How to Make Your Personal Project a Success

As designers and developers we constantly strive for creative outlets and other areas away from our day-to-day work where we can show the world “what we’re really made of”. That is, at work we might get asked to put together a dull looking web page or site build because that’s what the client wants and if we had it our way, would look totally different.  Very rare do I find myself in a position where I can apply some trendy new styles to a design and go to town on it to impress the design community.

Enter personal projects

We’ve all done it as designers or developers; sat there and watched an impressive Twitter feed of someone who’s just launched an amazing app now reaping the rewards, and thought “I could so do that”. I know I’ve done it numerous times and got excited about it before it’s even been decided what’s going to happen. You just know you want to do something.

An experience that I’ve just gone through made me realise a few things where it concerns personal projects and thought it was worth noting down for anyone else thinking of giving it a go. I’m referring mainly to group projects from here on.

Plan Properly

Sounds kind of obvious but you’d be amazed at how many projects start with the best intentions (something I’ll come onto later) but never get finished due to poor planning in the initial stages. When I started one such project almost a year ago, I had been conversing over Twitter with two other guys and one suggested starting a project for selling Tumblr themes. I immediately jumped at this as I had became a fan of Tumblr shortly before (designing and building this theme) and we all agreed it would be awesome and jumped on Skype to discuss it.

Now at this stage we sorted out who was to do what and off we went. It’s at this stage I feel we let ourselves down. With two designers and one developer (who also designs) it was obvious we all wanted a piece of the pie and that meant other parts of the projects didn’t get picked up on. At the time we thought we had everything down and ready to rock but in hindsight we moved too quick. I’m guilty of this as ideas just ran away from me and like a fool, I chased after them. “We could do this” and “how about that, would be awesome” etc. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have an achievable (and if you’re in a team a common) goal and map out what you’re doing or who’s doing what and make it achievable with a realistic time frame. Also ask yourself questions at this early stage; “is X what we got excited about on Twitter?”, “is doing Y a certain way going to deviate from our goals” and “by doing Z will that impact on X and Y?”. Get everything clear, concise and realistic from the get go.

Review, review then review some more

One thing that’s more important than ensuring you have a good blaster at your side, is reviewing your progress.  This is where it can really go to Bantha droppings. You’ve got to have a schedule in place so you can catch up to see what you’ve done, what’s to do, when you’re going to do it and generally how everything is. It’s so important to make sure you’re all going in the same direction. It also helps to keep the moral and momentum going.

We fell into the trap of letting that excitement slip away. It’s very hard to do when you have a life going on. Trying to arrange catch-up’s can be tricky when you’ve all got work and family commitments. If you’re flying solo, it can also be difficult to maintain that enthusiasm and you really have to beat yourself up to book in those review sessions. Book a time in advance where you can all be free and stick to it. Sometimes you will have to move or cancel something else in your life to get it going but that’s just the way it is. If you want to get it going, you’ve got to have at least a small amount of sacrifice for something else.

Be prepared to make changes

It’s at this point that if you’re currently working through a project and the above points are familiar to you and that you’ve worked through them successfully, still be prepared for things to crop up. As in my case, one of our guys decided to leave the project due to family commitments and so it was down to two. Not a major issue, it just meant that our timeline would be extended. Sounds simple but if you’ve already failed at the Planning Stage and have not exactly gone smoothly through the Review Stage then it’s going to be a bumpy ride. One less person means more work which means more time needed which then means more pressure on you to make that time and, well, you get the picture.

I’m 99% sure there will be changes along the way. How well you handle those changes will determine how well your project goes through to launch.

Keep up the positivity

To finish on, and this is probably the most important, stay positive and excited about it. It’s really easy to say right at the beginning what you plan to do but believe me, that can soon diminish if you lose focus. It’s at every stage you need to keep asking yourself why you’re doing it. Try and re-capture that excitement that got you going in the first place. Unfortunately the good intentions you had in the beginning aren’t enough to carry the project if you’ve lost that spark.

If you haven’t got that excitement and when you’re talking about it you not coming across as positive, you’ll end up with a half-assed end product that isn’t what you wanted to release back when you first started talking about it. If you read other stories of people who’ve tried to launch projects and failed (check out Paul Boag’s recent post) then you’ll see some recurring themes. Whether it’s poor planning or not reviewing the progress, it’s a common problem.

What can you do to stay on target?

There are some small and important things to consider and remember to prevent your project being thrown into the Sarlacc pit:

  • Plan properly and have a clear route to what it is you want to do
  • Set realistic goals and agree on them
  • Review, review and then review some more
  • Deal with changes head on and plan out an alternative route
  • Keep up the enthusiasm
  • Stay motivated and be prepared up front to make some sacrifices
  • Get feedback from fellow designers/developers along the way

I hope this has been of some help. A big part of it, in my opinion, is just doing something. Although it can feel disappointing when projects don’t go the way you plan, it’s also a good experience and something to learn from.

To borrow a quote from one of Erskine Design’s Tweet Your Wisdom posters: “The person who never made a mistake never made anything”.