Full-Time Designers Should Do (SOME) Side Work

Apparently, some companies feel that their in-house designers shouldn’t do side work. This baffles me. A friend recently explained this by saying his company feels like time spent doing side work is “time that should be spent working on [the company's projects].”

Do these companies have a problem with their employees watching TV in their downtime? Reading a book? Taking a class? No? Wouldn’t that time also be better spent working on the company’s projects?

I’m fortunate enough to be with a wonderful organization that realizes—even appreciates—that employees have interests outside of work. What some companies seem to struggle with is when your interests outside of work are similar to what you actually do for work.

I design for work. I design as a hobby. I tinker with techy stuff for work. I tinker with techy stuff as a hobby. I blog, tweet, and consume media for work. And also in my free time.

The truth is, you can’t work on the same projects all day, every day. Not only can it get monotonous, you can slip into a comfortable routine, repeating the same solutions and employing the same techniques. Sometimes building a site for a friend can give you that little burst of excitement that makes you remember why you love what you do in the first place.

This past summer, I picked up a bit of freelance work. It started as a “right thing at the right time” thing. A couple people I knew needed work done the same week I was planning to take a week off. Both clients (and I) were extremely pleased with the results, so I’ve done a little bit here and there since then. Not much (time is always tight lately), but just enough to benefit me in a number of ways. Such as:

Using different techniques

For one project, I was asked to mark up & style some layouts that are nothing like what I do for BatchBook. Not better, not worse, just a completely different domain. I like how simple BatchBook’s CSS is, but in this case I needed to bust out some new techniques. I even used CSS properties I had never used before. Of course, some of these new techniques were used for the BatchBook redesign. I call that education. I just happened to get a bit of money while essentially training for the day job.

A different development environment

When you work on the same product every day like I do, after a while it might feel like “the way you do things” is set in stone. It’s probably not.

When you pick up freelance work, you’re either starting things completely from scratch or working within somebody else’s development environment. In the first case, you have a clean slate and can do things in the most efficient way possible. Likely, you’ll make decisions that you want to bring back to your other work, whether it is how you set up your CSS, name your files, whatever. When working with somebody else’s code, it shows you how other people do things. There will be some “wow, we should totally do it that way” moments mixed in with “wow, I’m glad we don’t do that like they did”.

Expanding your network

Just through the little bit of side work I’ve done, I now have some additional contacts that I could call in for a number of reasons. And I’m not just talking about if either one of you needs a job down the line. I’m talking about sharing ideas and feedback, too. For example, I’ve now got a new technique to try and trick FireFox 2 into accepting inline-block. And I got a nice message from a developer that received my markup:

I just wanted to thank you for doing such a great job with the markup for the forum page you did for us. It was really easy to integrate it into the views we have…you did some very nice work.

At BatchBlue, there is certainly no shortage of “awesome job on this” notes. But to hear it from someone you don’t work with every day is always nice.

Extra money

Well… there’s that, too.

And perhaps that’s where some companies get uncomfortable. You’re essentially shopping the same services they’re paying you for to other companies. But the way I look at it, the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. And as long as you’re getting your work done on time and at high quality, what’s the problem?


  1. On November 3rd, 2008 at 11:18 am k00k said:

    I think the biggest take away from this is if you work for a company that’s not letting you better yourself in every way possible, they’re not really getting the big picture and you probably want to think about new horizons. The better the employee, the better the organization.

  2. On November 3rd, 2008 at 2:15 pm zibba said:

    I was contacted about a job at a local design firm over the summer. Sounded interesting as I spoke with the owner over the phone. Everything seemed great until she told me that there was no outside work (freelance) allowed while I would be working there. She wanted me to be giving “100%” to the company, which at the time, I was unwilling to do, due to the many freelance opportunities I had in front of me. It surprised me a bit as well, to hear this come from an agency like that. While I understand they want your full attention, to completely cut you off from other work seems a bit narrow-minded. (If it interferes with your full-time job status, that’s a completely different story) Maybe she had problems or had been burned by allowing that in the past, but as a designer, even at an agency where you would work with different clients, I feel that picking up side jobs and freelance is part of our life blood. Like Adam mentions, it’s the stuff that introduces us to knew things, or keeps us fresh in some of the daily work we do. In the end, what is the difference between taking a class and doing freelance beyond the money going different ways? I don’t see one. Great topic AD, I’d gather there are alot of companies that don’t see the difference doing side work can make in your full-time gig.

  3. On November 3rd, 2008 at 10:22 pm Adam Darowski said:

    Ed: Thanks for sharing that. Out of curiosity, did you give that feedback to the company (that you weren’t interested because of the freelance limitation)?

  4. On November 17th, 2008 at 10:04 am Joshua Porter said:

    Nice post!

    I wonder if its also a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation…unless you are intrinsically motivated you really won’t take the time to learn on your own. Instead, you’ll just do what you’re told, saving your energy for whatever your other passions might be.

    And your point about expanding your network is right on…it’s essentially building a parachute for that day when you do leave, for whatever reason.

  5. On November 17th, 2008 at 3:42 pm Adam Darowski said:

    That’s true, Josh. Also, I think it’s pretty rare that someone does—for a living—what they would do on the side as a hobby. I think it throws people off a bit to even hear that.