You’ve been staring at the screen for hours and it hasn’t changed much. As the moments pass, you start to doubt yourself: Am I not good at this? What if I can’t get it right? Am I the lamest designer alive? We’ve all been there at one time or another, but there is a way to break the cycle.
In writing this piece, I took to the street (the virtual “street” I mean, which is in actuality, email). I sent out notes to fellow designers and friends near and far for their insights. I asked a simple question: “How do you tap new ideas and “blockbust” in your studio?” My usually articulate peers, however, were at a bit of a loss.
Pentagram’s Michael Beirut noted that his only cure for creative block is an “impatient client and a non-negotiable deadline.” Marian Bantjes explained that she rarely gets blocked, while Nik Hafermaas suggested lots of dark chocolate. (I find this to be a rather compelling option, even if it proves ineffective.)
So, for two weeks, I procrastinated, struggling with how to write this piece. Why are these great designers so tongue-tied by this simple question? Finally, it struck me—these people don’t have a quick-fix, they simply keep working. I’ll explain.
The problem of creative block starts with how we envision the creative process. Popular culture perpetuates the notion that creativity is akin to alchemy. It involves some magic formula that’s only known to a select and gifted few. We noodle about in our studios, drink a lot of coffee, then sha-zam!—we’re hit by a stroke of brilliance. Needless to say, the reality is vastly different.
Some people are naturally creative, but few arrive at powerful ideas at their first attempt. Proficiency in producing good ideas comes from years of deliberate practice and old-fashioned hard work.
A method for working
In some professions, success is black and white. At the end of a football game, someone wins and someone loses. On an accountant’s balance sheet, either the numbers work or they don’t. Most creative work, however, is more challenging to measure. This, coupled with our desire to make ‘great design’ often sets us off on a nebulous path. Given all of this variability, I’d argue that we need to standardise certain aspects of what we do.
Almost every firm expounds upon the word ‘process’. Some designers pay it lip service while others believe it to be the linchpin of their success. My belief is that you work better by establishing a general method that outlines key steps in a project. Some may argue that this limits free experimentation and compromises the possibility of a breakthrough but this is nonsense. In fact, a process liberates the designer to concentrate on ideas instead of getting hung up on questions of what step to take next.
Rather than looking at a screen blankly, waiting for a stroke of genius to hit, process enables us to concentrate on one issue at a time. Although ‘create something brilliant’ is a goal that often dooms one to failure, a simple task such as ‘build the site map’ allows us to focus on filling in the necessary pieces (and once we’re actually moving, it’s much easier to find ourselves in interesting and unexpected places).
It’s important, however, to not allow process to become restrictive. Think of process as a big, loosely coupled machine. It needs to be flexible, as requirements change from one project to the next. But some tasks are universal in all projects, such as researching the competition and developing rough sketches. Establishing and documenting a general structure with these recurring tasks provides ‘guiderails‘, while affording ample room to move.
Establishing structure doesn’t have to be a sophisticated process. Just document the basic steps that you follow on projects. Don’t be overly detailed, as doing so can make it feel rather mechanical. It’s easier to just get the basics in place with some simple checklists in productivity programs such as Outlook. Replicate the list from one job to the next, refining it as you go. When actually using it, you’ll probably find that some steps are missing, while others are redundant.
We solve problems
Design isn’t art. Some may argue that I’m belittling design by saying so, but this is hardly the case. They’re simply two very different pursuits. Although both are explorative, design has a greater number of limitations and functional requirements. As such, art and design should be treated as separate entities.
In art, one seeks the ‘perfect’ idea. In design, we’re in search of the ‘right’ idea. A tin opener doesn’t have to be unorthodox, it just has to open tins. Similarly, many designers are often hamstrung by trying to make unique websites, whereas trying to meet the client’s goals is more relevant, attainable and fruitful. To achieve these goals requires planning. One needs to truly understand the client, situation, expectations, context and competitors before starting to explore a creative solution.
You may be wondering, “What does any of this have to do with beating creative blocks?” The answer is: everything. Great ideas come from insight and insight comes from understanding.
