The Overlay

8 Steps to Spice Up Creative Projects

By Chris Varosy
Banksy modified a parking sign painted on a wall to say "park" and drew a girl on a swing hanging from the letter A.

Don’t you love days when the creative juices are flowing, you’re inspired by the project and fully in the groove with your work? Yeah, us too. But then there are those other days, when you’re staring at the task at hand, bored beyond belief and hoping you don’t lapse into a coma of the imagination.

For those times, we’ve found a way to make boring projects truly interesting (and fun projects even more interesting). We call it The Overlay. In a nutshell, an Overlay is a personal goal or requirement you add on top of any assignment to make your work more meaningful, enjoyable and relevant to you.

You’re already doing this subconsciously—it’s the nature of designing to exert our opinions, tastes and experience. But sometimes it helps to give yourself a deliberate assignment. A recent graphics production project became an opportunity to make use of Photoshop’s new style classes. In another case, a ho-hum web redesign became a chance to experiment with retina-optimized artwork.

Here are 8 steps to a successful Overlay:

  1. Finish these questions: I’ve always wanted to try… I need to learn how to… I’m interested in… I wish I was working on… It would be cool if _______ were on my resume or in my portfolio… It would really shake things up if I…
  2. Do a brainstorming session using these questions as a starting point. Write down a bunch of things you’d like to accomplish. No goal is too humble or small as long as it’s yours (and it’s fun!).
  3. Keep your list of Overlay ideas visible in your workspace. When you’re ready to start an assignment, check the list. You can keep your Overlay list someplace visible such as a digital sticky note that’s always open on your desktop.
  4. If you’re struggling to find an Overlay that fits a particular project, look at the assignment itself for inspiration. Rather than railing against annoying project constraints and requirements, try imposing one of your own that’s fun and challenging for you.
  5. Most of the time, it’s not necessary to divulge the details of your Overlay to your client. Often it’s way more fun (and satisfyingly subversive) to keep it to yourself or share the inside joke with a trusted friend or coworker. You’ll get to show off the results of your experiment, and they’ll enjoy being in on the secret.
  6. As you work on the project, observe how your perception of and commitment to the assignment changes. Did you enjoy yourself a little more?
  7. If your client asks you to change or remove an aspect that messes up your Overlay, don’t be discouraged. Your Overlay is, after all, hitching a ride. Keep the Overlay-inspired version in your portfolio instead of the final watered-down version.
  8. If you are seriously inspired by an Overlay that you didn’t get to explore fully within a project, explore it more outside of the project or reincarnate it for another project.

Overlays are unexpected, delightful, and, in my experience, contagious. Comment with your Overlay story! I’d love to hear what you came up with, what the project context was, and most importantly, what it did for you. Who knows? Perhaps we’ll try… writing a book!