients first at times too. Great article!

    Brandon Cox’s last blog post..My Favorite Design Links of the Week


  6. Ezrad Lionel Author Editor

    I hear you die when you reach for the possible. It’s obviously true because I’m not dead yet.


  7. Dicky Author Editor

    Design for yourself is definitely harder and will take longer time. I had tried to design a Premium WordPress theme. after few attempts i gave up. I had ran out of idea and i am not sure how much i can earn from it.

    So, if you want to start your personal project, i would suggest you to do it when you are really really free, and don’t set the deadline.

    Perhaps this is because i am still young in design industries…

    Dicky’s last blog post..10 WordPress Plugins That Will Increase Your Search Engine Ranking


  8. Tim Wright Author Editor

    very good read, thanks

    Tim Wright’s last blog post..10 Tips to Create a More Usable Web


  9. Callum Chapman Author Editor

    Great guest post!

    I completely agree with everything you’ve said. I’m doing a personal project at the moment, lots and lots of little fluffy ‘monsters’. Although they’re relatively simple, it’s taking me a long time to finish the project mainly because I haven’t set myself deadlines or tasks – I’ll try it!

    Callum Chapman’s last blog post..Quick Links #2


  10. Jorge Linares Author Editor

    Great article, I think if personal project could bring some income right away I would choose them instead of client work. Personal projects are more fun if you choose what you really like, that’s the point.


  11. Melody Author Editor

    I would certainly agree that expanding my personal work has been what has helped me to streamline the process so that it doesn’t take as long to do something for clients.

    To me, it’s actually emotionally rewarding as well to accomplish things with your personal work just as an artist.

    Melody’s last blog post..Preview To My New T-shirt Design Line


  12. Ilaria Mauric Author Editor

    Good post!
    In my experience, pro-bono projects have the same importance as personal projects. With pro-bono projects I can try new methods, practice new tutorial and all things like that.


  13. Federico Author Editor

    One of the best post I have ever read!

    Federico’s last blog post..Esperienze d’acquisto on-line. RomaCC.


  14. Martin Leblanc Author Editor

    This is a great post. Thanks!


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