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.

Follow @karj to hear about these posts first.

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