Overcoming the Creative Block

I want to talk to you about getting down to the basics of creativity whenever you find yourself struggling with an idea or solution.

My Experience:

My first experience with design started way back in high school in my Commercial Art class. Not only was it then that I learned the power of hard work, but I also learned the fundamentals of creative thinking.

I spent four years and thousands of hours in that class perfecting my craft of design, painting, typography and portfolio prep, all of which landed me a scholarship to my college of choice. It was a very tough class, but many of us won awards for our work across the state and country. Perhaps the most interesting thing about that Commercial Art class was we only had one computer. It was an old Macintosh that ran Mac OS 9, Adobe Pagemaker and Photoshop. As an added bonus it had a flatbed scanner. That was all the technology we had and most of us didn’t know how to use it. In contrast, other trade schools would receive a new shipment of computers every year. Technology was their focus.

While their instructors were teaching them software, ours was teaching us the fundamentals of design and developing our creative thinking. Every two weeks we’d have a new project, many of which were real-world projects for the school district or other organizations in the community. It was great to learn this way. Sometimes the project was a logo; other times it was a t-shirt, brochure, poster. The projects, problems and solutions varied, but the process was always the same. It’s the same process I find myself falling back into whenever I get stuck with a design challenge. The process was as follows.

Every project would start with a description of what we were creating and the problem we needed to solve. In a day or two we would then have to come up with 100-200 different solutions that solved the brief. These ideas were small conceptual thumbnail sketches that would fill our notebooks. Starting this process off was never easy and I often dreaded it. However, as creativity began to flow, ideas would start to click and it became fun. Once the first set of thumbnails were completed, we’d then have to choose the best idea from the bunch and complete another set of thumbnails that focused on pushing that idea further. Only then would we be able to work out any of the tiny details. As soon as the idea became final, we’d then head to the library to collect inspiration and reference materials for the concept. All of which helped push our idea even further by having clear visuals to look at. It was only then that we could start the creation process. By creation, I mean draw, paint and hand-letter the final solution. The only time we’d use the computer was when we needed to lay out a book, brochure or set detailed type or imagery. For the most part, 90% of the project was done by hand using pencil, pen, paint and a lightbox.

It was the focus on ideas that set us apart from other students and classes that we were competing with for scholarships and awards. It was that same process that pushed our ideas from something any high school student could create to work that companies all over the city would ask us to create exclusively.

Since then, I’ve obviously grown as a designer and have a huge appreciation for the computer and the benefits that technology provides me as a designer. However, I also understand that a computer is just a tool for my creations. It may spark inspiration from time to time, but it can’t provide me with creative solutions. If I find myself moving objects around aimlessly on the page, it’s probably time that I go back to the drawing board and focus on the creative process.

Things I Do to Overcome the Creative Block:

  • Get back to the basics: Whenever I’m stuck on an idea, I get back to the basics. I grab a pencil and notebook and start sketching, forcing myself out of polish mode into creative mode.
  • Step away from the problem: Sometimes, for whatever reason, I’m just not able to hit the mark. If this is the case, I’ll often times just step away for an hour or so. Maybe I’ll take a walk or move onto something else on my list. By stepping away from the problem, I often times come back with a different appreciation of where I was headed with my design.
  • Keep an open mind: One of the hardest things about design is keeping an open mind to other ideas. Many times we’ll be working on something and get lost in that one idea and find ourselves frustrated because that one single idea isn’t coming together as we intended. If it’s not working try something else. That’s the best part of being a designer, you can head down many paths until things start to click. As a bonus, try something wild and crazy with the idea. You can always bring it back to a safer place if need be.
  • Talk it through: Do you have someone who you can call whenever you find yourself in a spot? It’s important to have that someone you know and trust that you can talk through your idea(s) with. Discussing your ideas with others can quickly take your idea to a whole new place, often times a place you would not have gone without the extra push.
  • Move around some: Anytime I’ve had a really solid brainstorm it was in front of a whiteboard and standing up. Movement opens you up. It keeps you free. This is why I like stand-up desks. Moving often keeps you alert and focused.
  • Do something analog: When was the last time you wrote in a journal? Played a guitar or drew? When I’m in a creative rut, I’ll try to shift to a more analog world. A place where I can slow down and take in the details. I place that allows me to feel my brain at work. Technology focuses us to move fast and react. Analog forces us to slow down and create.
  • Move on: I have a rule. If I find myself just moving shapes around on the computer, I’ll move on to my sketchbook immediately. You can’t force things to work. There’s usually a bigger issue that Photoshop can’t solve and you need to free yourself up to start over. When I do that, within minutes I’m right back on track.

My Takeaway:

I’m not saying that you need to sketch out everything before you jump on a computer. However, I am saying that technology does have a drastic impact on your creative process. This is for both the good and the bad. Often times when I sketch out an idea and then jump on the computer, the idea gets even stronger. The opposite is also true. Sometimes when I’m on the computer and I find myself struggling with the design, I’ll step back and start to sketch. Things start to click then. Most often than not, I can chalk that up to not allowing myself to get passed the software that I’m using to create it. It’s important to recognize when you need to get back to the basics. Don’t be afraid to break the norm and do what others are not doing. You don’t have to be an amazing illustrator to sketch out some ideas or typography treatments. Nobody is going to see these sketches, but you. It’s usually when you step away from your chosen medium that your ideas start to transform into something entirely different—something much better than what you’ve imagined.

What’s Next?

If you find yourself stuck on a design, give the above tips and process a try. I don’t start every project using the above process, but I do still use it whenever I find myself struggling with a design, or know I need to push my creativity. Each time I utilize this process, I immediately see how my ideas evolve. Often times my first idea isn’t the best idea so this forces me to move past my first idea onto something more valuable.

If you’re struggling with a design process and want to use the process I shared above on your next project, I’ve created a free toolkit for you. This toolkit covers the basics of this process as well as discusses the tools that I use throughout. Feel free to download it below and adjust it to fit your needs. In this toolkit you’ll also be able to download some of my most used sketch templates. These are great for rapid sketching or fine tuning your designs.

Let me know what you think. What are some things that you do to move past that creative block?

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