Design+ Passion Projects
In this edition of Design+, Renee Taillon Provisional RGD interviews Nicola Hamilton RGD on the importance of passion projects, managing self-doubt and exploring creativity beyond a day-job.
As an innately creative individual, how important is it to have creative outlets beyond your graphic design career? How have these changed for you over the years?
It’s so important. Can I emphasize that again? It’s so important.
For the first few years of my career I put all of my creative energy into design. At a certain point, I found myself really burnt out and at times resentful towards the work and/or the client. As I interrogated those feelings I started to realize that I’d been so focused on succeeding professionally that I hadn’t made space to explore my own creativity.
In 2018, I signed up for an eight week screen printing class with illustrator LeeAndra Cianci. We were both looking to get out of our comfort zone and to make something tactile. Screen printing was a process neither of us had any experience with and it was such a joy to be bad at something!
That experience became the cornerstone of The Scaries Project, a collaboration between LeeAndra and me that’s been growing steadily for a couple of years now.
With your The Scaries Project, you talk a lot about self-doubt as a creative, has this project soothed that?
The Scaries started as an art project just for us. We spent three months making things for the fun of it. We made a series of screen prints. Then we made tiny paintings to use up the scrap paper. During the process, we’d been keeping a shared note that tracked our emotional experience week-to-week. Mostly, it was full of the self-doubt we were feeling leading up to our next studio date. We started to notice how much less power those thoughts had over us once we’d written them down.
So no, The Scaries hasn’t soothed my self-doubt, but it has taught me that self-doubt is just a part of the process. It’s not something you can avoid, but you can minimize its power.
What is your absolute favourite part of The Scaries Project?
The community that’s grown up around it! When we decided to show the body of work we chose to include a handful of our own self-doubt phrases. The unkind things we were saying to ourselves throughout the process—things like “it’s not good enough,” or “it’s already been done”—and they just resonated with people. We realized we weren’t alone in those thoughts.
Now, every time we give a talk about The Scaries we set up an anonymous space for people to contribute and to tell us their own creative fears. We have hundreds of these submissions, both physically written on sticky notes and digitally submitted through this form on our website. It’s amazing to see how universal some of the self-doubt is.
How have your passion projects (it can be The Scaries or other side hustles) influenced your day to day design?
I’m not sure they’ve influenced my design, per se. But they have influenced my attitude towards my design work. I’ve accepted that self-doubt is inevitable, which means I’m able to recognize it and work through it more easily. Doing work for myself, outside of the constraints of the client, has helped me better understand my own process and I can bring that understanding back into my day-job design work.
Have any of your projects led to jobs? What advice do you give to others about pursuing passion projects?
None of my side projects have connected me to paying work directly. But they’ve exposed me to new groups of people, from which work has emerged.
The Scaries itself has become a financially sustainable project—we’re not dipping into our own pockets to make work anymore — and we’ve been able to explore other opportunities through The Scaries platform. We’ve been able to do some public speaking, we’ve made and sold physical goods, we’ve been hosting Virtual Drawing Nights, where 100% of the proceeds go to charity. I love that this little, just-for-us art project has ballooned into a space where LeeAndra and I get to stretch and grow in a myriad of areas, creative and otherwise. In my mind, that’s the entire point of a side project.
So you know that thing we always tell emerging designers? To fill their portfolio with the kind of work they want to get paid to make? It’s true at any stage of your career. You’re going to get paid to make work based on the kind of work and the messaging, you put into the world.
If you have the privilege of time and money to explore your own creative pursuits, do it.
How did you find the jump from designer to teacher? How has teaching influenced your design practices?
The jump from designing to teaching design was pretty natural for me. I’ve always loved teaching — classic oldest child — and, as a teenager, spent my winters teaching snowboarding. This year has been hard though. Teaching virtually removes so much of the gratification and connection of teaching in person.
Teaching has forced me to get more comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” and openly exploring possibilities with my students. The classroom is one of the few places you get to see the same brief executed in 25 different ways, which inspires openness and curiosity.
What has been the biggest challenge you face while teaching? What is the biggest reward?
Time is the biggest challenge. I see a lot of students building barriers because they don’t have the time to commit to the exploration a project requires. (Caveat: I teach editorial design and it’s a discipline that is very time consuming.) I’m often urging them to push further and to experiment more, which to them, feels like the weight of even more work. The biggest reward is watching it all click. There’s a moment for most students where everything finally falls into place: it can be finally finding a magazine that speaks to their sensibilities or digging into one of the historical greats or finally cracking a layout they’ve been struggling with. Once that happens, the pride they take in their work changes and that’s the best part. I miss seeing that IRL.
Do you have any advice to share that you wish you had received when you were first starting out as a designer?
Your career belongs to you and you alone. When I was graduating (c. 2011) I was presented with pretty traditional paths to success. You work in a studio or an agency or in-house. You work for someone. You hope that someone sees something in you. I wish I had been exposed to more nuanced journeys. I wish I had understood that you don’t need to be one thing, that you can be many and you can tackle them in your own time.
I know of your obsession with magazines, do you have a few you gravitate towards for inspiration?
I just got an issue of Year Zero, through Stack Magazines which is a monthly independent magazine subscription service. They send you a surprise publication each month and I’m obsessed. Year Zero explores global subcultures and this issue was focused on the creative process. The issue itself has next to no structure (!) and the art is wildly overwhelming. Opening it threw me right into the chaos of the creative process and I just loved that.
I’m a massive New York Times Magazine fan. They’ve had the best art team (and contributing designers) for years now and every issue is amazing. Plus, getting it means I’m subscribing to the Sunday New York Times, which means I get their monthly Kids Section, designed by Debra Bishop, which is a pile of fun.
Nicola is a multi-disciplinary Graphic Designer, educator and current President of the RGD. Her project, The Scaries, brings to light the doubt we can face as graphic designers and shows us we are not alone in our fears. With 10 years experience spanning editorial design to art direction and with many awards won, Nicola is a driving force in the Toronto design community.
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