Tuesday, May 13th, 2008


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A year ago I started to write a book on creativity. In it I discuss how we’ve made this notion so mythic that it has become ridiculously exclusive. This seems rather silly, given that it’s learnable, just like any other discipline. The point, however, is that all this time has passed, and I only have half a book ready (I’m a walking cliché—sorry folks!)

So, in order to feel as though something is happening, I’ve taken one chapter, stripped the visuals, and present it for you today. This passage is for when you find yourself stuck. At such a time, just open up to this chapter (again, it’s supposed to be part of a book), and try a random exercise. As you face more problems, you’ll likely uncover which approaches work best for you.

Break the pattern

We’re creatures of habit. Most of the time this is fine, but it can prove difficult when you are trying to find a new way to approach a problem. Three quick ways to switch this up:

1. Change your environment—try working on the deck, or in the kitchen
2. Pretend that you are a competitor, and build it from their perspective
3. Try working at different times: maybe late at night or through your lunch break

Try working backwards

Instead of working from a plan, try to imagine what the final project would be, and then fill in the gaps. (It’s never quite that simple, but the exercise can be useful nevertheless.)

If I were in this store, what would it be like? How would I like this to make me feel? Sometimes we get so lost in the details we lose sight of our purpose and direction.

Tidy your workspace

Perhaps you are just too close to your own funk and need room.

– Sort your papers
– Put a few things away
– Move the most pertinent notes into the forefront
– See if you feel different

Take something away

Too many elements in a design can make it difficult to focus. Try to remove some elements, so that you can deal with challenges one at a time. If it’s a visual project, try removing the colour; for a multimedia piece, turn off the sound. Just look for a way to reduce the amount of noise you’re trying to reconcile.

Mix-up your tools

Admit it… it’s kind of fun to write on a white-board, isn’t it? Using your whole arm is simply more kinetic than twitching your fingers. Just changing what you are writing with, or on, can alter your perspective and experience. Get out big rolls of newsprint and cover the walls so that everyone can make notes. Put aside your ball-point pens and try writing with colored markers. It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as it’s different from how you normally work.

Look differently

Just like you’ll eventually become accustomed to the tacky wood-veneer in your basement, you will lose objectivity for your project if you work on it for too long. So, do something to change your way of looking at it. If you are writing something, read it out loud to a small audience. If you are designing something, look at it in the mirror. If it’s a video on a high quality monitor, watch it on a tiny, old television. Trust me; it’s amazing how this will help you see where the weak points are.

Talk it out

It’s easy to lose your groove as you get invested in a project. So, grab the brief, and ask a peer who’s not involved in the project to join you for coffee. Simply review the goals outlined in your creative brief, and where you are at. Verbalizing your problem with an unbiased party can help you get a handle on the part that’s causing you to struggle.


Paralysis by planning is all too common and sometimes you just have to “get in there”. Keep in mind that if you do so, you’re best off to keep things a little loose. For example, if you are working on a website, don’t worry about getting the perfect photos; just get the broad strokes in place. This will keep you from obsessing over details that might not matter in the long-run.

Reorder the pieces

I still remember seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time. Tarantino’s seemingly simple rearrangement of the film’s sequence changed how we experienced it, and future cinema. Just like starting our notes at the top left corner of the page, we tend to follow predictable formulas. Try reorganizing the sequence or items in your project. Do they still work? What would you have to do to make them?

Start again

1. Put all of your materials in the filing cabinet
2. Grab a handful of scrap paper and start again from the top
3. This time, do something completely different than the first time

Doing this is incredibly liberating—it allows you to take all that you’ve learned and discard all of the things that were frustrating you the first time. Just remember that you are never too far along to fear starting again. (When you are ready, you can compare the two directions and see which worked best.)

Software developers talk about building a program at least three times before they get it right. Isn’t it reasonable that we might not hit it out of the park the first time?

Throw away the part you love most

Is there one thing that you really like in your creation: some particular idea, treatment or element? Sometimes our love of one thing can throw the overall picture. Try to take it out and see if you can resolve the project without it.

