The benefit of personal projects

Take the time to build something amazing

Andrew Couldwell
5 min readJun 11, 2013

Client work can often be restrictive, whether it’s the budget, a tight deadline, internal politics, fear of change or just a sheer lack of vision (either from the client, or the team/agency that form the project). Sure, you can innovate, but as I’ve found, most of those good ideas remain buried on a hard drive, in a wireframe, an email, or maybe they didn’t even graduate from your sketchbook…

Photo by UK surf photographer Mickey Smith

Don’t get me wrong; I have to pinch myself sometimes that people actually pay me to be creative! But isn’t it a shame that all those ideas and creative energy go to waste.

Self-led projects have the advantage that they are only as constrictive as you make them, so go nuts! Okay, so time and budget can be a problem. But think about why you’re doing this; Is it going to be so awesome that all the doors it opens for you outweigh any cost to you? It could be a great talking point in a future interview. Or perhaps it’s the one thing in your portfolio where you were truly creative, broke all the rules and still created a great project (surprise surprise).

It’s a great learning experience and a solid portfolio piece, win-win!

My personal project…

Besides paid work, I’ve willingly taken on projects that interest me for free… I’ve designed for beer, done charity things for free and I even did one project in exchange for a surfboard! But my crème de la crème is a website called Club Of The Waves. In brief, it’s a surfing, art, photography and culture site. It showcases surf artists and photographers, along with articles, exhibits and interviews. Although it’s more of a blog nowadays, since my actual work commitments have taken over much of my time.

It actually started out as a University project, much to the disapproval of my course leaders!! But it wasn’t until several months after graduating that I decided to take it on as a personal project and officially ‘launch it’. At first, I figured it would just be a bit of fun, but now, 7 years later it represents over 250 artists, has won multiple awards, made headlines internationally and at it’s peak received hundreds of thousands of monthly page impressions.

People think I’m nuts! Seriously.

Curating this project is/was a full-time job on top of a full-time job, but I’ve never cared about that, I love doing it. I wish I had more time to dedicate to it now. It gives me a real sense of purpose.

My ‘day job’ as a designer often involves creating things that make other people lots of money and headlines. So a personal project is a great way of doing something for yourself, or even better, in this case, to benefit other people too!

Profile of artist Erik Abel

Learning experience

Club Of The Waves (COTW) has been an invaluable ‘design and development playground’. It’s often hard to experiment with client work, but with personal work, you can take as many risks as you want! Almost everything I’ve learned (development and SEO wise) has come from working on personal projects.

When I first got into web design, websites were still table-based *shudders*, as was the first version of COTW. The agency work I was doing at that time (2007/08) wasn’t very creative and didn’t support learning, so I used COTW as my base to learn XHTML & CSS by re-building the entire site (using the same design) from the ground up.

This experience was invaluable! And of course I took what I’d learned and applied it to my day-to-day work.

Since that initial re-build, not so many years later, I totally re-designed and built the site in HTML5. Again, my first experience with a new HTML markup. The same can be said for various other experiments with PHP and JavaScript.

Things have moved a lot faster for me in recent years, and I’ve learned much more ‘on the job’ — but I owe much of my initial development to my work on COTW. One day I’ll find the time the site deserves and give it a responsive makeover! *Makes note in Reminder app*

The Blog keeps me out of trouble and away from the TV!

Other benefits…

The press/attention it’s generated has been invaluable! It’s 100% an ego free project — It’s not about me, but inevitably, when people and design agencies like what they see online, they seek the source! A number of key points in my career can be attributed directly or indirectly to COTW!

Balance in your portfolio

Remember, personal projects can be great, but only if supported by a solid portfolio of client work. After all, in the real world, a good designer has to create within deadlines and to budget. For students or practicing designers looking for agency work: Agencies want to see innovation, creativity and stunning work, but they also want to see your response to a brief, what you can achieve with the restraints on, how you respond to pressure, curve balls and crazy deadlines. But if you have a great idea and you think it’s something you’ll enjoy doing, then make some time and just do it! You won’t regret it.