When designers ask me what I recommend that they should be working on, I generally try not to be prescriptive. For one, I'm not you. For two, I don't really know what you're trying to achieve or, more importantly, what you really care about. I can only testify to what I did when I was beginning. And it's a practice I've since continued to this day and plan on keeping on keeping on.
In my spare time, I work on things I love that I'm probably not going to get asked to work on.
That's everything from a great film that really struck a note with me, a comic I may have just finished the final issue on, maybe even a game I just beat or one I want to remember that I haven't played since I was a kid.
This past weekend, I watched a documentary that somehow flew under my radar. It's a Morgan Spurlock-directed peek into the culture of Comic-Con. The narrative follows different individuals that make the yearly trek to San Diego for their various personal reasons. And while their motivations might be completely separate on most levels, there exists a common thread among all of them in that for these few days, they feel a sense of community. An almost "homecoming" of sorts.
I, myself, haven't ever made it out to Comic-Con (a problem I seek to correct in the near future), but there was one anecdote in particular that really resonated with me. In the film, there's a woman who does makeup and costume design; building it all out of her garage. We're not talking second-rate Halloween getups, these are full-fledged top-tier realistic replicas of fictitious characters brought into semi-permanence via the gift of handmade craftsmanship. In short, a really high-end cosplay. In the documentary, she creates a set of costumes for the game, Mass Effect.
At one point in the film, the voiceover narration talks about these activities--building costumes, constructing sets, fan fiction--as a sort of extension of the experience. That by participating, fans are able to expand that particular universe beyond the confines of media. Mass Effect's story was told as a trilogy in video game form. In creating these elaborate costumes, the Mass Effect mythology breaks the pixel barrier and somehow becomes an active part of our living, breathing world.
Which got me thinking about why it is that I, just as guilty, take the time to build what I do.
Creating art for stories that I love allows me to relive and almost preserve my experience. It's bringing art from one format into my own expressive medium: design. I can't make a big budget film or write a best-seller. But I can translate my experience into pixels.
When I finished Bioshock Infinite, the first thing I wanted to do was create something that would expand that experience beyond my playtime. There's something so satisfying about being able to translate your encounter into something tangible. Experiment with this enough, it will become an almost immediate gut reaction. Channel that energy into something that can be preserved; whether it's on a canvas or on a screen.
I've found working on passion projects as an homage to particular piece of media or pop culture to be incredibly empowering and even, at times, cathartic. Not only do you have an intimate association with your preferred topic of choice, but you connect with others that also share that same fervor. Just as important, if you can make waves large enough, it's possible to grab the attention of those that own the intellectual property rights and form relationships with those companies or individuals.
I don't know what you're into. Maybe you really like Babylon 5 or Dr. Who. You might be super into the Legend of Zelda. Or perhaps you really love Two and a Half Men (just kidding--no one should love Two and a Half Men). Do something about it.
So you're not getting the opportunity to work on the subjects that you want to at your day job? Don't let it end there. Take extracurricular time to work on the things that you wish you'd get paid to do. With dedication, that might just be a possibility.
For some great work from some better people on expanding fictional universes, check out Alex Griendlings' Metal Gear Solid Dossier, Logan Faerber's Batwoman, Rogie King's Ellie, and Marie Bergeron's Star Trek Into Darkness. Just to name a few.