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Episode 2

Making money from side projects

make more money as a designer

In this episode

Jeremy and Malin talk about Louise Fili's extraordinary side projects and how she turned her passion for Italy in to a sustainable part of her business. We look at how to get started with making money from your own passion projects, from ideas to common pitfalls to avoid. 

louise fili

Examples of the work

hand lettering work
packaging design
passion project
make money designer

Design challenges to try

From the company famous for creating design with positive change comes a set of truly important challenges. IDEO have open challenges created to drive progress based around human rights, sustainability and experience design. They also have a lot of advice for how to tackle any topic to take it from idea to implementation. 

Focused mainly around coding and design, this site is dedicated to providing briefs for anything from the perfect coffee app to how to improve voting. 

the graphic design exercise book

A book full of fictional briefs to get you started. There is also a ton of inspiration and examples of how to tackle each design. 

Get the benefit of people already following a hashtag by joining an existing challenge on Instagram. 

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Share ideas, get inspired and get your questions answered directly in our supportive community

Episode transcript

Jeremy: Hi there, and welcome again to the Creative Hold podcast. I am Jeremy, and my co host…


Malin: Malin, hi!


Jeremy: Hope you all had a great week. So today’s episode is about side hustles, side projects, passion projects, all these various terms we use for anything that is not particularly client work and we wanted to talk about where they fit in with your creative work. So a very famous designer named Louise Fili has some really interesting ideas when it comes to her side projects. She grew up in New Jersey, and she is a letterer, she is a letterer of many Art Deco things, of restaurants and all these sort of Art Deco style, parisian, Italian lettering.


Malin: Ok, is she from Italy?


Jeremy: She is Italian-American


Malin: Ok


Jeremy: But she says that her first trip to Italy was sort of the reason she fell in love with lettering. And she started off working for a man called Herb Lubalin and he was the designer of the credit for the sound of music.


Malin: Ok wow ok.


Jeremy: So that was one of her first jobs out of college. And then she, after that she became the principle art director for a company called Pantheon Books.


Malin: Yea, I know them, yea.


Jeremy: And for many decades, designed book jackets for them and was part of the art direction. And you can have a look at the cook jackets that she made for them.


Malin: Yes you can really see how the typography is playing such a key part in her work.


Jeremy: Right.


Malin: And is it so different, we are looking at a couple different ones and some are really imagery focused and a lot of them are much more ornate and has a lot of illustration.


Jeremy: Yes, and so yea, her work is predominantly if you want an ornate, Art Deco sort of rich typography based logo or restaurant brand or package design then you go to her and she has made a name for herself as that person. She has been running her studio now in manhattan for almost three decades, I think it started in 1989 and she has become the letterer for Art Deco things.


Malin: How does that play in with the kind of Passion project side of things?


Jeremy: Right. So she has some really interesting passion projects. So she has always had this love for lettering so what she did was, she went to Italy and started a book with her husband, Steven Heller, who is also actually a famous graphic designer. What she did was, she went all over Italy and took pictures of signage. Of the different metal signs, of the monographs and different neon signs and she made a book about it. And that was just purely a passion project.


Malin: That sounds like such a nice way to, especially if you feel stuck at work to say “well this is still for work and it is still to take my career forward” but a way to learn more, a way to get a new perspective and still maybe make some money from it. Did she make some money from it?


Jeremy: Yes. Because after that, she published one more of these and she has made a few of these now where she has gone to Paris, and she has also gone to Barcelona. She has gone to all these European cities to take photos of signage and collect them all in books. She has revitalised some signawhere in one shop, she had a, they did not use the old signage anymore and a newspaper wrote an article about it and then the family who owns the building who owned the shop as well said “we’ll put up the old signage again” and so she is sort of revitalising old Art Deco signage.


Malin: That is really cool because I think you can do this with all kinds of design but I think signage and lettering is an example where this is really prominent. There is so much history tied to the visuals that you do not have to just write about how you recreated it but you can actually talk about the story of the people who had that shop, you know, or took the brand on or are using the website. Whatever your creative field is, you can make it something that is more of a story of the company rather than just you the designer.


