A Career Built on Side Projects

I am asked, from time to time, how I have managed to make it as a freelancer (so far). For those who are unwise enough to rely upon me for advice, I generally offer two major comments: first off, the network of comrades I have developed via my participation in NACIS has been a big piece of the puzzle—they send work my way and help me out when I’m stuck on projects.

But the second big piece of advice I give to students and other inquirers, besides getting actively engaged in the carto-community, is to make a lot of stuff that no one is paying you for.

At present count, there are 29 projects in my portfolio. Of these, only 4 are paid client work. The other 25 are a mixture of pro-bono projects and, mostly, random things that I wanted to try making. I have unfurled lakes, I have diagrammed rivers, and I’ve messed around with Penrose tiles (that one’s not in my portfolio, though maybe it should be). Some of these are afternoon projects, but several of them have been significant undertakings, eating up dozens of hours spread out over months. Usually when I’m done with one of these projects I have no idea what to do with it, since no one asked for it.

In sum, my portfolio represents a large amount of unpaid and unasked-for effort. But these various “side projects” (a potentially inaccurate label, given how much of my time they have taken up) have probably been invaluable to my career, for a number of reasons:

Artistic Freedom

The problem with client work is that, while it pays, it doesn’t always feed the soul. The particular needs of clients don’t always permit me the creative freedom to do something that I find personally pleasing: they want me to use this set of colors, wedge this logo in there, add that probably-unnecessary scale bar, etc. And, of course, sometimes I have an idea that I think will look cool, and the client wants me to go in another direction.

But with unpaid projects, I have no one to answer to. I choose the area, the data sets, and the techniques, and I can make whatever I can envision. Sometimes (or, maybe, often) it doesn’t work out, but when it does, it’s usually very satisfying in a way that client work does not often match.

The constraints which clients place on me can offer fun (or frustrating) challenges, but in either case, sometimes I want to make something that fits my taste and wishes, rather than someone else’s.


From time to time, one of my side projects spreads around a bit on social media or news sites. The result is that more people find out about me, including potential clients. Added bonus: more people, in general, become aware that “cartographer” is a real job and maybe think slightly more about how their maps are made.

Client work can, of course, turn into free advertising, as well, and I’ve certainly seen this happen to colleagues. But, unpaid work is perhaps more likely to, simply because I have the flexibility to make more broadly appealing maps. Clients often ask me to make straightforward maps of mundane subjects, like real estate properties, or episcopal sees in Poland (this one comes up much more often than I would have expected). These maps are often in greyscale, or otherwise simple in style. They’re valuable in their own context, but also less likely to attract random passersby on the Internet. With unpaid projects, though, I have the option to stretch my wings and produce something grander, bolder, and on a subject that may draw more eyes.

A note of caution here: all this makes sense if you’re doing the work for yourself. You may run into unscrupulous types who want to instead get you to do work for them for free in exchange for the benefit of “exposure.” Sometimes this even takes the insidious form of a contest—”hey designers, create a new transit map for our agency and we’ll use the winning map for free and tell everyone your name!” Don’t give other people free work. But, if you’re not doing anything else with your time, and no one is going to pay you to do the cool thing you want to do, then getting some exposure out of it is a positive.

Trying New Things

Sometimes, I see someone demonstrate something cool at NACIS—a new piece of software, a trick in Illustrator, etc., and I want to try that out. Or maybe I’ve got a weird technique idea of my own that I’d like to experiment with. Unpaid projects give me the opportunity to learn new skills. It’s nice if I can get paid to do it, but that’s not always possible; I often don’t feel like waiting for someone to happen to need this idea I’ve been wanting to test.

Side projects give me a chance to mess around with ideas without the pressure of having to succeed. For example, I spent many hours exploring shaded relief in Blender, trying to figure out how to make it work and what the right parameters were. It is unlikely I would have found a client who wanted to pay me for all the time needed to figure out how to do that, just so I could stick a subdued relief background on their map. And, if I decided to learn the software without charging them the extra hours, I still would have been under time pressure to learn new software and solve unique problems while getting their map made by the deadline. By doing it on my own, I now have the knowledge and experience to make use of it whenever it’s needed without having to worry about whether or not I can learn it fast enough.

