Projects and Products

Every day there is a new map or app that pops into my twitter feed that deserves attention. Wind maps, color applications, Facebook visualizations, to gather a few. They get an afternoon, maybe a full day’s worth of hits and come dinner time, most people have forgotten about it. Is it a lack of significance? I think not. There’s a reason people find projects unique and worth sharing – because they are significantly cooler than other projects.

Cartographers love new projects. It’s a tough community to exist within, when one day you could be the highlight of the twitter community sipping on digital champagne because of a map you created, and the next day you find yourself sitting back down in your lawn chair of a desk sipping PBR. You spent three months building that map and all you got was a 140-character toast and some larger-than-usual bars on your Google analytics chart. That’s a good payoff these days. Most times you manage to think of a cool idea without any other help only to realize two weeks into your design and code that it has already been done. How do we stay motivated? How do we keep learning when what you learn could simply be archaic a year from now?

I think much of our time is spent thinking of projects, when what we actually want to be creating is products. What’s the difference? A product is a two-way street where the viewer gets something out of a project, that they can use in future decisions or work. A project, on the other hand, is something that entices our curiosities. We create it simply to learn and to show that we know how to do something. Both of these are typically viewed as separate, since one typically brings in an income while the other shows style. Personally, I don’t have an answer for how to stay motivated, nor am I in any place to be giving one. I mainly bring the idea and leave it open on the table (a table that happens to have a lot more cans of PBR than bottles of champagne).

The one thing I do know, though, is that viewing products and projects as two distinct things isn’t helpful. We often measure a product’s worth in terms of downloads or views; purchases or sales. Too often do we forget that knowledge is a form of worth. When you look at a product or a project, no matter what you intend to take away from it you will always take away knowledge. Ideas that can help you with future designs and projects; relationships that you once missed you now see; interactivity through different mediums. This is what projects are for: the sharing of knowledge. That in itself (at least to me) is enough reason to finish my map that won’t get a re-tweet. To follow through on your work is to learn something much more than the few lines of code in front of you. You are learning what more there could be. You open the door wide to invite in new ideas that will eventually build themselves into a product.

For now, I continue to see my projects as products. Not a product for sale (though you are more than welcome to make an offer!) but a product of my own work and commitment that allows me to continue learning. Here’s to completing them.