Jeremy: Yes, but it also is a story about the regions. She talks about how different regions within Italy, you can sort of notice what city in Italy you are in by the type of signage they use, by the type of metal work they use. Let’s say some signage is more metal and some is more painted on, you notice the different regions within Italy and that is, it also tells the history of Italy. So of course in Italy you had the Fascist dictatorship in the 40’s and 30’s and you see maybe just the remnants of the lettering, futurist, fascist lettering…


Malin: That is so interesting.


Jeremy: Because it might just look like a train station but you know it reminds you of…


Malin: This really makes me want to get these books. So I am definitely going to go buy them after this.


Jeremy: We will put the links for these books in the description and you can get all of them. And yes so it is a really interesting way to have a passion project. And then also she is also moving into stationary where she makes two sided pencils that are inspired by old time pencils. Two sided pencils used to be a thing for teachers to mark their students depending on the severity, one side was red, the other was blue. So she makes now, she made first a red and a black one but now with the craze and it was serendipitous but it was not actually planned but she started bringing out colouring pencils and named them Tutti Frutti. And they came out with the craze of adult colouring books.


Malin: That is really smart.


Jeremy: So passion projects can actually develop into a business model.


Malin: Yes, I think that is so interesting because I hear people speaking the other day between the difference between being an artist and being you know a designer and a creative person and how you know one is just doing what you love or what sparks something for you in terms of creativity, which is the artist side. And on the other side you have to consider what people want to purchase. And in her case, she is doing things that she absolutely loves , she loves travelling to those places but she is thinking commercially. And I think that is really important for passion projects if you want to be something that is going to help you get clients.


Jeremy: Yes, and she says her idea behind passion projects is there is never going to be a perfect client and that perfect project. So for her, that perfect project is her own work and travelling, getting inspired by the Gelaterias.


Malin: And I’m sure that can spark things that she can bring back to her client work.

Jeremy: Yes.


Malin: And with the perfect project, I think you have a lot of control over how a project turns out. So it might not just be a magical perfect project that lands in your lap all the time but I think you can do a lot of things that makes a project more creative or more...rewarding.


Jeremy: Yea fulfilling, yes! Yes, so I think this is a really fun one, we will put the links to her work. She is the restaurant and Jam and all these Art Deco things…


Malin: Food packaging…


Jeremy: Packaging, yes. She is the lady to go to.


Malin: That is really cool and that leads us really well on to kind of how to think about how to do your own passion projects. And we touched upon this before but I wanted to talk about the types of side projects and passion projects you can have. And the topic today is how to turn them in to client work or you know how to get clients from your passion project. And obviously you can do whatever you want. You can just do something because you love it and because it is fun, it does not have to give your work, but that is the topic of this episode so yes.


Jeremy: Sure!


Malin: So the first one I think is exactly what she did which is create an actual product or service. Something that is really tangible, it can be anything it can be a sticker pack, it can be an online course it does not have to be physical but something that you can sell. You can put an easy price tag on it. And I think you can do this both towards other creative if you have got a skill that is very specific like you can do a Youtube channel and you can give memberships, you know it can be anything. Another one is, you have probably seen this in a ton of spaces as well, but to redesign something that you have seen a brand do. So for example, a lot of people do Nike redesigns. And I think it is something that can be super successful on certain platforms because it is a big name so lots of people are interested, it is a big kind of hashtag already. Something I think you have to be careful with if you are just trying to get the attention of that company is to really read up on their ethos and what they are trying to do with their brand, because I see a lot of people, especially with big brands, they put out something really cool but it is totally different from what the company is actually trying to do and then they probably would not hire you to do that. But if you genuinely come up with a cooler solution, I think that is really good. I think that could get their attention.