There are a number of planning tools you can use to gain understanding. These tools may vary, but I believe the following to be important: a Target Audience Assessment; a Key Competitor Assessment; short lists of potential challenges and corresponding solutions; opportunities for exploration; project goals; and a succinct and accurate creative brief that can centre the project.
Don’t fall into the trap of ‘making paper’. I’ve seen 20-page creative briefs and I don’t understand how they can possibly work. Distil your thoughts and analysis to a palatable length. This will ensure that you’ve isolated the most relevant points, and that your client will still be awake upon reviewing them.
The other guy started with a blank piece of paper. Now he’s flustered and waiting for an apple to fall on his noggin. You, on the other hand, have the lie of the land. If you’re anything like me, this lends a great deal of confidence. Once I have a clear understanding of where I need to go, I get the feeling that I only have a few problems to solve. It makes the task at hand seem far more manageable.
Tools are important to consider as well. Although this may make me sound like a dinosaur, I’m going to say it anyway: put down the mouse! Every young designer explains to me how they work more efficiently on a computer. Fair enough, but the computer is a lifeless medium. It’s wonderful for production and refinement, but it introduces too many choices at this early stage. What application should I build it in? What dimensions should I make it? What colour should it be? It’s just so much fun clicking about in design applications that one can easily miss out on the bigger picture.
Brother, it’s time to go old-school. You know what I’m talking about: pull out the 2B, HB, Sharpie or Bic. Paper and pens don’t crash, they allow for easy posting on walls for review, and they’re blazingly fast. You need to be able to get the doodles and sketches down quickly enough to keep up with the monster CPU that’s housed between your ears.
Getting started is seen by many as a hurdle, but it doesn’t have to be. Just start. Grab a piece of paper and put down the most banal, clumsy ideas—it doesn’t matter. The action of creating spurs new directions. Give yourself the licence to take bad and pointless directions; sometimes this is where you end up stumbling upon the ‘magic’ you’d hoped for.
Many find it helpful to collaborate at this stage, as doing so can lead to a wonderful group energy and mixing of perspectives. I suggest a few simple rules if you do this. Write every idea down, no matter how weak it may seem. Limit your group to no more than three or four people. And avoid critiquing the ideas of others or editing your own. It’s simply too early to know what’s in front of you, and dissecting it prematurely tends to slow the flow of ideas.
Of course, there are all kinds of tricks for this kind of work. I like to pull out large sheets of paper and markers just to make the process less constraining. Sometimes it’s nice to relocate to the coffee shop for a moment and brainstorm there. Really, you just have to play and see which methods work best for you. What’s important is that you’re primed for success. Whether you realise it or not, for every moment that you actively think, your subconscious is working on the same problem. This is why we often find our solutions in the strangest of places: perhaps on the walk home, in the shower, or while out running. It may seem as though the idea struck you ‘out of the blue’, but I assure you it didn’t. You set the stage for this to occur.
One thing to be aware of is the need for numbers. It’s far too easy to fall in love with your first idea and rush it into production. Resist the urge. Every idea you scratch down experientially increases the possibility of stumbling upon a great direction. A doodle takes a moment, finished artwork takes hours. Run the maths in your favour.
Macro to micro
Early in my career, I worked as a painter. One challenge that dogged me throughout my work was the desire to concentrate on details too early. Often I’d focus on one small patch of the painting, blissfully perfecting that tiny segment. At the end of the day, however, I’d step back to discover this area didn’t work in the bigger picture. Throughout my design career, I have seen the same trend occur. It’s easy to spend the afternoon prematurely debating typefaces. However, if the overall direction doesn’t work, this kind of tinkering is rather masturbatory.
I’ve developed a mantra to combat this sort of issue—‘broad strokes, narrow strokes’. A painter applies large areas of paint first and then refines. A sculptor removes the large blocks and then moves on to fine details. As designers, we have to concentrate on the big picture and leave the little stuff for later. This method helps to organise and reduce the number of choices to be made, both immediately and in the future.
