The key to side projects? Diving in.
Aaron Ng is a product designer at Square and alumnus of our professional development program, Bridge. He is deeply curious about human interaction and this curiosity manifests itself in myriad side projects and hobbies including designing apps with his project Delve, carefully curating photos, making unboxing videos for his YouTube channel and an active engagement in the gaming community.
Everything Ng is interested in ties back to his work, he explains, “engineering taught me about consistency in design, music taught me about joy in design, photography taught me about proportion and color in visual design, my interest in food taught me a lot about balance and scale. These things that you pick up and learn aren’t just useful in your day job, they make up who you are.”
A few of the many stunning images found on Aaron’s Instagram.
You share a lot of photos on Twitter, Instagram, and so on. What’s the motivation behind that?
I’ve always loved sharing photos. It’s a really fun way to document my day. The aesthetic side is just something that came with the territory: I didn’t want to share photos I wasn’t happy with and I tried to take a better photo than the last each time. A slight change in angle or shift in color reveals a completely different mood. A subtle change in frame can mean the difference between relatable or boring. It’s fun, therapeutic, and educational for me. Most things I do are because they’re fun for me, learning is a consequence of that.
How do your YouTube videos relate to what you do as a designer at Square?
I think I’ve learned quite a bit about design from not just my videos, but from all my interests. Speaking broadly, modern day product design is all about decision making. The more you learn, the more you try to actively empathize, and the more you rigorously test your assumptions, the better you get at it.
You can’t answer “is this good for the user?” by sitting in Photoshop. You can’t answer “will this make someone happy?” by moving boxes around on a screen. You’ve gotta go out there, and see how people live.
Aaron works as a product designer at Square in San Francisco.
What’s the difference between opening a package at home and making a video of that unboxing to share with an audience?
Unboxings are an outlet for me to have fun and experiment with video. There’s design in that though: what shots go where, who the target audience is, how long you can reasonably expect to keep the attention of a viewer.
When you purposefully make something, you’re taking what you’ve learned about how things should work and condensing that into something. Basically consumption and creation are two sides of the same coin: I love watching YouTube, so now I’m having fun with it and learning in the process.
It all ties back: there’s an underlying thread of user experience there that becomes useful whether you’re a designer or a performer or a musician. You’re learning something about the world and the people in it.
What is the perfect ecosystem of projects for you?
I’m lucky because a lot of what I happen to do on my own time mirrors the stuff I get to do at work. For example, I picked up After Effects to learn motion graphics for video, but we use it for motion stuff at Square. I build apps in my spare time, and it ends up being incredibly helpful for prototyping at work. For example, I made the Chroma for Hue app (for controlling a wireless lighting system) to satisfy a creative itch. It’s really great when that works out– but I don’t think you should necessarily choose side projects based on how supplemental they’ll be to your work.
Chroma for Hue, a Mac app for controlling lightbulbs.
Guide to Side Projects with Aaron Ng
How to start
Dive right in. You can do a minimal amount of research if you need to, but research can be a trap. The amount of knowledge out there on any particular interest is infinite. You can continue reading and never feel like you are prepared because there will always be more. I think it’s better to build a bad app then read 20 articles on how to build a good one. You don’t become a chef by watching Food Network.
Metrics for success
Defining your goals and meeting those goals is a type of success, but success can also come from exploring an interest and learning something new. Benefits can come from unexpected, and even arbitrary, places. A good side project can be, literally, anything. You could be interested in how felt is made, for example, and you would learn something from that.
Finishing side projects
It’s easy to go halfway and get discouraged, but it’s important to power through. I think the proper way to finish something is to get to the end, admit that it isn’t perfect, and commit to making your next thing 10% better.
One last piece of advice
Start immediately and don’t give up! It’s really easy to put something off “until the weekend,” it’s even easier to get discouraged and just stop. But go for it—if you like it, keep at it. If you don’t, call it, and try something else.
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