First Hand — Carly Ayres: The secret to creative fulfilment is not more side projects

Posted 27 August 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Side projects are often prescribed to emerging designers as something to help them stand out, land a job or satisfy unfulfilled creative energy. But in addition to simply performing well at work, can an overwhelming pressure to have a side project jeopardise a healthy lifestyle? Based in Brooklyn, New York, Carly Ayres was inspired to speak up. As co-founder and partner at interactive design studio, HAWRAF, she took to Twitter to voice her concern, and debunk the idea that more side projects are the key to creative fulfilment. The tweet quickly caught fire online, eliciting responses and reactions from the creative community on the pros and cons of side projects. We asked Carly to expand on her thoughts as she considers the downsides of a pro-side-project culture. 

Carly’s original tweet

Let’s talk about side projects 
At HAWRAF, we invite anyone who’s interested to join us at our studio once a month to chat openly about what it’s like to have a contemporary creative practice – aka to live and work as a creative human.

Certain questions come up time and time again, like: How did you get your start? How do you get clients? But over the last year, many of these questions have shifted towards finding balance and fulfilment: How many hours do you work? How do you juggle your personal and professional life? How do you come to terms with working in an industry that celebrates individualised aesthetic, while the rest of the world is in flames?

Alongside those, the topic of side projects kept coming up: What side projects should I have? How many? How do I make time for them? After enough people continued to genuinely and sincerely ask us about it, I felt like perhaps we all should have a conversation. So here we are.

Some responses to HAWRAF’s recent Ask Me Anything on Instagram

For such a seemingly uncontroversial take, I was surprised to see [the tweet] get the response that it did. I certainly am not looking to die on the “You don’t have to do side projects if you don’t want to” hill, so didn’t feel particularly strongly about getting into the weeds and debating the nuances with every person who happened to hop into my mentions. 

What surprised me the most were the older, more senior designers who felt compelled to educate me on the benefits of side projects. I think for them, it felt like a personal attack aimed – at the least – at their own slew of side ventures, and – at the most – taking down the status quo. As for the the former, I couldn’t care less how these designers spend their nights and weekends. As for the latter, sure. Let’s go.

The problem with ‘side hustles’ as a qualification metric
Don’t get me wrong – if you want to do side projects, do side projects. If you are happy at your job, get paid a tolerable amount, work reasonable hours and feel like you’re in the appropriate mental health space to pursue a creative practice on nights and weekends, this isn’t directed at you.

“If we continue to use ‘side hustles’ as a qualification metric, we are perpetuating the lack of diversity in our industry as a result.”

But there seems to be this larger feeling of industry-driven obligation, like, “If you’re not eating, breathing, sleeping d-e-s-i-g-n then you simply don’t care enough.” That feels not just wrong, but deeply problematic. Not only is it fundamentally flawed to fill every waking hour with working in service of a capitalistic system that doesn’t care for your wellbeing, but if you haven’t taken care of the first few tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs [self-actualisation; esteem; love and belonging], then it’s actively detrimental to your health.

Additionally, people who have the time, energy, and resources to fill their off-duty hours with a ‘hustle’ tend to be people who don’t have other obligations, such as caring for family, loved ones, or bringing in additional revenue. This is the same argument as the one against unpaid internships (which favour folks of the same demographic – namely middle-to-upper class white people). 

“Pick one” – an image recently posted by creative Director Sebastian Chen Speier

Like a side salad, they’re not the main course
Side projects are a great way to explore new techniques and ideas. Simply by nature of being something you do on the side, they’re supposedly unconstrained by other obligations. Like a side salad, they’re not the main course. You don’t need side projects to sustain you.

On the flip side, if you’re doing work outside of work, and someone wants you to do that for them – that’s still work. You should charge for that work. I’d actually argue that since you’re sacrificing your precious free time for that work – you should charge more. But, like any project, you have to weigh those compromises for yourself and decide what makes sense for you. You have to ask yourself why you’re doing the work: is it an interesting opportunity? A chance to learn a new skill? If it’s for the money, it’s a job.

“I think young designers feel pressured to have side projects because we tell them to have side projects.”

Design is competitive. There are a lot of really talented designers out there. Now with social media, we’re reminded of this on an exceedingly regular basis. Unlike studio culture, however, we don’t see the work going on behind the scenes, which is replaced with a deluge of curated, manufactured content. 

Of course, there is validity there, too – a lot of people get work through social media platforms, so we treat them like portfolios. But, it still feeds this perception that everyone is doing absolutely fantastic, and if you’re not, then why bother showing up? The answer is: Some people are doing great, some are doing okay, but all of us have bad days (...weeks, years). You should keep showing up because it’s about the longterm shape of the curve.

Posted 27 August 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: First Hand
Mentions: Carly Ayres
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