As a creative, it can take months, possibly even years to finally narrow down your niche to an industry and clientele that you love. You know, the clients that you feel like you resonate with on a personal level, the ones that share your interests, sensibilities, and that truly align with the type of work that you like to create.
But how do you find those clients? Or, even better, how do those clients find you?
There are lots of answers to that question, but one of the best ways to attract those types of clients, and to niche down in a field or design style that you want to focus on, is to complete “personal projects.”
In today’s post, we’ll explore the ins-and-outs of personal projects and how you can use them to build the clientele list of your dreams.
What are personal projects?
Like the name suggests, a personal project is assigned by you TO you. There’s no client involved and there’s definitely no tangible paycheck that comes along with doing these, but we think they’re an indispensable tool in your business arsenal.
Remember, you want to use personal projects to attract your dream clients. So, come up with a fictional dream client and then imagine what design project they might want from you were they to actually hire you. For example, you may do a full branding suite for a boutique candle company or a new menu design for a zero-waste organic restaurant you dream up, or maybe you’re into the world of natural beauty, so you create a packaging suite for a small batch makeup brand.
Sure, you won’t get paid for the great work you produce, but the benefits of these projects far outweigh that one minor downside. One of the best parts of a personal project is the freedom that it affords you as a designer. Since you’re making up the project on your own, you can design without constraints or parameters! So go ahead, choose the industry you most want to work for, and start doing personal projects for fictitious or even real companies in those niches. You’ll have more fun than you think.
When should you do personal projects?
This is a really important question since your time is one of the most precious commodities to protect in your business. We’d argue, though, that designers of all ages, levels, and experience should pencil in personal projects to varying degrees.
Some of the best times to do personal side projects include:
When you’re just starting out.
As a new designer, these projects are an integral step in creating a portfolio you’re proud of with proof that you have the skills to do high-level projects for your potential clients.
During slow seasons.
Even the most seasoned designers experience slow seasons throughout the year. These times are ideal for assigning yourself a personal project that challenges you creatively.
When you’re not attracting the right clients.
Many intermediate designers face this issue. Their work may be steady, but it’s not work that they find invigorating, enjoyable or aligned with the type of projects that truly light them up. If you find yourself in this position, personal projects are a key strategy to attracting clients in the industry or niche you’re dying to design for.
When you want to learn a new skill.
Another reason designers take on personal projects is to improve a skill they’ve been itching to learn or refine. A great example of this is seen in the founders of Machineast, an independent creative studio founded in 2014. The directors started the project as a way to practice their love of 3D animation. Now they’ve attracted big-name clients like Nike, Disney, and IBM, to name a few.
Perhaps you’d like to try your hand at a packaging design for a change? Personal projects are an invaluable way of challenging yourself creatively and gaining the skills and experience needed for future client projects.
When you’re waiting for client feedback.
If your client workflow includes time built in for back-and-forth feedback, use those slower days to keep tinkering away at personal projects.
How to approach the work
The important thing to keep in mind here is the ideal client, so start there. Make a list of some of the brands or companies you’d love to design for and start to brainstorm dream projects for these faux clients.
Once you’ve landed on a specific project to start, run through your client sequence as if it were a real, commissioned project. Treating every step of the process with intention and care will show in the end product. So, don’t skip the branding questionnaires you normally send out, or the three rounds of drafting you are used to presenting. Just like in your real-life workflow, it’s the creative process that delivers best results, not a one-and-one design sprint. Even though you won’t actually present your work to a client for these projects, it’s important not to skip any steps along the way. You ARE going to showcase this work on your site and socials, so treat these projects with care.
We also recommend scheduling time on your actual calendar to work on the project. It’s all too easy to brush aside work like this when you’re tired or creatively drained. But if the work is penciled in your day already, you’ll be more likely to take it seriously as a task that will propel your business forward.
How to present your work in an attractive way
Once you’ve finished the design itself, be sure to get the most out of your work by using mockups to display the work in a real-life setting. This final step is such a crucial one, especially as you’re preparing the design to be seen by non-designers.
Seeing the design in a mockup allows a non-designer to imagine how the project would look in their world, whether that’s a website, store shelf, table menu, or wedding.
How to share your project and land new clients
Personal projects will only move your business forward if you actually share the incredible work you’ve done. So, take those mockups you created and start sharing your work everywhere you can to get the right eyes on your designs.
Start with the easy ones. Post your personal projects to social media and of course, your own website portfolio. If you blog and email, you could create a post about your inspiration and the process.
Definitely share your work on Pinterest and online portfolio sites like Behance and Dribbble as many designers and companies spend lots of time on that platform. Emmy Jones of Emmygination saw success taking this route. A personal project she designed and shared on Pinterest attracted her largest client yet: Anthropologie! She now designs for Anthro Beauty because of this simple connection.
Finally, don’t be afraid to personally send your designs to the companies and creative directors that you want to attract! Many wonderful design partnerships have happened by “cold-pitching” in this way.
TIP: If you post your personal project on Instagram, one good thing to do is to engage with potential ‘ideal’ clients before and after you post. For example, if you’d like to design for a sustainable fashion brand, find possible accounts that fit that niche. Then, post your personal project on IG and engage with these brands afterward so that they’re likely to look at your profile and see that you’re a designer who caters for sustainable fashion brands. Just what they might be looking for!
Already these potential ‘leads’ can see that you have an interest and understanding in their industry, which is key when searching for sometime to bring their business and vision to life.
Ideally, your time spent invested in personal projects will result in powerhouse clients and projects that make you love this career even more than you do already. While you’re waiting for those killer connections to happen, though, focus on the fact that creative pursuits like personal projects also help to stoke the fire of your creativity.
As the design duo from Machineast said, “As much as we love problem-solving for our clients, we need to problem-solve our artistic side as well. Doing personal projects helps us keep our passion for design alive.”
Lead image taken from our Aria Collection
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