Designer, and side project extraordinaire.
Ameer makes side projects look easy. In this interview, he tells me why you should choose a side project over a side hustle, how to find your strengths, how to find the time and why talking to others about your project matters.
I first meet Ameer at an event. Or rather I hear him.
He has a distinctive American accent with the cool nonchalance you get from living in New York City for a long while. He’s wearing a cap which reads in hand-stitching “Everything is going to be alright”. I later find out his friend makes them.
“Have a f**k it attitude and admit you need help” he calmly advises the the group when asked his advice. We’re at a product management event about side hustles, and the majority of the group don’t yet have a side project, but want one.
Ameer is a designer, but has been doing side projects since he was young (“in our first university project we were sued” - he mentions casually, referring to a name trademark dispute). He’s done everything from UX design, photography projects, business ventures, art shows to design projects. “There’s countless projects I haven’t finished” he tells me straightly, “but you know what, even if I start 1000 more and don’t finish those, I’m getting something out of it because the minute I do the 1001 project, that one’s gonna go somewhere. And it’s always been like that.”.
We meet again in a cafe in Shoreditch. He’s telling me about an app he built in college. It ended for a few different reasons, and I ask him what he’d do differently. He replies: “I think it’s integral, it’s paramount, for everyone to know where their strengths and weaknesses are.”
“What you gravitate towards most often is usually what you’re good at. It’s always been something that feels natural. For me, it’s having out of the box unconventional thinking. I can find a link between two things that have no connotation whatsoever. And yet frame it in a certain way where its like ‘oh that makes sense, that’s an interesting idea’. I do that very well.
“And another thing is because of all the time and effort I’ve put into design I’m really good at visual design. But I think I’ve always had a keen eye on design principles like composition, colour theory, and how to arrange things: on a canvas, in a room or in a space, so those things I’m naturally good at. It’s normally the things you find yourself doing a lot, that give you joy. Or give you some sort of gratification. That’s usually what you’re good at.”.
You do a lot of things. How easy do you find it to avoid defining yourself by a job title?
“It’s hard. I still don’t know how to do it correctly I guess. I don’t even know if there’s a correct way to do it. I guess maybe for me, if I’ve done them for a larger span of time I guess I can add a title? But I’ve never been that keen on them.
“The good thing about the word design is that it’s an all encompassing term, it’s just a means of creatively solving a problem. Whatever the outcome is. If I decided to build a pop up shop - I wouldn’t call myself an architect or interior designer - even though that’s what I’m doing - it’s just a set of skills I’ve learnt and applied to a physical context. So for me, I usually just say designer because it’s easier, but when people say ‘elaborate’ I have to say I do websites, I do user experience, I do this and that. I just usually tell people I do and I make a lot of stuff - sometimes it makes me money and sometimes it doesn’t. A lot of times I do it for fun.”
Did you have any projects that came from a crazy idea but turned out well?
“When I was in Nashville, I reached out to a [photographer] friend of mine in New York, saying ‘what are working on right now? Do you mind if I do an art show with this?’. I’ve always wanted to do an art show. Whether people showed up or not didn’t matter. I just wanted to find an excuse to display some work on some walls. See if I could do it. I did some light promotion on instagram, printed out some posters, drove around Nashville. We had a pretty interesting turnout and we had a really cool after party...a lot of people turned up to that. Everyone shows up to those.”
“People were like ‘i didn’t even know you did this?’ and I was like ‘I didn’t know I did this until today.’ It kinda worked out.”
Should people focus on side projects or side hustles?
“People doing side hustles for money? You might as well say I’m going to start this, and I’m going to give myself a month, and if I don’t see any dividends then I’m out.”
“Internal motivation is far greater than any external thing... the stuff that you think about, or you internalise inwardly, always gives you some kind of extrinsic outcome.”
How do you find the time to do your side projects?
“I’ve never subscribed to the idea that when you’re working 8 hours, that all 8 hours has to be filled with productivity. Because realistically it never happens. I tend to get stuff done the first 3-4 hours. Any time I had some free time - when a thought was on my mind I had to answer it. I just felt the need to say ‘if it’s there let me address it now’, so I don’t kick myself later that I don’t have time.
“We do and we don’t have time to do anything. It’s just a matter of will you respond to it right then and there. Because if you push it back too much, you’re gonna lose momentum of trying to do the thing in the first place and you lose motivation.”
Does your network around you matter for getting ideas started?
“I think the people around you matter for getting projects off the ground. People with energy. When you find really good people who reinforce your idea. A lot of people don’t share their ideas, so a lot of people don’t get that sense of local encouragement.
At the end of the day, no one is going to spend that much time and effort to stop their ideas and do yours. The likelihood of someone being that malicious is very very slim. And if someone is then you’ll be able to figure that out pretty quickly. But the problem is everyone is in this NDA culture because they’ve heard the bad stories of silicon valley.
But most places don’t even have the right infrastructure to build a silicon valley technical hub, so if you have a really good idea chances are everyone else will be like ‘f**k yeah we don’t have that here, do it, as a matter of fact how can I help?’
Or I might be doing something similar maybe we can team up and work together.”
You can tell that collaboration is in Ameer’s blood. I invite him to the Out Of Hours event I’m organising an event on the 1st June. He’s just visiting the UK but might be coming back for summer. He immediately suggests 3 ideas of things to do in the event. It might be the oat latte, but I leave brimming with energy. If these are the 1000 projects that don’t go anywhere, I’m looking forward to seeing the 1001st.