September 3, 2014

Pride, Work, and Necessity of Side Projects: Melissa Delzio’s Our Portland Story



What are you working on—on the side?

I have two main side projects and hope to add more to that list. My biggest project is really a second business with a not-for-profit focus. It is a community project called Our Portland Story that celebrates our city and its people through story and design. I founded Our Portland Story in 2008, and have published two books featuring hundreds of local authors and designers. We collect stories about Portland by Portlanders from all walks of life, and pair those stories with local designers to create artful snapshots of the city. In addition to the published books, we host events and experiment with new ways to engage with the community, showcase stories, and create unique connections.

In the past, this has included a museum exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, book readings, oral history recording sessions, and a Portland-themed comedy show. In October 2014, we are hosting an event, as part of Design Week Portland, that showcases the work of three of Portland’s “Mad Men”—designers who made a big impact on the Portland creative scene in the 1960s.

Our Portland Story is very rewarding, in that I am filling a need in the community, and providing a platform for creative expression and education. I started this project in the pre-Portlandia era when I felt that Portland had something special and different that wasn’t being properly showcased. Now, the whole nation has been exposed to aspects of Portland’s “weirdness,” and I am focusing my books and events more on the historical and personal stories that aren’t being told elsewhere.

My second project is more of a personal project, it is called Within 1 Mile, and it is a walk-and-draw challenge. It was born out of a desire to draw more, combined with the daily task of walking my dog. My husband and I are recent homeowners and we love exploring our ever-changing neighborhood. My drawings are a way for me to practice art and observation, while also preserving a bit of our neighborhood in ink. The idea is to have about 50+ of these drawings completed before hosting an art show of the work, in my own neighborhood coffee shop of course!

Learn more about both projects: Our Portland StoryWithin 1 Mile

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

As an independent designer, there can be down time between paying jobs, or times when work does not take up a full 8 hours of your day. I work on my side projects in this filler time, and consider it all under the umbrella of “work.” Of course, when the side project work needs to get done, and I have a full work schedule, I often have to sacrifice nights and weekends.

Having a project that involves hundreds of other people (as Our Portland Story does) keeps you on top of it and accountable. I know when I have slacked, because my authors and designers tell me so. In that way, it is much like other work projects.

I set up Our Portland Story as a separate business with its own bank accounts and such to really draw a line of distinction. Utilizing avenues of free promotion, like email and social media, help to keep expenses down. I had to learn much about business through this project, in setting up a price structure, distribution, inventory, managing a volunteer team, and marketing. These things help me be a better creative partner for my clients.

Why have side projects?

As an independent designer, side projects are crucial. The most obvious reason is that they give you a creative outlet to express ideas through a different medium. You become free to make mistakes, take risks, and practice new skills. One of the best ways to get the type of paying work you want is to do the work for yourself first, and share it with the world.

Secondarily, passion projects could lead to a additional source of income. You may find that your clay replicas of Star Wars vehicles are commercially viable, and having varied revenue streams is key to staying independent.

Side projects broaden your audience. If you are a designer, chances are you network mostly with other designers. Practicing other skills, like writing, painting, or photography, allow you to branch out, to see and be seen by a broader network of professionals.

Side projects should inform, inspire, and supplement your main gig, and if they don’t, then perhaps your side project should evolve into your main gig.

• • •

Diptych courtesy of Melissa Delzio.


This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.


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