Dealing With Yourself as a Designer: Creative Blocks

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My biggest frustration as a designer has always been the dreaded creative block. I’m all set to work on a project, and as I sit down (or stand up, with my new standing desk- woohoo!) to start working on ideas, and suddenly:

Nothing.

I’ll spend the next hours (or sometimes even days) banging my head against this creative wall, hoping that something jars loose and I can actually get started. And of course, since I have a bunch of other projects already happening, this creative block puts me behind, which stresses me out, which makes it that much harder to think of ideas, and on and on and on and on and on.

So how do you break through a creative block? Here are some ideas to help you start hammering away.

1. Distractification

Previously I wrote about strategies to deal with distractions, but sometimes you simply need a distraction. Now, I have the tendency to double-down on what I’m working on when I hit a creative wall, as if by sheer grit I can work my way through it. This works sometimes, but it usually just adds to the cumulative stress and frustration.

Instead, go all in on a distraction, preferably something that you know relaxes you and lets you focus your mind and energies on something else. For me, video games are a great distraction and usually pretty relaxing, but so is reading a book or going for a walk with my wife.

easy to get distracted…

Taking your mind off of the source of frustration for a time can help you to recharge, and often simply having space away from it will open up your mind to new possibilities and help you break through that creative block.

2. Unplug

No matter how hard I try, it feels like I’m always surrounded by noise. And even if I’m not playing music and the silence is deafening, there’s always visual noise just waiting to stake its claim on my attention. Working in visual media certainly doesn’t help with this, so often I’ve found that I have to completely get away from anything with a screen and/or a speaker.

I also generally have to leave the space I associate with the project I’m stuck on. My office is in my house, so to truly unplug I have to leave the house and go somewhere else. A nearby park is usually a good place for this, as there’s usually not too many people around and it’s often quiet.

Ironically captured with the phone I brought with me…

I used to have this tendency to bring my phone along. After all, what if I get an update on the project or a client needs to get ahold of me? However, I’ve found that if I do this, I’m not really unplugging; rather, I’m just shifting the location of my frustrations, and in effect bringing them with me wherever I go. So now I either leave the phone at home or in the car as I’m walking around the park.

The silence can take some getting used to, but after awhile it becomes a place of refuge where you can consider other possibilities and be open to new impressions other than the din of background music or the visual assault of your phone’s screen.

3. Be Creative (In Some Other Way)

I’ve been a musician for quite some time and have always found songwriting to be invigorating. Granted, I am not a great songwriter by any means, but being able to channel my creative efforts in a completely different direction always refreshes me. It’s low-pressure, because I’m merely writing for pleasure, and it’s also satisfying to be able to create something, even if it’s just a chorus or even just a hook. I find that working on something creative that isn’t my job helps me to think in different ways, which in turn gives me greater experience and more ideas to draw from in my day-to-day work.

Different kinds of creativity

You may not be a musician, but always be trying new creative things in a low-pressure way. The point isn’t to create something for your job (although it may turn out to be useful for that), but rather to direct your creative energies in a different direction from where your current frustration lies. This helps to give you both the confidence and pleasure that comes with creating something. It also helps to re-wire your thoughts so you’re not stuck in the rut of frustration and pressure that you may be stuck in with your creative block.

Doing something as simple as painting might help you break through the block or perhaps find creative and otherwise unknown ways around it. Creativity is a well that refreshes itself, but sometimes you have to have lots of wells to drink from.

4. Learn a New Skill

It might seem counterintuitive to try and learn something new when you’re stuck with a creative block. After all, those blocks are usually associated with looming deadlines, and who has time to develop a new skill or technique?

The point here isn’t to master something that is going to be the solution to your creative block. Rather, it’s more about giving your mind a way to expand itself and be able to see new possibilities that didn’t exist before.