Go for a walk

Is it any surprise that after hours in the same chair, we find ourselves uninspired? Get up right now, say nothing to anyone else, and walk away. The movement will change how you feel. To double the effectiveness, walk somewhere you’ve never been before.

Introduce something random

1. Flip to a page in a book
2. Select the first item you see
3. Introduce it to the project

Force yourself to do this, even if it feels silly or pointless. Connecting unrelated items sparks unexpected combinations. If nothing else, it may lead you to break the myopia around the challenge, making it less intimidating.

Make more

1. Choose an unrealistic number
2. Make this many of whatever you are working on (ideas, outlines, sketches)
3. When you hit something good, keep going

Becoming overly focused about one implementation tends to constipate the process. By loosening-up and taking the reverence out of the process, you free yourself to explore and find a “happy accident”.

Make some rules

Ever notice how you can’t think of anything fun to do until you are in the middle of something you would rather not do? Perhaps it is human nature—sometimes we have a hard time with too much freedom. So, try creating some rules and see how it affects your process. For example: I want to make a whole presentation without any words. A little resistance can drive innovation.

Set a deadline

Without a target, it’s easy to get lost in details that aren’t really that important. Pick a deadline and stick to it; by doing so, you’ll find yourself concentrating on the most relevant points.


1. Stop.
2. Put your feet up.
3. Remind yourself it’s supposed to be fun.

In a few months, this will all be taken care of. You will find it hard to remember the challenges you are facing. There’s no need to get panicked; just take it easy, keep going, and it will all work out.

Of course, you can also move ahead in time a few decades, at which time you may be dead.

At that time, none of this will matter. Your boss will no longer be there, this book will be propping up a desk, and this assignment will matter to no one.

Nothing is as important as it seems.

Enjoy the ride.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Mike Wagner says:


    Great list!

    Two that I need to hear, remember and act on more often are

    - Break the pattern - I do get stuck in the predicable. Your suggestion on changing point of view by taking the perspective of the customer is really helpful.
    - Take something away - less still is more...most of the time.

    Even though I'm not a designer I do design my thoughts and actions each day.

    This helps!

    Thanks for getting my mind racing.

    Keep creating...blockbusting days,

  2. cracker says:

    good. on point.

  3. Craig Hooper says:

    The last bit about it all meaning nothing in the end—bang on.

    I guess this could be applied to anything (and everything) we do—same goes for a creative endeavor. It can dominate your existence—but step back, and try to understand that it is what you love to do, and you should enjoy doing it—as much as is possible...

    The late-great Bill Hicks summed it up well w/ his stance on life: it's just a ride...

  4. Paul Done says:

    Speaking of mythbusting, there's an interesting Malcolm Gladwell piece in the New Yorker about the nature of Genius and invention.

    The basic premise is that invention and innovation can be fostered and grown; that's it's not a mysterious, individual process.


  5. nick mun says:

    great set of ideas. i particularly like the last one: breathe. personally, i just walk away from it. which sounds easy, but really is difficult.

  6. Scott says:

    As someone who's recently suffered an extreme case of burnout and design blockage -- and still fighting back from it, I'm very conscious of getting into routines that drive me into dead ends, so any new tips I come across are always welcome. Thanks for these Eric!

    And if you happen to run into my father-in-law, Eric McLuhan at Vidfest next week (he's speaking at the conference), do stop him and say hello. I wish I coul be there but my schedule won't let me out of the office until the end of the month.

  7. cat says:

    Hi Eric, love your new, hairy look.

    I find cruising through great poster designs releases creativity.

    And looking at decent typography treatments does the same.

    But most importantly, I look at designs that have nothing to do with the particular problem I'm stuck with.

    And I drink coffee when I'm REALLY stuck ...

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  9. Matt Crest says:

    These are all great. Talking it out is definitely one of my most effective tools. Really makes you slowly consider what you are doing.