My side projects are investments in my skill set. When clients come calling, I have a bigger toolkit I can draw on, and that makes me feel more confident in telling them, “yes, I can do this for you.” Instead of pacing around trying to come up with The Idea that solves their problem, I’ve got a lot of existing options to try out, some of which I’ve only used before on side projects. Sometimes the clients even make it easy by pointing out such a project in my portfolio and saying, “make it look like that one!” The unpaid work can make the paid work easier and faster (note to self: stop charging by the hour).

Filling the Shop Window

Having a good portfolio online is important to getting work, since a lot of people who want to hire me would understandably like to see what I’ve done before. This is as true for freelance work as it is for finding regular employment.

Side projects are an important part of my portfolio. As I mentioned, they’re presently 86% of what I’m showing off there. First off, not all of my client work can be shared—sometimes the information contained therein is not for public consumption. But also much of it is simply not that eye-catching, as I mentioned above. I’m not trying to demean those projects. I appreciate solidly-executed, no-frills mapping. I make a point of including some of those items in my portfolio (and, as I reflect in this post, I should really put some more of them in there). But I’m also trying to impress people in order to convince them to give me their money, and so I want a lot cool stuff in there; my unpaid work is often my most interesting (“how about I make this thing that no one would ever need, and therefore never pay for, but which is awesome?”). And, because I’m often experimenting with new ideas and techniques, these unpaid projects also give me a chance to show a wide range of cartographic styles, so that a potential client is more likely to see something in there that looks like what they want. This also ties back into the creative freedom aspect, above: I want to show clients the sort of work that I want to do.

Print Sales

Despite these being side projects, some of them do end up earning me money. I’ve put a number of projects on Zazzle over the years, which is a print-on-demand service. I upload a file, and then they send me money sometimes. It’s pretty easy. I never produce these maps with the expectation that they will make money (and often they do not), but sometimes they do and that’s a nice way to get a little something back for the investment of time.

Over the last several years as a freelancer, I’ve had a lot of time periods in which I had no clients. But these intervals have not been downtime. I have used these spaces in order to try new techniques and satisfy creative urges, the results of which sometimes earn me client work or, rarely, a little money in print sales. So, my unasked-for advice to you, if you’re underemployed in cartography, is to fill the spaces: find something you’re passionate about and make maps for yourself. It may well pay off in the end.

(Of course, this sort of approach means I have a zillion unfinished projects, some of which have been lingering for years—but we won’t talk about that)


7 thoughts on “A Career Built on Side Projects

  1. Thanks Daniel, a good read. I found myself nodding as I read. Despite the fact I have a paid job my role is not dissimilar to a freelancer. I get enormous freedom to make maps that no-one ever asks for which is, as you say, creatively satisfying. I pretty much define my own work; some might say it’s a job built on side-projects. Sometimes others agree with something I’ve made…sometimes it’s more like “why, what…who would ever want?…” etc. Pushing boundaries and demonstrating cartographic depth and breadth is part of what these sort of side-projects do – to give people more than the mundane they are comfortable with and used to. Without a richness of alternative work to consider then people have very little to aspire to.

    Many of the same subtexts are also true…they advertise the capabilities of the software for the company I work for; they showcase techniques or ideas that many are probably unaware of; they provide opportunities to try out new tools and ideas in ways that were likely not imagined; they ‘may’ help in sales or at least demonstrate that what you might think possible only using something else is actually possible using what you’re already familiar with. In my case, they are also used for testing to try and break the software during development. It’s far more of a test to try and make a ‘real’ map than just run tests on a few points or polygons.

    Side-projects are important in whatever context you work. Thanks again…and see you at NACIS!

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