12 by 12 Press

12 by 12 on the BBC

Posted on March 9, 2014

My side project 12 by 12 was featured on the BBC News website in May 2015.

BBC homepage

12 by 12 has so far been featured in net magazine on the Over Here Please blog, West of England Design Forum website and on the Royal Photographic Society social media platforms.

net magazine interview

Below is an extended version of the interview I did for the April 2015 edition of Net Magazine featured in their Side Project of the Month section.

Tell us a little bit about your day job
I’m lucky that my job as a freelance digital designer takes me to award winning studios like Aardman and Complete Control to work on children’s brands like The Gruffalo, Charlie & Lola and Shaun the Sheep. I also work with a number of charities like UNHCR and Oxfam to create games, apps and websites that help them communicate what can sometimes be difficult or hard-hitting messages.

And what about 12 by 12?
Although I get a great deal of satisfaction from working as a freelancer designer I started to feel as though I wasn’t building new skills or growing creatively. Wanting to start a long-term side project, I started to think about an area that was connected to, but distinct from design. Photography seemed like a natural fit as I’d been interested in it for years but never really pursued it seriously.

I attended a few courses and took part in a number of photographic projects but never really felt as though I was being challenged. I found they allowed me to keep cruising along in the aesthetic style and approach I’d fallen into. With this frustration in mind and a sense that I’d like to be a part of a wider photographic community I decided to set up 52 by 52 and create the photo project I’d been looking for myself!

52 by 52 was a year-long series of photo-challenges set by renowned photographers. Every week a new challenge was issued and group members were invited to interpret it by submitting a photo to a Flickr Group.

The project also gave me the excuse I’d been looking for to build an iOS app myself. It was a shonky affair but I learnt a great deal by tackling the development myself. Likewise digital marketing, community management, copywriting, book design and SEO were all things I’d been wanting to learn and now had no choice!

To my surprise 52 by 52 ended up attracting some of the world leading contemporary photographers and housed a lively, passionate online community. It was incredible being part of an idea that jolted, Frankenstein-esque, into life.

After 12 months of running the project with weekly challenges I decided to change to a fortnightly format and 26 by 26 was born. As well as allowing me some time to exhale it gave the project a more reflective feel. The members had an extra week to experiment and ponder over the challenges, some of which require time to mull over.

The membership of 26 by 26 was double that of its predecessor and the quality of the members’ submissions also seemed to step up a level.

The concept of the project remains the same as the previous two years – asking renowned photographers to set challenges to which an online community responds. Year three features monthly challenges; it will be interesting to see how a longer time frame might alter the members’ response to the challenges.

Photo-challenge projects are nothing new but I believe what makes these projects unique are the thought-provoking nature of the challenges and the different photographic disciplines and countries of origin of the challenge-setters. It is also a chance to see how well-respected photographers approached their art, as their challenges are often reflective of their own practice.

12 by 12 aims to stretch its members creatively – encouraging experimentation in terms of approach as well as aesthetics – while maintaining a supportive environment of peers.

It’s now in its third year – what keeps you coming back?
Since I’m essentially doing this for fun it’s important to me to keep the project evolving in terms of the technology it uses and the different models of engagement with the members so that I’m continually learning new skills. As long as the project feels like its stretching me I’d like to continue.

Passing on inspiration from successful photographers is at the heart of the project. This broad intention feels as though it could also be a natural fit for all sorts of alternative outcomes; books, exhibitions, apps, interviews, workshops, etc. It’s only once I feel all these avenues have been at investigated that the project might naturally come to a close.

I also take part as a member as well as the curator of the project and I’ve found the discipline of shooting so regularly has improved my photography enormously. Particularly when it comes having a more intuitive feel for what might answer a brief rather than engaging my more rational design brain!

You’ve attracted some of the world’s leading contemporary photographers. Have you had any favourites?
Lots of them! But one of my all-time favourites came from Martin Parr for year one of the project.

