Why You Should Be Moonlighting If You’re Not Already

This week I’m going to share with you the benefits of moonlighting on your own projects outside of work, and how that can translate to big things down the road for you, as well as what you can expect from the experience.

My Experience:

If you’re not familiar with the term moonlighting, it’s usually defined as making a second income outside of your primary income. This could be as simple as creating logos for others, or as extreme as building and maintaining your own online community or SaaS app. I’ll also add that even though traditionally this is to make extra money, it doesn’t always have to be the main reason you moonlight.

When I first started work in the industry as a designer, I never really thought about moonlighting. Perhaps, it was because I was focussing on my transition from school to the “real world”, or maybe it’s because I never really saw any benefit in doing so. I was making money, creating work that I enjoyed, so what was the purpose?

I got my answer one day when I started working much closer with my first Creative Director, Dave. I remember the moment really clearly. It was a Saturday and we were working on a project for Walmart. As we were tossing around some ideas and working on a design, he recommended I make a few small tweaks to the design. Those small, tiny tweaks took the design from being okay to something worthy of having the agency’s name on it. It transformed the design entirely. With enthusiasm I asked Dave, “How do you do that?” His response was, “Do what?” I said with one little change this is a whole new, and far superior design.” He said, “I don’t know, design is just another medium for me.” I asked, “What do you mean?” He quickly replied, “When I’m not designing, I paint and create art. I love designing, but I see it as an extension to my art.” That’s when it clicked! For Dave, his art is his passion, design is his medium. His colors, ideas all stem from what he does outside of work, while he’s moonlighting. He’s not bound by the constraints of what’s in front of him. He’s well practiced and constantly working his creative muscle. So whenever a challenge is in front of him, it’s not an obstacle. It’s an opportunity to create something beautiful that communicates a message.

Dave is a very experienced and “old school” designer. I miss working with Dave and will always admire his ability to stay relevant and respected by being able to transform mediocre ideas into award-winning ideas that were not just unique, but also generated results for our clients.

Immediately after leaving work that day I started to pay attention to other designers who are far superior to me and realized that many continued to create outside of their daily jobs. They see design not as a job but a way of life that starts from the moment they wake up to the time they go to bed. Every opportunity or project is just another opportunity to leave an impact on the industry.

Today, I too make moonlighting a huge part of my day. After work if I’m not designing for a client or working on a side project like Frettie, I’m working on The Designer’s Handbook or engaging with young designers. Because it is true, you play the game as you practice, and practice only makes perfect.

What I’ve Learned about Moonlighting:

  • You learn more about yourself as a designer: When you moonlight, you have the opportunity to try projects that you may not necessarily get the chance to work on during the day. It’s these types of projects where you’ll learn something more about yourself as a designer, and get to try new challenges. You’ll learn what your strengths are and what makes you happy and what may not. During that process you can challenge yourself and grow your skill set. Have you always wanted to learn a new technology? Moonlighting is a great way to do so.
  • Moonlighters always have a fallback: Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of moonlighting is that you always have a fall back. In 2008 that became real when the design industry suffered from the economic fallout. During that time, I watched many of my friends hunt for work. Those who had developed a system as a moonlighter were able to continue to generate some income as they explored their next endeavors.
  • You have extra spending money: Similar to the above, I think what I love most about moonlighting is that it generates some additional income. This additional income can help you reach your short term and long term financial goals much faster.
  • It’s a great way towards transitioning into a freelancer full time: If you’re thinking about transitioning to a full time freelancer, perhaps start moonlighting. This will give you a small taste of what you can expect. Since you’ll be responsible for the whole project from start to finish, you’ll experience the pros and the cons. If you like it you can scale up some, then eventually be able to make the jump. The jump still won’t be easy, but it will be easier now that you know what to expect.
  • It requires discipline: Too many times I feel like moonlighters don’t truly realize what they’re getting into. Yes, it is “side income,” but it’s still a commitment. Depending on the complexity of your project you can expect to put in an extra 10-20 hours a week outside of the current demands of your full-time job. It is additional stress, but to me the benefits of side projects and expanding your skill set outweigh the cons. You have to make that decision on your own.  
  • You can still charge top rate: I think sometimes it’s assumed that if you’re a moonlighter you’re just doing work on the side to make some extra cash, and often times that transfers to clients seeing you as a far less investment than an agency or someone who’s a full-time freelancer. Don’t believe that for a second. Your value, based by hour or by project basis, is the same no matter if you’re full-time, or part-time. The value in what you will provide should remain the same.
  • It can open up and create opportunity: When you moonlight, you’re creating work that represents your brand and what you are capable of in its purist. Sometimes this can transfer to even greater opportunities for you down the road. Your body of work, and words or opinions, are often what define you in the industry. And sometimes it’s hard for opportunities to arise if that work is locked up behind the scenes of a much larger brand or entity. I’m not saying this is the only way opportunity can come your way, but your brand is the best place to start.
  • Not all companies are okay with it: As with everything, often times there’s a con, and before you consider moonlighting, you should check to ensure that your company is okay with it. Most companies in the creative industry are okay with it due to the fact that it allows you to grow and experiment on your own time. This in turn can translate back to an even greater ROI for them. However, some companies are not okay with it. If you choose to moonlight, you have to research your company’s policies around it.

My Takeaway:

Moonlighting is not for every designer, but I do recommend at least try it out to see if it helps you overcome some of your obstacles during the day. For me it has helped fight burnout, meet a ton of other great designers, as well as generate opportunities I don’t think would have ever come my way without moonlighting. The extra money I receive from moonlighting is a bonus, but the ability to grow as a designer means much more.

Moonlighting doesn’t need to be created for money. It can just be projects for fun, or even be used to explore different areas and desires. So if you find you like to write copy, try copywriting as a moonlighter in the evenings.

Nowadays it’s not uncommon to run across designers who also moonlight, so you’ll never feel alone in your struggles, and many companies are generally okay with it. As I move through my career, I’m always transparent about my side projects. For me not only is a company hiring my experience today, they’re hiring the experience that I gain from side projects as well. It’s hard for me to separate both worlds and doing so may become a disservice to any company who may want to hire me.

What’s Next?

Now that I’ve chatted with you about moonlighting and why you should consider it (if you haven’t already), next week I’m excited to talk with you about the extra 10 percent and how that simple idea has transformed my work and career.

Communication is important to me, so I’d love to continue the conversation with you all in the comments below. What benefits or experiences have you had while moonlighting?

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