Side Project Stories #14: Sparkwood and 21


For this latest blog I got tipped off by a previous side project pioneer, Travis Baldwin who was #7, about another designer/maker with some interesting side projects. I was sold from the moment his website described him as ‘chaotic good’; a fellow gamer would always be someone who could articulate the value of hobbies and side projects.

Duncan McKean

Duncan describes his day job as ‘laser luminary’ at Bristol Design Forge – he co-runs a laser-cutting workshop in Stokes Croft in Bristol realising and developing the ideas of artists and creatives in physical form with the help of a laser cutter and a little woodwork.

However, Duncan is also an enthusiastic side project pioneer with a host of other activities running in parallel.

Whilst he acknowledges the 3D artwork is “probably pure pleasure” some of the other activities definitely qualify in what I would identify as side project territory. Passion for making things is clear in Duncan’s work, mixing his professional skills and a love of games. Duncan describes his ambition, his plan for tomorrow, as becoming a “self-sustaining creative”.

Small Beautiful Games

Sparkwood and 21 makes games, physical tabletop games, card games, maps and illustrations for roleplaying games, and maybe even computer games soon.

This all started whilst he was a mature student studying design; Duncan undertook a 10-day public project to learn how to make a chess set for blind people as a design challenge. He had to learn how to design and develop it, and make it, all whilst posting live updates on the project for all those following.

“Having been through that horror I wondered if I could make any money from it…”

He sold a few and started working on other games with Sparkwood and 21 becoming his side project.

However, he now acknowledges that the market isn’t really there:

“The games market is saturated and the specific market for high-production value, small-batch games is just too small and not sustainable.”

Whilst he did have some success with a higher-priced edition of a self-made version of the fictional Cyvasse board game (from Game of Thrones) the process of potential customers mulling it over, asking lots of questions, and generally soaking up time reduced the profit margin with this ‘cost of sales’ being an unforeseen expense.

Self-Guided Learning

duncan mckean

“Not really a monetary thing, it’s about the pleasure of learning, although it is nice to find a way to make some money!”

Duncan revels in learning new things – from craft skills to digital techniques – all of which give him professional benefits but also keep him interested and allow him to keep exploring.

He was inspired by people like Beeple (Mike Winkleman) spending thousands of consecutive days making daily 3D images that get better and better. This example again involves publicly sharing personal learning and development work as part of a ‘contract’ you might make with an audience to keep you on track. The act of sharing being a catalyst to side project development is something we’ve seen before (specifically with Will Mabbitt but elsewhere too).

Duncan likes the idea of time-limited public challenges for a specific reason;

“Most people don’t like letting go of a project, they just continue to make small changes and never finish and let go. If you share your work in progress or set a time-limit then interested parties start asking to play it, use it, see it read it – so you have to let it go!”

Collaborating Alone

Despite the value of others in catalysing projects Duncan echoes Gav Strange in wanting to do many of these projects by and for himself.

“I like the selfishness, being a complete unit.”

This isn’t to say he doesn’t value collaboration and regards much of his best work as arising from those collaborations but for sheer creative self-expression going solo is best:

“I enjoy bouncing ideas off people, but then going off by myself to create something fresh and new from those ideas.”

Going it alone means you’re also in control of what you’re doing.

“I like throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks, if I’m not enjoying the process I’ll just stop doing it.”

One drawback of both going it alone and having the freedom to stop and drop projects is knowing when to stop exploring ideas and starting to act more ruthlessly to execute and deliver the ideas that have value. Duncan recognises that he loves the ‘search’ for ideas but maybe not the ‘execution’ – not that he can’t focus, but that he can’t stop exploring and be ruthless. At the Design Forge his partner is the more ruthless, focused one who “doesn’t do hobbies” and drives the business in that sense.


  • There is great value in doing something every day, like Mike Winkleman referenced above, if you commit to a daily development activity you can really evidence progress over time however small the daily steps are.
  • The time limited public challenges: “it kills the darlings, those ideas you love but will go nowhere, you have to deliver something so it stops you agonising over decisions.”
  • Add randomness: Duncan developed his own cards based upon the famous Brian Eno Oblique Strategies method of random provocations, the use of gamification, can you “iterate yourself away from your usual method?”


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