  10. Scott Lowe says:

    Good list. I know I find myself creatively blocked more often than not. Most of the time its because of something I am trying to introduce to the project that doesn't need to be there.

    Throwing out your (my) favorite part might be the best idea ever. I just did that not 8 hours ago with a project I am working on. Sometimes we like things for what we want them to be and not for what they really are if you catch my meaning.

    What I've gleaned from this list and experience is that creativity is new (for you the designer) generation methods mixed mixed with lots of failure. The quicker you make something you can rule out the quicker you get to the right answer.

    Good luck on the book.

  11. nick says:

    I feel I should mention Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies. Have you heard of them?


  12. jon mallinson says:

    "Try working at different times: maybe late at night or through your lunch break"

    worst advise ever mate ;)

  13. Naina Redhu says:

    Wow. Usually difficult to articulate all this in one go. Very well thought out list Eric. Bookmarked to serve as a reminder. I've been going ballistic with a new Annual Report design and last couple of days I completely switched my work time and spent the day sleeping - saw no daylight for 48 hours straight and got out the first draft of the report to the client before sunrise today. Like you mention about it not mattering in the end - similarly - in terms of the level of difficulty - sending something to the client is also tough - we're never happy with our own work and spend way too much time re-drafting - I've learned that even if I've got 6 pages drafted out of the total 80, it's best to just send it to the client for feedback. Surprisingly, creativity just picks up from there.

  14. Maggie Hohle says:

    Your posts are worth reading. Thank you.

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  16. I find combining ideas around the topic helps to come up with something new, also never being scared to turn a problem on its head and come up with something ridiculous - only when we are open to the illogical will unique ideas flow, otherwise we remain locked in to a specific (logical) way of thinking. All the best with the book.

  17. The other week I experienced my first real designer's block. After a few days of absolutely no progress in the project I took a bicycle ride to a part of my town I hadn't been in a few years.

    If I had read this before it probably wouldn't have been so frightening and I wouldn't have been stuck for so long.

    Thanks for sharing!

  18. I'm with Nick on the Oblique Strategies, especially following the Oblique Chirps Feed on Twitter - one an hour - very helpful in those lost moments.

  19. Naomi Niles says:

    Excellent tips! A lot of these are surprisingly similar to the things my husband uses for his illustration work. He wrote a blog post about it as well. http://www.koldobarroso.com/10-tips-to-change-perspective-in-artwork-2/
    So, I guess these types of methods can apply for everyone. :)

    I look forward to reading your book when it comes out!

  20. Rob says:

    I saw you speak at the HOW conference and I am a huge fan of your blog. Best presentation of the conference. Really, thank you very much.

  21. Great ideas, Eric.

    I was just at a seminar where we all took our notes in brightly colored ink and could fidget with Play-Dough while we listed to the instructor. Both added "color" to the information--and you'd be amazed by some of the Play-Dough creations!

    I'm also all for walking away whe you're stuck or feeling overwhelmed. A stretch, a walk to or through a change of scenery, and perhaps some chocolate, are great for clearing your mind and recharging.

  22. rob watts says:

    Excellent ideas - I think it's good to allow oneself to just go with the flow sometimes too. Take this morning, Ive had 5 unscheduled discussions with various colleagues on unplanned issues. All of which could lead to fairly big contracts and add value to the companies bottom line, yet to be honest at the self same time add very little to my closing end of month 'to do list'.

  23. Great stuff, thanks for sharing! Just cleaned up my workspace and feel much better about the project I'm working on right now. Also, I really like your idea of going for a walk somewhere you've never been before.

    Something I like to do is put on a song from one of my favorite artists (Muse!) and, while rocking out of course, use the song to imagine how the music might dictate the design. This practice has actually pushed my current project forward quite a few times!

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  25. sam says:

    "Is it any surprise that after hours in the same chair, we find ourselves uninspired? Get up right now, say nothing to anyone else, and walk away. The movement will change how you feel. To double the effectiveness, walk somewhere you’ve never been before." I use this technique to drive creativity... over all its wonderful list. thanks Eric.

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