Ideas are actually pretty easy to come by. The thing that limits us is the hope that we’ll magically be struck by the perfect idea. To combat this we need to cover a lot of ground early on. Mind-maps are great for doing this because they enable us to explore a multitude of new directions quickly. At our studio we also run two sets of moodboards, the first focused on examining existing norms to help us avoid clichés. The other is used to build a series of visual cues that inform our intended direction.
If I were creating a website for a high-end automobile maker, I wouldn’t just examine the visual language of competitors. There are numerous industries in which the goals are comparable, and are worth exploring. It can be useful to mine the iconography and treatments of parallel industries. I might look to other premium lifestyle choices. How are they using typefaces and organising space? Are they using particular images to convey this? Does it work? Good designers often don’t know the answer; instead, they rely upon stronger observational, investigative and analytical skills to find one.
When it just isn’t working
Now, given that you’ve followed the steps so far, it’s reasonable to assume that you’ve uncovered some potential directions. From here you can compare them and engage your peers in some debate and discussion on which best meets the needs presented in the initial brief. But what happens if you simply aren’t able to break through? You’re beating your head against the wall—hopefully not literally—and you just don’t know what to do next.
Well, tough as it may sound, my first suggestion is to keep working. We’re often looking for a quickfix when we just need to roll up our sleeves and work harder. (Hey, if this was easy, your neighbour would be a designer, too.) But really, problems sometimes just need to be tackled hard. So unplug the phone, turn off your email and dig in. You know, often you just have to cut out the noise, and many find the best way to do this is to reserve conceptual work for late at night and early in the morning. It’s easier to maintain your train of thought when you’re not bombarded by IMs.
A little perspective can also do the world of good. This can be as simple as stepping back for a moment. Ask yourself, is one thing limiting you? If so, can it be removed? Or perhaps this limitation is a perceived one—if so, is there a way to ignore it for a while?
For example, ask yourself what you’d do if budget wasn’t an issue. Or perhaps you can buy yourself a brief vacation from the project by asking what you’d do if you weren’t worried about what the client would say. Sometimes we get stymied by the silliest little thing, and if we take this out of the mix for a moment, we often find ourselves seeing things in a different light.
Some people I know pretend that they’re a competitor, and build it from their rival’s perspective. This is an interesting method of getting out of a rut, as it leads you to ask certain questions like, “What could our competitor do to totally drive us nuts?” This can prove to be a really effective way of arriving at some killer ideas.
When we really get stuck, we tend to make things more complicated. At these moments I stop, file everything away and start afresh. I then write down single-sentence responses to the following points: What is our goal? What is the problem? How can we achieve this goal? Why is it true? Do I believe it? This is about re-centring oneself and concentrating on the core issue, not all of the other stuff that might be swimming about in your mind.
Iteration is another wonderful device. It runs on the principle that it’s better to get something down quickly than try to build the perfect solution. The designer works to get a prototype in process rapidly and then relies on real user habits to help inform improvements. While this doesn’t work in all instances, it’s a useful way to harness the power of the community to build more effective design.
And if you’re absolutely, completely, unbelievably stuck and have no idea how to proceed, I suggest you employ something completely random. Look around your space and point to anything. From here—no matter how absurd it seems—work this item into your design. It may unlock a new door, or at the very least it will make your first problem seem minor by comparison. If this works for you, I suggest you order a copy of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy Cards. Each of these cards contains a vague suggestion that can facilitate new variables and ultimately break a ‘conceptual log-jam’.
When does this get easier?
As a young creative, I looked forward to the day when ideas would simply come to me as though I had opened a tap. Over time I’ve learned that this happens for very few people. Even those designers who we most admire struggle to find effective and novel ideas. The thing they tend to be better at, however, is in employing an effective process and having a number of different ways to tackle a challenging situation. You may never have ‘ideas on tap’, but that’s largely irrelevant. Instead, you simply have to take as many shots on goal as possible.
In closing, I leave you with a few of the most insightful words I’ve ever heard about creation. American painter Chuck Close noted, “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” So roll up your sleeves: there’s plenty to do.
This article is courtesy of .net Magazine (download the original).