This latest story in my #sideproject series is an acknowledged superstar of the scene – Gavin Strange. Gav is a senior designer for the interactive arm of Aardman Animation in Bristol but moonlights with an array of side projects including an online shop he runs with his wife – Strange, a multitude of film-making and toy-making projects, plus a book – Do Fly – and a host of speaking engagements. For Gav, Side Projects are a way of life.
Several of the previous interviews in this series have highlighted side projects as a chance for creative expression; but given he works in a creative role building apps, games, graphics, and interactive content for a world-famous creative company, surely Gav doesn’t need such an outlet?
“You’re right – I’m not being suppressed at work, it’s just excess creativity! I’m not getting to use all the mediums I like, so for instance I make a lot of film stuff, but it’s a chance to do a bit of everything really.”
Gav exudes enthusiasm and energy so it’s easy to imagine that he really is just a bubbling wellspring of creative projects, across diverse mediums, and if his day job can’t cater for them all he does them in his own time.
Some projects are manifestations of that creative excess, others are stepping stones to develop his day job prospects. Like Sam Fry in our last blog Gav has been using his side projects to prove to his employers he has the skills to move into new areas of work and find his way towards a future goal:
“I would love to keep doing what I do now, but I would love to one day call myself an Aardman Designer and Director – and whatever leads on from that!”
To achieve that end many of Gav’s recent projects have been developing his film-making and animating skills. These are not his day job but his recent show-reel and projects have been helping him prove his skills and get more opportunities to do that kind of work.
For the love of Side Projects
However, whilst Gav acknowledges the development value of side projects for his career, it’s also very clear he just loves creating stuff. Certainly, financial profit is not the point:
“Money is not important at all, although that’s because I’ve never really had any money! When people start paying me it’s a job, not a project, so I don’t like people paying me. I already have a job! I also don’t like having that emotional responsibility to someone else; I can let my own expectations down – but not other people’s.”
Whilst Gav’s day job is full of collaborative creative processes it becomes clear that one of the attractions of side projects is an opportunity to do things by himself:
“What I do like having on my own stuff is total control… I want to figure it out on my own – even if I don’t then do that work myself in the final project, I still want to know how it works so I can manage those people I choose to bring in to do it.”
“I want to just get on with what I want to get on with – which I do in my own narcissistic time!”
When pressed Gav concedes: “I do sometimes rein in the scale of a side project so I can make it all myself rather than involve others!”
Getting to express your own creative vision is definitely part of the allure for many side-project enthusiasts, especially those who have to collaborate elsewhere.
Alongside, or maybe integral to Gav’s enthusiasm for side projects is his confidence in undertaking them. In conversation Gav almost casually reels off the 8+ projects he’s currently got pinned on index cards above his desk at home – and this doesn’t include some of the events and talks he’s working on as well.
When it comes to confidence Gav identifies three factors – managing his expectations, managing his own brain, and the confidence that comes with practice;
On managing expectations when starting out on a project: “I’m very happy with my passion projects but I don’t ever feel like I’m doing something truly unique. That would be a bit of a red flag to me, if I start worrying it has to be original then it’d be game over for me! You’d be chasing your tail forever if you had to be the best. You’d never get anything done. I like to think that those people who do something brand new and unique probably did it by accident.”
On managing his own brain: “It’s just a constant battle with your own brain, and you’ve got to use any little trick to trick yourself into doing things… I tell everyone about every new project, because I’ve got to do it then! They’ll ask, “how’s that going?” and you have to avoid feeling like a failure!”
And on practice: “Honestly once you start – you can’t pack it in – it creates the confidence you can do it. It’s like it gets easier to go out for a run than to not go out – when you find that you’re thinking about it when you’re not doing it!”
Dedication and Discipline
So how in hell does Gav get all this stuff done? Especially as a relatively recent father? He has spoken about this here and here but in short, he gets up early and works for 2-3 hours on a weekday morning to develop his various projects.
“I think I’m now more productive than I ever was… the time pressure means I don’t mess around! If I want to do side projects, which I do love doing, I don’t have any other time! The discipline comes from the love of wanting to do it, and that overrides the love of staying in bed!”
Gav is at pains to point out that the most difficult bit of any project is usually the start and there is really just one strategy: “Get cracking – just get started. There are so many obstacles anyway, just blunder through and figure it out.”
“Total naivety is great on a personal project, it might be hard, it might be easy, whatever it is you’re trying to learn or do. In a professional setting people would be saying “You never do it like that” but when your own you just do it with blind optimism – and sometimes you find you can do it.”
For more about Gav’s approach to side projects, careers, and life in general I can highly recommend his book – Do Fly.