When the side project becomes the main focus
Self-initiated side projects of designers frequently transcend the traditional boundaries or perceived limitations of their ‘main’ practice. Engaging in projects that challenge us to work without a disciplinary ‘safety net’ allows us to test our creativity and ingenuity. When this occurs, we find that this has the potential to transform our core practice and beliefs. It is at this point that the boundary between the side project and the main work begins to blur.
Being freed from our traditional disciplinary boundaries or constraints of medium allows for a professional designer to occupy the role of amateur. This should not be interpreted as being any less ‘polished’ or focused, but rather, by engaging in a project that goes beyond the familiar materials and processes, the ‘professional amateur’ applies their disciplinary knowledge to solve unfamiliar problems with new mediums. There is a certain element of risk involved, as the designer is most often not only trying to develop an aesthetically pleasing result with no established guidelines, they are also working with unfamiliar materials or processes. Hence, with a side project, the measure of success may become an issue of craftsmanship and skill.
Without engaging a long argument regarding the craft / design divide, let us consider this concept of craftsmanship in the context of the professional amateur. Donald Pye, as discussed in Adamson’s Thinking Through Craft, introduced a separation of the term ‘skill’ normally associated with craftsmanship as a division between manual actions and mental know-how (Adamson 2007 pp. 72 – 76). He reserved the term ‘workmanship’ to be purely connected with physical procedures, whose mechanics are then analysed. Applied in this manner, it suggests that through not only practising a series of repeated actions, but by also paying careful attention to understanding these physical processes, a professional amateur may develop skill.
Many designers place an emphasis on the work of the hand in their side projects. Whilst this may be deemed simply as a result of, and reaction against, our increased reliance on digital tools in the design industry, it may also be just as much a desire to reconnect with material and processes in this sense of workmanship. There is a certain nostalgia amongst designers associated with traditional methods and making, a sense that this is a more ‘honest’ way of working in a world of digital trickery, where the designer’s intuition comes as much into play as their training. As mentioned earlier, for the professional amateur to develop skill, the manual process must be practiced and refined in order to attain a satisfactory level of craftsmanship. Side projects by their very nature can lend themselves to this process, where the designer has both the time and space to slow down the process, without the usual deadline driven constraints and measures of their everyday disciplinary practice.
Having such freedom to experiment with new tools, new mediums, take risks and push ideas beyond what is ‘safe’ and certain is quite seductive. Peter Downton coins the phrase ‘cheerful eclecticism’ as a description of ‘…where whatever tools looked useful have been employed for the task at hand without either the proscriptions or prescriptions brought by adherence to a dogma-driven set of methods developed and advanced by a particular school...’ (Downton 2003 p.13). Material explorations, successful trials and catastrophic failures all serve to further the designer’s
knowledge and skill in unfamiliar territory, without the pressures of delivering an ‘outcome’ by which their expertise is measured. Instead, we are required to remain open to new ways of working, which perhaps points to why it is that for many creatives, traditional disciplinary boundaries are becoming less important or significant. At its essence, it boils down to finding ways to express creativity, regardless of the medium. Paradoxically, it is through these seemingly open and unrestrained activities that our own disciplinary knowledge is honed.
The overlap – when the side project becomes the main focus.
Applying the ingrained habits of design thinking – speculation, ideation and realization - to our ‘hobby’ or side project allows us to reflect on our own unique process. Irrespective of the medium in which we are working, each of us has a distinctive way by which we develop concepts and ideas, apply techniques, evaluate processes and achieve the finished result. By stepping outside of our core practice and working elsewhere, we bring all of our disciplinary knowledge with us regardless – which means that the new area in which we are working will be interpreted through the lens of our core practice. In turn, what we learn in this alternative space may be brought back into our ‘main’ practice, providing new insights into our own approaches to solving design problems.
In a generation of ‘slashies’, where designers may find it difficult to restrict themselves to one definitive title, this broadens the idea of just what is at the heart of our core practice, and what is the side project. Previously, we may have defined this core identity as grounded in our professional training – e.g. ‘I studied architecture, therefore I am an architect’ – however as the exhibitors in Makette have shown, what we explore in our side projects may be just as illuminating to our practice as the work we undertake in our professional lives. For some, the boundaries between the ‘side’ and the ‘main’ practice are easily blurred by the consistent use of familiar materials or mediums, for others, it is more of a philosophical approach that crosses over from the main practice to the side project.
Perhaps it is when we can no longer easily distinguish between the side and the main, when the two become enmeshed in an entire body of work, that we are on the cusp of a new definition of practice.
Adamson, G 2007, ‘Thinking Through Craft’, Berg Oxford
Downton, P 2003, ‘Design Research’, RMIT University Press, Melbourne
Risatti, H 2007, ‘A Theory of Craft: function and aesthetic expression’, University of North Carolina Press