Jeremy: And when you say redesign you don’t mean the Nike check or swoosh but you mean their marketing campaigns or their…


Malin: If it is a giant brand like that yes. If it is like a brand you see in your local areas and you think “Ah their website could be so much better” and you do a redesign and you show it to them or just publish it on your Behance maybe then that is something that could maybe get their attention. They don’t have to use it but be really clear about the fact that it was a self initiated project.


Jeremy: If they do want to use it, you should charge for it.


Malin: Yes! That is also very true. It can be more of a “hey this is a way for me to show that I have this competency”. Yes exactly. And this is moving us on to the next kind and they are kind of blurring a little but doing you project in an industry you want to break in to, or a new type of skill you want to show.


Jeremy: Right.

Malin: So let’s say you have just been doing illustration and you really want to go in to motion for example, but you don’t really have any motion clients because you don’t have a motion portfolio, so it goes in to that bad circle.


Jeremy: Yes!


Malin: You can definitely just try to initiate something and create a portfolio of motion stuff and put it on, you know, your social media and show people and that can be a way to both practice but also to get something on your portfolio in that industry. What I think is a really good thing to do, is to try to get to know the industry so let’s say you want to break into fashion, then if you have a project, even if it is self initiated, if you did a bunch of research in to the companies and you really show a good case study where you demonstrate that you understood the problems they are facing, then that is a really good asset.


Jeremy: Yes.


Malin: So even if it is a project you made up completely from scratch, you are still demonstrating that you learned and understood the type of industry so I think that is really useful. This one we have not tried…


Jeremy: Ok.


Malin: But I see a lot of people do this, especially on Instagram which is do stuff in challenges, like 365 days of type.


Jeremy: O we did do that!


Malin: Did we?


Jeremy: This is a fun story. In the beginning when we had no clients and so, we did a Helvetica challenge.


Malin: Yes but that was our own challenge, it wasn’t like following a hashtag.


Jeremy: No no no, but we did do something like that, where we once a week designed something using only Helvetica.


Malin: Sure, that is true. That is true. I think that is good for the benefit of showing endurance because we did do it for a lot of different weeks. But I think the benefit of following one that is already happening is that you kind of go on this wave of people already searching for this. So if people are interested in the hashtag of 365 days of type, then it is more likely that your work will show up.


Jeremy: How do you find those challenges, or what is a good place to look or how do you know what is going to trend?


Malin: Mm, I think it is good to look for those that have a lot of engagement but not the most popular ones because it is going to be very hard to get to the top of those ones. I think looking at Instagram for inspiration is a really good place but I can put a couple of links on the website as well for challenges and different blog posts that have lists of lots of challenges because I think that is easier than me, like, listing a bunch of blogs.  


Jeremy: Do it, yes.


Malin: So I will definitely do that. Yes, we have already talked about getting publicity from these different things and trying to get seen that way but I think there are also a bunch of other benefits you can get, which might not be as obvious. So the first one is that if you do not have a specific deadline for something you have to put out at a certain set of requirements, then you have more time and you can sit down and use the methodology you want, you can learn a new skill in the time that you need, and under the circumstances that you need. This should not mean that you spend three weeks learning a new skill that you might not need but I think it can be a thing that if you really feel that you want to start doing a new skill, you can have the time to do it in peace kind of. Without the pressure of certain circumstances.


Jeremy: Without having said yes to something and then learning it.


Malin: Yes, and then going, oh shit, I have to figure out how to do this.


Jeremy: Yes.


Malin: The other one is keeping updated with trends and new technology and all these things because if you are just hunkering down, and working on projects set by you or the client’s imagination, without looking at what other people are doing, without looking at new technologies, you are probably not going to know about all the opportunities that are out there. So for example, we did a project just for ourselves to figure out how Adobe XD works when that came out, that was super useful.


Jeremy: Yes, because now we have been using that program for many clients already, like and also for just visualising how to visualise and how clients visualise the work that we did before that.


Malin: Yes, and if we didn’t feel comfortable using it, we probably wouldn’t have suggested it.


