the Design Office of Matt Stevens - Direction + Design + Illustration


Unsolicited Thoughts on Unsolicited Design

I've heard a lot of dialogue lately regarding unsolicited redesigns of everything from major brands to operating systems. People downplaying self-initiated projects as completely indulgent and a waste of time. I think the criticism tends to fall into a few categories. Some say it's destroying the industry, others say that this is not even design because it has none of the components of a real design project. No client feedback, no brief to satisfy, no design by committee to suffer through and no approval hurdles that client work typically includes. At best these projects are like an answer to a question no one asked and at worst a shallow attention grab by fame seeking designers. I can't say that I disagree entirely with this criticism, but would like to offer up my perspective based on the last few years of my life, pursuing personal projects of all kinds.

Back in 2010, I was a Creative Director of a small brand firm in Charlotte, NC. I was 37 years old, creatively burned out, wondering why I was still doing design and wondering what was next. The economy was in bad shape, and like many companies in the creative industry, we had just let some good people go. As a father and a provider, I was worried for my job and as a designer, I had a hard time remembering the last time I felt passionate about what I was making. As per my usual morning routine, I was grabbing coffee at the Dunkin Donuts near my office and noticing the 60th Anniversary materials displayed throughout the store. As most of you in design have experienced, the constant internal dialogue fueled by a critical eye kicked in and I found myself assessing and critiquing what had been done. This time I asked myself "what would you do?"

Not only did I ask myself the question, but I began to actually answer it. I started executing the design all the way from reviving an old mascot to a full suite of packaging and apparel. I rediscovered an energy that I hadn't felt in a while. It was a freedom and spark that woke me up. I couldn't wait to work on it. Even as I showed friends, no one quite seemed to know what to make of it. "It's good, but what are you going to do with it?" I honestly didn't know and somehow it didn't matter. 

I had submitted the work to Brand New, knowing this was not their typical type of content. But by a strange turn of events, the timing worked out perfectly that they had interest in using my work for their April Fool's rebrand post. I didn't even have a personal website at the time and had to get something up so there was a place for people to see my work after the big reveal.

This project was based on concept and thought but wasn't real, and maybe this kind of work would have never made it through the process. Without having contact with the client directly, there may be very valid reasons why it was completely off the mark. But it served a huge function for me. I had proved to myself that the passion was still there and I had a renewed energy to take on what was next.

You Make Your Own Momentum

More than anything I had created some creative momentum for myself. I had not done illustration since college and began to think of ways to explore style and materials and reconnect to those roots. I took on the Personal Shoe Museum. I simply used all the Nike shoes I had ever purchased in my life as a way of exploring style of illustration and documenting eras of my life. That led to my Air Max 1 a Day project, which expanded to become the MAX100 book project (funded via Kickstarter). That led to many other opportunities, including recent engagement with the mothership and a project for Nike Sportswear. 

The MAX100 project, something I began with little to no plan and no client involvement, attracted the attention of Nike and they saw a possibility in it. The project for them, although similar in approach, was a completely different animal. With MAX100, I could do whatever I wanted, on any timetable, only to satisfy myself. With the project for NSW, I had to present and explain concepts, meet deadlines, deal with feedback and meet the demands of a brief. Anyone that puts an unsolicited redesign or personal project out there and gets an opportunity from it, will eventually have to produce the goods. When I see those criticizing personal and unsolicited redesign exercises, I feel myself wanting to defend. Maybe that person is like me. A designer wanting to stretch their legs, raising their hand. If the opportunity is eventually granted to them, they will have to sink or swim.

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Pay vs. Possibility

I gave a talk to the DSVC back in 2011 and called it Work for Free. There is so much talk in the design community about pay, lack of pay and everything in between. As an industry we are often undervalued and my intention with this title was to grab onto a bit of that buzz and then talk about throwing away the time card and throwing yourself into something you love. Jessica Hische did a really good job of spelling this out even further here in very practical terms. There is this delicate balance between payment and possibility. When deciding to take something on, figure out if that ratio makes sense for you. Maybe the pay factor is low on a project, but the possibility to do something great is high. With a personal project, the pay factor is zero, so do something great and really explore what's possible. Decide to do something or not to do something for your own reasons.

Exposure = Opportunity

We are in a connected world, with the opportunity to get just about anyone, anywhere to experience what you're working on. No one can pursue you for their project if they don't know you exist. There may be nobility in creating work in secret and not telling anyone about it, but the reality is, if you're doing this for the love AND to make a living, getting the people with the projects to see what you're doing is vital. I come from a smaller market, so I have to raise my hand even higher to be considered. ( I'll write a future post about the slippery slope of exposure vs. affirmation )

The Clarifying effect of Personal Work

If you love your day job, doing personal work will only enrich that experience. If you hate your day job, the work you enjoy will either make that experience more tolerable or make you realize you need to move on and pursue what you're more suited for. Either way, the explorations and thinking done in those extra hours will find it's way into the work that you are doing.

Connect the Dots

I left my job as Creative Director and I've been on my own since June of last year. One of these days I'm going to do some kind of complex chart, showing how all of this personal work is connected to my client work. I can say though, that just about all of what I do now, I can trace back to things I did not get paid to do.

My ongoing engagement with the JJ's Red Hots restaurant concept was a direct result of the Dunkin Work (thank you Google image search). Engagements with editorial clients like WIRED and Money Magazine have sprung from my personal type explorations. Indulging my nerd tendencies has led to current identity and branding work in the world of comics. 

I believe there are valid critiques to be considered when it comes to these kinds of projects, but if you're burned out, frustrated, not getting the opportunities you want. Design it. Redesign it. Explore it. Get a cease and desist. Go after it. Pour your heart into it and put it out there. You might be surprised what will come your way. 


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