Respect My Hustle: Building Creative Culture, One Side Project at a Time

By Jason Minyo

Creativity is contagious. Admittedly it is a bit of a cliché, but like most good clichés, there’s a lot of truth in there. We have creative capital, the rise of the creative class, the creative economy, and even a new noun: creatives. As creativity drives innovation, it is increasingly recognized by business leaders as the new cultural currency, and an essential ingredient to unlock a competitive advantage in industry. IBM has famously announced that it will hire 1,000 designers in an attempt to drive creativity and build a culture of design in the coming years.


Image credit: Paz Ulloa

It’s encouraging to see how IBM has figured out that if you want to build a creative culture, you begin with the people. But how do you find the right people, the truly creative?

Ask about side projects.

Look for people who have their own thing going: an art director with his own line of streetwear, or the project manager who is challenging herself by drawing an illustration-a-day, for a year.

These are the types of people who get excited about creative opportunities. They are people bursting with so much inspiration that they develop their own passion projects, so they can better stoke their creative fire. Because when you are a creative person, client work can only take you so far. It’s no accident that people with side projects influence and inspire the rest of your team and, more importantly, the work.

Culture works as hard at recruiting as the talent team. Develop a culture that celebrates creativity, and that culture of making becomes contagious. As a natural by-product, you create a self-sustaining cultural feedback loop. The positive thing for agencies is that side projects act like a magnet to attract like-minded people. And when the vibe is good, word of mouth is powerful.

Walking the Walk: Introducing the Agency Side-Hustle

“Side-hustles,” as a good friend calls them, fuel culture. They also ensure that we are living the hustle and not just talking about it. A great example is a project we created called ART 140. Starting with the question, “Why should critics be the only ones whose voices are heard when it comes to art?” ART 140 democratized art criticism by letting participants comment on six paintings from MoMA’s collection in 140 characters. Our goal was to ask what people thought about those works of art, and capture the results in their own words.

We then created an algorithm that examined their tweets to parse for sentiment to create a B.S. (or Stream of Consciousness) Index as well as a Cerebral Index, and posted the results online. When I speak at conferences or schools and show the range of work we have created for our clients, invariably, it is this small, purely creative side project that provokes the most response from students and creatives.


The Power of Side Projects

Mikael Cho, founder of, believes Unsplash, the free photo site that started as a Crew side project, saved his company from oblivion. San Francisco-based designer Jessica Hische thinks her side projects jump-started her career as a typographer and letterer. And famously, Google’s 20 percent time that let engineers dedicate a fifth of their working hours to side projects led to Gmail and Adsense. That’s not a bad track record.

Make Creativity a Habit

We host monthly creative events lovingly called Lil’ Sebastian (think “mini horse” on Parks and Recreation), and have found that it has become a power tool in building a culture that sustains itself. When the doors open, a creative exercise begins. Themes range from writing a comedic sketch, making some cinemagraphs, or creating a string art piece. No matter the challenge, these sanctioned, tangible, and regular events make our space a vibrant place to work. They are also fun. By creating a stimulating, exciting, and frequent opportunity, creativity becomes a habit.

Curiosity Drives Culture

Creatives are always looking to do new things: work at a new agency, find a new project, or take on a new client. Inherent in that is an appetite for new experiences. And so I’m interested in designing new cultural experiences.

And at the end of the day, it pays off. We find individuals who are creative, more-than capable of delivering smart client work for a multitude of brands. In other words, the creative capacity to take on new projects grows.

When push comes to shove, staying curious and participating in creative opportunities support the ability to do the big, heavy lifting for multi-year, multimillion dollar institutional clients. It’s exactly that range—from fashion lines and string art to brand campaigns and product design—that keeps creatives from burnout and boredom.

Staying true to the creative spark that stokes the fire is a sure way to polishing the craft, build careers, and create culture.

Jason Minyo’s industry work has encompassed brand development, design strategy, television campaigns, and fully integrated brand experiences. He brings his diverse background to his role as executive creative director of POSSIBLE New York, which allows him to deliver ideal solutions to help each client with their unique needs and challenges. An avid storyteller, adept creative, and brand advocate, Jason’s past and present clients include Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Bacardi, Lancome, Nike, Discover Card, Panasonic, and Ford.

D30Related Resource: Feeling burnt out? Rekindle your creativity in Jim Krause’s online course, D30: Exercises for Designers. In this course, Krause will guide you through a series of fun activities to challenge your brain and fuel your creativity. Learn more at