Completing a graphic novel. Throwing a series of very fancy dinner parties. Creating David-Hockney-style portraits of friends. These are a few items on Minjeong (“MJ”) Kim’s extensive backlog of potential side projects. A predisposition to divergent problem solving and an almost insatiable curiosity are what drive her appetite for side projects & hobbies.
Kim leads a design team at Coursera—an education platform that offers free courses online—and she teaches yoga once a week in Cupertino. Kim’s most recent side project is a series of topless yogis published to Noun Project, an effort she started to intentionally connect the dots between her interests.
Kim continually sketches and doodles—inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, she began regular trips to the farmer’s market to sketch the body from observation. It was a new years resolution that provided the framework for her yogi icons, and the restrictive criteria necessary for Noun Project icons became an ideal sandbox. “I’m a naturally divergent person, and the Noun Project criteria is very restrictive, which was perfect for me.”
DF: Why drawing?
MJ: I love drawing and I chose it as the medium for my side project because it is so versatile and not too physically demanding. It’s important to be conscious about the medium you choose — a portable or digital medium helps a lot in keeping it light.
How did the yoga icons come about?
It was intentionally motivated. When designers work on a portfolio or present themselves on Linkedin, they need to have a narrative and I felt like my story didn’t have one narrative. I wanted to connect the dots. I was tutoring at an elementary school, I teach yoga, I am an artist and I also make digital products. I was able to narrow down the focus of my project to yoga and illustration, which are both trending topics right now, too.
When do you sketch subjects for your icons, is it during yoga class?
I recap what happened immediately after I teach yoga, or take a class. It’s an exercise in note-taking.
How does teaching yoga relate to what you do at Coursera?
Teaching yoga really helps me practice communication. The skills I learn through teaching yoga are very useful as a manager because I need to talk to groups, control my voice and curate time-based experiences like meetings.
How do your side projects relate to the mission or ethos of Coursera?
There is a culture fit in the way I carry out my side projects and the way we work at Coursera: we don’t judge ideas as they come out, which is similar to how I approach my work. Transparency is one of our tenants and that is something we are good at—we ask each other hard questions and there are no secrets.
What about feedback?
The kinds of feedback that are commercial are very interesting to me. For example, I just got a ten dollar payout from Noun Project, and that is not a lot of money, but money is a very objective metric. Thinking about your side projects as a business is helpful. After college I made it my mission to figure out how to be an artist but not to be a starving artist. I want to change that phrase. Artists should not assume they will be starving. I am interested in being an artist who learns how to make money in creative ways.
Are there any side projects that you admire by other designers?
Well, an example from the art world is the artist Andrea Zittel who made her life into work. For example, she created a uniform for her daily life, and experimented with living out of a mobile cabin. I admire her work, but it is quite extreme and I am a more modest person. I admire some of my coworkers who have side projects going on—one of my coworkers at Coursera, Savannah Whitney, completes a watercolor every day. I really admire her commitment to the project, even if it is tiny, she makes a small painting every single day. She has grown a lot from the exercise and it’s really great to witness that.
Why do you pursue side projects, in general?
I always want to drop bread crumbs along my life to document how I am evolving. For example I always keep a journal. Side projects are a reflection of that. I need traces of who I am and how I am changing. I think of my life as a very long portfolio.
What’s the most important thing someone needs to know before starting a side project?
For divergent people, pick something really narrow. If it seems too easy it’s actually going to be very rich. Stake out time in your calendar, don’t make any other commitments—make a “date with self”. In relationship to work, creative jobs are not that easy—side projects can balance the ups and downs of a creative day job. Make your side project a sanctuary.