Jeremy: Yes.


Malin: So I think that is good, you do passion projects, even if you don’t publish them, to figure out as a tool to learn, that kind of thing.


Jeremy: Also it helps you become more technical, even if let’s say even if you never end up using Adobe XD, you start partnering with a UX designer who does XD, understanding that program can help make you such a better project manager. So like us, knowing a bit of after effects, even though we are not motion graphics designers you know, we can help translate our illustrations and vectors into motion graphics much easier.


Malin: Yes, just having that, like you are saying understanding helps bring the team together. Especially if you are managing projects. One that I thought was quite good was, if you are thinking that you want to get into a new type of skill set , it could be a really good way to test out your process. So let’s say you want to do brand strategy but you haven’t really done that much, maybe just branding but not much of a strategy portion. Then you could do kind of like a mock project to go through all the steps and pretend to be the client or have a friend pretend to be the client or something, just to go through meetings and be like “O actually I need much more time for this” or “I need to do this type of research” you know just go through the motions of what it would take and see if your process would work. So as a kind of way to test out your process.


Jeremy: And there are several books out there that give you sort of mock briefs, we can put them in the description as well. One is the graphic design exercise book.


Malin: I found that one super useful when we just got started because it gives you a bunch of inspiration so it shows you “here is our project brief” and here is how we did it and then you come up with your own solution.


Jeremy: Yes and then you can expand the briefs to your own field so even if it is not a design brief, you can say ok “what other problems could that company face” and then whatever skill you want to apply to that brief you can do.


Malin: Yes, that is a good example yes. Something else that I think could be really useful is, you know there is a lot of creative collaboration happening which I think is really good. I think it is such a good way to get new work but if you have never worked before it can feel a bit high stakes to collaborate on a client project as the first one. And i think doing a passion project together either as like “we are creating this guide together” or we are doing an Instagram challenge together or anything where you are testing how the other person’s process is working and how you communicate could be a really good way to kind of feel each other out a bit and make sure that you fit together on the important stuff. You could also have this as a really good reason to cross promote. So you could get a bunch of new followers by telling each other about your work and I think that can be really good because you most likely have a similar audience if you want to team up.


Jeremy: And also, you can end up if you have a good working relationship, you end up charging more if you want to bring it back to commercial because now you have a larger skillset to promote and the sum of you is worth more than the individual parts. Let’s say it is only you or only him, the two of you can charge more together because the value of having you two work in unison as one creation team is a lot higher for clients.


Malin: Yes you are getting one team but you are getting double the expertise. Yes I like that. How do you think we should best promote the work once it is completed and you know we have done our passion project and we have got our design project or our piece of merchandise we want to sell, how should we promote it?


Jeremy: I mean that is hard because, like designers are very bad sometimes at, or creatives in general are bad at bragging at how good we are.


Malin: Yes. It can feel a bit cringe.


Jeremy: And it really depends on the product but I assume if it is a book you have a publisher do that for you or…

Malin: Let’s assume it is self published if it is a book. This is just you doing it on your own, from your platform.


Jeremy: I mean I think anything visual, Instagram is good, I don’t know, what about you? What do you think?


Malin: I think, I want to hear your opinion on Behance because I think Behance is a place where people really go for passion projects. I have seen a lot of people say that it is really good for promoting things that are not necessarily things you want to put in your portfolio but things you want to refer to if someone is asking. You know, someone says do you have this in your portfolio? And you can say “on my website I have put only these curated things but here is something to refer to”. So yea maybe Behance?


Jeremy: Yes, we have had Behance but so far what I have found from Behance is other designers commenting on how much they like it. I use Behance for inspiration for when we do creative work. I have not personally had much experience putting passion projects on there and it leading to…


Malin: To work? Yea. It probably depends on how big your audience already is on Behance and how much work you put in to it. To be fair, we have never done a you know persistent really big effort on Behance but we do get comments on other creatives wanting to collaborate so I think that could be a good way to lead in to collaborations.