When I first started off in design, I was not a good illustrator. I’m still learning quite a lot in that regard, but it was a struggle to develop a style, figure out efficient ways to do it, etc. It was something way outside of my design comfort zone, but I decided in the midst of a project to do it anyway. It required the sacrifice of some time on my part, and also was somewhat nerve-wracking.

But as I dug into the process, I found new options I would never have explored before. While there were still things I couldn’t execute on since I was still learning, even the little I engaged in helped me form new connections to other ideas and flesh them out in ways I wouldn’t have previously been capable of seeing. It expanded the vista of creative possibilities for me and thus helped me to think differently.

I’ve found this to be true every time I intentionally set out to learn something new. It’s definitely painful at first and filled with lots of stops and starts, but through the process I gain more creative confidence and open up worlds of creative possibilities just through exposure to a new way of doing things.

The other day I was getting started on a project, and honestly was probably somewhat behind on it. I was already feeling really burned out from a couple long months of work, and just the thought of ideating for a new project seemed exhausting. So one morning I decided I was going to try something new, and started experimenting with Adobe’s Character Animator. I had a little familiarity with it, but hadn’t played with it for awhile. So I spent the morning and afternoon watching some tutorials on the basics of the program, and then moved on to some more advanced techniques. That evening I spent creating a character to animate.

Learning new skills with Svlad the Viking!

The next day I spent refining then character, doing the rigging in Character Animator and then fine-tuning movements, controls, trigger-able animations, etc. I also researched some live-streaming software so I could test out live-streaming this character on Facebook, with the eventual result of doing just that in front of a (admittedly small) live audience!

Granted, it was not the most amazing thing ever, and was really more of an experiment. And yes, it probably put me a couple days behind where I wanted to be. However, it also reinvigorated me and I found myself suddenly teeming with ideas the next day. Most of them were not worth holding on to, but the point is that I was able to learn something new, have a blast learning it, and break through my creative block and have a flood of ideas come rushing in.

This doesn’t happen every time, but whenever you can give yourself a new challenge to overcome or a new skill to learn, it helps you to form new connections between things your already know and things you learn. These connections are the basis of ideas that you simply were not capable of having before, and will lead to new ways of tackling whatever creative block you are facing.

5. Draw Inspiration From Everywhere

Sometimes when I am stuck on a project, I find myself using certain inspiration sites as a crutch. I generally have a decent idea of the general direction I want to go, which causes me to look for examples that fit within that direction. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it can be very limiting as far as ideating goes, as the medium to a large extent dictates the message.

Because of this, I’ve found it valuable to try and get outside of the normal styles I tend to gravitate towards and look for inspiration in other places. Sometimes I’ll take a camera and just go out and shoot photos, noticing how the way I frame the composition speaks to me in different ways.

Sleeping puppy makes a great color scheme!

Sometimes I’ll just notice the colors around me, how they weave in and out of each other or stand in stark contrast, often in the same object or scene. I’ve even been known to sample the colors of photos I’ve taken to use as a basis for a project. In fact, there have been times when even a single color has sparked an idea for something else.

I also like to visit the local art museum, as that tends to take me way outside of my normal visual aesthetic. The Nelson-Atkins here in KC has some great classical pieces (as well as an outstanding rotating photos collection), and I often draw deeply from such wells. While I will never be working on something even close to these techniques and styles (and, let’s be honest, mastery), there is a lot to commend itself to me. I notice how the composition of the painting evokes a certain mood, how the placement of the characters and their expressions silently speak volumes about the poignancy of what’s being depicted, how the brush strokes and paint hues work together to form this entrancing visual feast that must be savored to be truly appreciated.

Whether you visit an art museum or do photo ops downtown or retreat into nature to partake of its grandeur, always be looking for beauty in what is around you and allow that wonder to permeate you so that you are in essence breathing in the majesty of what is around you. The more experiences you have and the more beauty you are exposed to, the more creative options you will have and the greater the possibilities that will be present to your mind’s eye.

Even the simple and seemingly nondescript can be a trove of inspiration, if you’re looking for it.

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Jason Watson

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