Designing for a purpose vs designing for fun

Should you always be doing more? Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

I’m sure anyone who has had the opportunity to pursue their passion in a professional manner has had that heavy realization that their passion isn’t the same when they need a paycheck to feed their family, or there’s a corporate deadline for a shareholder meeting and the team is overdue for their handoff.

We as humans have a natural tendency to seek joy and pleasure. Partaking in your passion is just an extension of that. It’s only natural that we’d want to continue that feeling for as long as we can. The deception that has been pushed is that if we can find a job utilizing our passion we’ll always be able to find that same joy… and the truth is that we can’t.

That being said, many of us are designers by both trade and passion. Likely no stranger to the burnout associated with the blurred lines of where professional design work ends and personal design work begins.

There may even exist a guilt that we aren’t enjoying our passion as much anymore, or that if we do something unrelated we’re not growing/honing our design skills. When your passion involves skills used both in your professional life and in your personal life it is an inherit consequence that depending on how you utilize that passion different areas of your life will see different benefits.

Work/life balance is nothing new and I won’t have anything special to say on that. Instead I want to talk about this idea of doing designing work for a purpose vs doing it for fun, and how our passion can be both freeing and captivating.

Designing, purposeful or fun? Photo by UX Store on Unsplash

What does it mean to design for a purpose?

Designing for a purpose is about utilizing your skills and time to contribute towards something. Obligatorily this means professional work is part of this, work you do that contributes towards your financial success and skill development.

Perhaps more interestingly though this can also be seen in creating work for a portfolio (think Dribbble), or directly creating content out of your design work (think YouTube videos made from your designs, tutorials, speed art, etc).

What does it mean to design for fun?

Designing for fun is about expressing yourself and exploring unfamiliar areas. This is about making designs without direct meaning outside of your own enjoyment. Fake websites, crazy app ideas, etc. All ways of exploring your design passion with the intention of feeling personal joy.

This is the work that can feed that original joy and passion that initially inspired the love for design.

You might be feeling conflicted after reading my statements above. Rightfully so, because I left out a crucial detail from the ‘designing for fun’ section.

I neglected to mention that ‘designing for fun’ can also directly contribute to your own skill development. The same statement was made about ‘designing for a purpose’ as well. There’s more overlap between the two then it may have initially seemed. That’s the rub though. There is a blurry line between fun and purpose.

We need to be careful that we give the appropriate amount of care to each side. It can be deceptively easy to get stuck designing for a purpose thinking it was for yourself. Doing that will drain your passion and desire right out of you.

A balancing act. Photo by Sean Benesh on Unsplash

How to find the balance

This is what it all comes down to. How do we as designers, especially those who design in their career as well, find the balance between purposeful work and fun work?

It can be really useful to gather feedback on your work from outside sources. In fact professionally if you aren’t getting feedback on your work there’s a problem! However if you’re producing content for yourself it’s important to understand the significant value that you yourself, bring to the table on appreciating your own work. It can be liberating and powerful to make something just for yourself. Not for the eyes of Dribbble, YouTube, Instagram, or anyone else. Just you. Just because you wanted to make something.

This one is going to come with a large asterisk as everyone’s situation looks different, but I also have some general thoughts that should apply to all. As much as we all like to say that we are highly productive at all times during the work day it isn’t true. Instead of using that time to scroll through Reddit or Twitter, use that time to work on something for yourself. Sometimes that could even mean packaging your current work into nice deliverables for a portfolio piece you’ll make one day (NDA approved of course). The goal here is to use the time otherwise spent wasted on time for yourself, saving your actual “free time” at home for something other than design work.

This one may go without saying to some of you, but others need to hear this. It’s okay to do things outside of your “primary passion”. Time spent exploring new things is never wasted. This advice is especially salient to me in particular. I struggled (and still do sometimes) with allowing myself to do things outside of skills that I knew were useful in my job. I felt that I was wasting time on things like car work, or game development, since it took away from me continuing my design work and practice, even though I enjoyed those things.

That’s a dangerous spot for the long-term. It’s deceptive because it lures you in with the appeal of being talented and growing your career. The problem is it will drain you of any passion that you have. Slowly at first, but then suddenly you’ll no longer want anything to do with that work.

Take time for other things. Let your passions breath. You’ll find some of your best inspiration strikes when you aren’t looking.

Wrapping it up

Thanks for listening to me ramble. In closing I want to say one final thing. There is a time and place for both designing for a purpose, and for just designing for fun. The most important thing is that you never let the joy for design leave you. Passion is wavering, it will come and go. Joy though is at the root of the the things we love. Trying to figure out what to do with your time is hard enough. Add on the feeling of fear for not wanting to make a mistake in your choice and it’s enough for anyone to lose hope. You’ll never go wrong doing the things that bring you joy though.

I’m Max McKinney, designing for empathy and humanizing technology. A decade of creating allows me to make seamless experiences.