Jeremy: That is true.


Malin: I think another thing that most people don’t think about and that is super useful is all of these creative blogs and online magazines who are always looking for content. So like if you do packaging, send your content with a bit of a description to Dieline and it does not just have to be just the giant publications, you can look in your city but these places are always looking for content. Make it as easy as possible for them, you know write up the purpose for the story, you can add a link to your website so you get link building as well for SEO purposes. I think that is a really good way because if people love your project, it can go a bit viral on those platforms and you don’t just have to rely on your own network. Because I think that is the challenge, if you are looking for more clients, you most likely don’t have a crazy amount of website traffic so you are like fending off website traffic so if you are looking for more clients, I think trying to harness other networks is super helpful.


Jeremy: Absolutely, and referrals are so far, you know the lifeblood of creative.


Malin: I think so yea. I do think there is two little words of warning with passion projects. And the first one is obviously that it should not take so much time that it takes over paying work. But I think that is pretty given. The second one I think is that if you do passion projects that for example is a rebrand of a famous company, I don’t even know if you should put it on your portfolio?


Jeremy: Mmmm, yea…


Malin: It could be a little bit misleading. Let’s say you have Nike on your portfolio. Someone comes, they look at it, they think this is so cool…


Jeremy: They worked with Nike…


Malin: Yes. And they meet with you and they say, oh that was such a cool project, how did you land Nike? And you are like “Oh no I did that for fun”. Like you can frame it in a much more sensible way than I just did, but I think maybe for your portfolio, it can be a little bit misleading. But I mean Behance is a completely different animal so I think it is fine to put it on other platforms or social media.


Jeremy: Or make it very clear that it is a self-initiated project.


Malin: Yes! If you are initiating something that isn’t with a known brand, I don’t think it is the same issue. But it could be good to just sprinkle in some initiated and explain why you did them together with client work. If you are starting out completely fresh, like in the beginning our portfolio was 100% passion projects.


Jeremy: But it was also 100% made up companies.


Malin: Yes, that is true.


Jeremy: So those work as well. Those work really well and no one can check and see if you are lying or not.


Malin: Well, I mean you should be honest but it is not going to be someone who is thinking you worked with someone you didn’t.


Jeremy: Yes, exactly.


Malin: I mean people might not agree with me that you should not put it, and I mean if it is a great project…


Jeremy: If it is really good work I can see why you would want to put it on, just be careful.


Malin: Yes, it is just about transparency. I thought we could finish with a good example of a passion project that really worked out for someone. Have you heard about a woman called Laura Olin?


Jeremy: No.


Malin: So she is this person who works with companies to form their digital strategy and she created a newsletter that comes out once a week that is called the everything changes newsletter.


Jeremy: Ok!


Malin: I think this is really perfect for all of you out there who sometimes get bored and want new things to work on. So this is a newsletter she gives out every week and the format, the content, the topics, the visuals, everything changes every week.


Jeremy: Oh ok.


Malin: So she writes about something she is interested in, something that she found, you know interesting topics that are roaming around and it really shows her versatility. You know, it shows that she is aware of the different trends that are happening and because she is a digital strategist, that kind of embraces her brand. And she has gotten really big with this in the sense that it is even on her main navigation her newsletter because it has become so popular and it also is perfect for keeping her top of mind. So it is something that she has built up this giant audience, she does not necessarily just write about digital strategy but it is a great creative outlet, she can write about whatever she wants since that is the premise and she has this giant audience that gives her a lot of authority. I think that is such a perfect win-win.


Jeremy: Yes absolutely.


Malin: Even for getting clients.


Jeremy: Yes I’ll check that out! I have not heard about it before.


Malin: Yea it is really cool.


Jeremy: Ok, well this was a really good discussion I think, I really enjoyed it.


Malin: Thank you so much, it was really good. And thank you to our listeners as well.


Jeremy: Yes thank you and see you next time!

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