Photograph something that you have never shot before, in a style you have never used before, so the photo is not recognisable as yours!
— Martin Parr

It seems to get to root of what the project is about, straying far from ones own comfort zone. Martin’s photography has also been a huge inspiration to me personally, so it was a thrill to receive his contribution. His challenge was one of the first that I received before officially starting the project.

I think part of the reason 52 by 52 was so successful in obtaining challenges from such high profile photographers was the fact it was mutually beneficial for them. Also the reassurance that some of the leading lights in the industry had also taken part sparked an element of competition and provided reassurance that the project had certain level of quality.

Neither of these two elements were present when I asked Martin Parr to take part. The project was months away from being launched and like many good ideas could have fallen by the wayside. He has no real need to publicise his name as one of the best known photographers of our age.

He gave his time to the project without any assurances of its pedigree or future. Being able to let people know that a photographer of his stature had contributed to the project opened door that would have otherwise been closed. I’ve no doubt that the success of 52 by 52 and any other projects that it leads to can be traced back to Martin’s involvement.

Does this side project improve your creativity in your day job?
I’m not sure that it’s impacted my day job creatively but it’s certainly given me an outlet for any spare creative juice that were going unused before the project came into being. On a more pragmatic level I would say it’s given me a new set of skills and knowledge that comes in handy on an almost daily basis, these include Premier, Lightroom, WordPress and social media strategy.

Any tips for designers planning to embark on a new side project?
Invite other people to collaborate with you as soon as possible. It’s easy to hold on too tightly to your side-projects, strangling them with your own sense of perfection. I found opening the project to other people’s input made it feel like it was a much bigger than just my ‘own baby’.

During 52 by 52 I invited a number of project evangelists to join me and form a team to help manage the submission. Which made all the difference, their hard work and opinions gave the 52 by 52 the momentum it needed.

As the designer Bruce Mau says:

“The space between people working together is filled with conflict, friction, strife, exhilaration, delight, and vast creative potential.”

net magazine

West of England Design Forum article

Below is an article that first appeared on the WEDF website under the title “Begin Anywhere” in the Voices section.

Most designers I meet have some kind of side-project on the go. Side-projects feel like an essential way to maintain creativity and gain new skills in a competitive market, especially for those of us who freelance and don’t have the luxury of learning on the job. I’ve tried to have a personal project ticking along in the background for the past few years. The ‘ticking’ sound they make is sometimes deafening, as they can demand more attention than it’s possible to give them!

Side-projects often require heading into unchartered territory without the support systems and advice that usually come when working within an organisation. I find myself returning to Bruce Mau’s excellent “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth” again and again as a source of inspiration at key moments in a side-project’s life; it’s a virtual mentor that I call upon when indecision rears its ugly head.

My own side project, 12 by 12, is a year-long series of photo-challenges set by renowned photographers. Every month a new challenge is issued and group members are invited to interpret it by submitting their responses on Flickr or Instagram. The members are a mixed community of amateurs and professionals, needing different types of inspiration and levels of support, and the project has to constantly evolve to keep the community growing and engaged. It’s enormously rewarding but also quite challenging at times.

I’ve picked twelve points from the Manifesto that I’ve found invaluable over the last few years, hopefully they might provide some inspiration for your own midnight oil-burning endeavors!

Begin anywhere
After deciding that I wanted to start a side-project the initial euphoria of being free from budgets, time constraints and unreasonable clients soon wore off and I found the blank page and blinking cursor that stared back at me paralyzing. So I took the decision to stop over-thinking and dive in and create a photography app. It was a shonky affair that never really worked very well, and Apple rightly turned up their noses at it. But I was off!

The phone app turned into website which eventually mutated into a vibrant online community. Taking Mr Mau’s advice to explore adjacencies and postpone self-criticism made the difference between throwing in the towel and allowing the idea to evolve into something I could have never foreseen.

