I think working on side projects is something that can be both useful and relaxing and when done right it can pay off.
Comparing to other jobs, I think us designers started discovering what we can / want to do by either being talented towards arts and crafts, or by enjoying to create stuff / play with tools and got "caught" in this world.
I find it a bit hard to believe that someone was forced or guided towards this job because of how well paid it is.
And this mind set makes a huge difference between someone using his skills and loving it and someone who just wants to finish his shift and go home to do something that he enjoys.
Even though we love what we do - there are times when you get caught in routine, or forget to push the extra mile and fallback on easy solutions that just "work".
Reintroducing the fun part
I think it's in our nature to try to either reinvision a product more towards each one's taste, craft a fun new little tool or experiment with something they don't have the change in their usual routine.
And here's the cool part about working on a side projects. No one stops you from doing exactly that. You are the only who gets to decide how everything should be experienced.
Over the time I think I've worked over 20 fun projects. From personal finance tools to micro products focused on simple tasks. Most of them never got shipped but every single one made me excited and allowed to try something.
On top of that - the learnings. When you do this you get through so many fases by yourself - research, competitors benchmarking, usability etc. No one is forcing you to do that, but the more experienced you get the more aware you are that you have to check this things out.
The downfall of fun projects
No requirements. No stakeholders. No guidelines. But also no fun.
The further you go from something that was supposed to be just an experiment, the harder it becomes to work.
So it becomes really important to know what you want to achieve with each project. Is your objective a dribbble shot? Maybe a behance or portfolio case study?
If so - great that's the easy part.
When you set yourself higher goals then you need structure.
Do you want to learn how to design for android?
Or push your project live?
Without proper patterns, structure, usability study - you will need all the luck in the world.
That was one of the lessons I learned the hard way. Building a project without a clear structure, without a defined roadmap and proper feature stories led me to a failed project in which I had invested 6 months. And around 3k in development.
Was it worth it? Yes.
Would I do it again? Definetly not.
My top 5 rules for working on a fun project
I've set for myself this rules to keep me focused on achieving what I want and don't fall back again in the same routing I was trying to get away from.
1. Set a goal for the project
Something very simple like "Make a super simple notes app" or "Create a small icon set".
2. Set a project deadline
How long do you want to work on it? You have to think on two things: how much time it will take you to achieve the goal and also if you can stay motivated for that long.
3. Define clear deliverables
You want to build an icon set? Give it a number 10-20 icons. Want to build an app or a website? Give it a number 5 screens or 5 landing pages.
4. Keep a backlog
Most of the times you will be distracted by other things like "how would I name my cool project" or "what logo to make for it" - spending 7 days thinking of a cool name and delivering exactly 0 things. Create a small backlog with things to focus after you've achieved your goal - this way you don't forget about them and can focus later on them.
5. Have fun
Last but not least! A good idea doesn't necesarily = fun but since you are doing this to achieve something you are proud of, be bold and take things to the next level. Don't just use your skills, make sure you go an extra mile and try something new.
Have fun in working on your side projects and let me know if you have other pro tips.