Don’t be cool
As Bruce Mau says “Cool is conservative fear dressed in black”. The beautiful thing about extracurricular work is that is provides an opportunity to fly off on tangents that challenge the design zeitgeist and which your peers or clients might find uncomfortable.

It’s easy to hold on too tightly to your side-projects, strangling them with your own sense of perfection. I found opening the project to other people’s input made it feel like it was a much bigger than just my ‘own baby’.

During the first year of my side-project I invited a number of trailblazers to join me and form a team to help manage the submissions. This made all the difference; their hard work and opinions gave the 12 by 12 the momentum it needed.

Stay up late
Less advice but more an inevitable consequence of trying to rinse more productive time from the 168 hours every week provides. But it’s reassuring to know that this time away from some of the distraction of our busy lives provides space enough for ‘flow states’ to open up.

Be careful to take risks
Although it’s frustrating, I understand why many businesses are risk averse; they have suppliers to pay, investors to satisfy, mouths to feed. Side-projects are frequently free from these internal pressures, so it would feel like a waste not to plunge into the pool from the high board now and again to see what happens.

As my project entered its third year I decided to extend the period of time members have to respond to a challenge from two weeks to a month. I’ve yet to come across a photography challenge project which has such a extended time frame for people to create work in; it felt like a big gamble. Would people get bored, loose interest, drift off…? Not so far at least! In contrast the extra time seems to have to broadened and deepened the work created for each challenge.

Forget about good
“What is *that*? It’s terrible, you’re terrible… Call yourself a designer, pah!”…{wakes up, splashes face with cold water}. It’s the nightmare feedback that every designer fears, or is that just me? And it can occasionally feel like fear of this imaginary situation can turn a great design solution into a good one. Personal projects allow one to strive for something great with a safety net that mistakes are allowed.

Make mistakes faster
Before “Move fast and break things” was a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, “Make mistakes faster” was helping designers to iterate ideas quickly. As often as I can I try to tweak the way in which the 12 by 12 project interacts with its audience or challenge-setters. Most ideas fall flat on their faces or, worse still, go completely unnoticed, but the odd one takes off and becomes part of the project’s culture. I’ve given up trying to predict which ideas will live or die, as more often than not I’m wrong!

Read only left–hand pages
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, or so they say, but I’ve found too much knowledge about a topic can also have a paralyzing effect on creative endeavors. So taking Bruce’s advice I now stop absorbing information when my head feels three-quarters full, leaving enough wiggle room for my imagination to get to work.

Organisation = Liberty
Behind the creative pulse of 12 by 12 lies the beating heart of a Google spreadsheet! Although dull as hell, having everything well organised, scheduled and shared in one place means the admin overheads, and there’s *a lot* of them with a community project, can be dealt with more swiftly dealt. The myth of a split between ‘creatives’ and ‘suits’ is what Leonard Cohen calls a “charming artifact of the past.”

Take field trips
Even with a side-project that has collaboration at its heart I often find myself spending most of my time on the project communing with people through a keyboard and mouse. I can end up feeling quite disconnected from the project and the people involved in it. To remind myself why I started the project, the 12 by 12 team now meets up every 6 months.  Encountering people in real life is a reinvigorating shot in the arm.

Stand on someone’s shoulders
Many designers can be control freaks, especially when it comes to their own self-initiated projects. It’s their chance to do it “right” (again I might be unfairly extrapolating from my own MO!). This has lead me to faff around, or pixel-f**k as one colleague puts it, to an extent that an idea with great potential never gets off the ground. So for 12 by 12 I decided to build the project around the existing photo platforms Flickr and Instagram. They’re far from perfect but without their leg up the project could have languished in the “nice idea; never going to happen” pile.

So those are the 12 points from Bruce Mau’s work I find most helpful when it comes to the sometimes exploratory and experimental world of side-project. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend reading the full “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth“.