Creative Blocks: How to Work Through and Find Your Inspiration
It is very human to face creative blocks, regardless of the type of work you do.
As a senior designer for a dynamic company with a heavy workload and tight deadlines, I don't have the luxury of letting them get the best of me. As Professor Robert Winston says, great composers have come through creative blocks to produce outstanding works. That's great to know, but how do you get over it and FAST?
1. Manage expectations
When you realize you are stuck, it is important to manage your client or supervisor to make him or her feel that you have everything covered. Suggest concepts, get feedback and provide updates (basically, appear like you don't have a block). Ask plenty of questions, as you never know if an answer or insight will suddenly solve the problem for you. Either way, the communication will help the person understand the process and feel engaged, which buys you some time.
Recently, there was a project that stumped me: the "welcome to Chicago" brochure for the annual strategy meeting of our Senior Business Team. The challenge was to fit in a lot of content and yet maintain a nice, clean layout with the Affinity Express our corporate branding. Because of the length (which was around 2,200 words for a four-page brochure plus several images), I played with the layout for a couple of hours until I finally got the right format and style. It also took me some time to conceptualize a design for the cover. My first pass was abstract lights but then I received feedback that Kelly Glass explained that she wanted a cosmopolitan and bold look for the cover (maybe a stylized skyline with some effect).
It got me thinking that I could blend the two ideas and I finally was able to execute the look and feel of the brochure that I wanted. Aside from some very small changes, Kelly embraced the idea and was very complimentary and excited about the design (because I used this tip,and she didn't realize how challenging the project was had been to start).
The "welcome to Chicago" brochure I designed
2. Create your sanctuary
Do you like to work with music or in silence? Are you able to focus more when your desk is organized? Do you need to be alone or surrounded by others? Know what suits you and control the environment to open the door to creativity.
For me, I usually begin my day in the office by cleaning my desk. Also having background sounds while working helps me to be focused even thought others might consider it noise. But I do prefer to work alone rather than to be in the midst of the conversation and buzz of others.
3. Find the right frame of mind
Build your profile of inspiration to determine what both triggers and hinders your creativity. Do ideas start to flow when you look at books of paintings, take walks, play games, exercise or something else? Focus on what invigorates and gets you into the right mood, so you can re-approach a project with fresh eyes.
What works for me is looking at images of great artwork and beautiful houses for their architecture, concept, elements and interior design—it helps me remind of my goal to work hard and succeed so I can have my own attractive home in the future.
4. Cultivate experiences
Steve Jobs once said: "Creativity is just connecting things. The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have." When creative people try to solve a design problem, they tend to look for answers everywhere except within themselves. It is important to set aside a time to reflect because creative people do better work when they have thought more about their experiences.
According to Henry Ward Beecher: "Every artist dips his brush in his soul, and paints his own nature into pictures." Any time you doubt your creative ability, just remind yourself of what you have accomplished, that you've been in this situation before and were still able to produce outstanding work.
5. Brainstorm with others
Creative collaboration is an asset. Whether you speak to others in the same field or from completely different disciplines, outside perspectives can get your thought process back on track or at least let you rule out what won't work. You can talk through the challenge and toss ideas around. And you get to build on the experiences of your colleagues.
When I worked at a bank as a graphic artist, I had the opportunity used to often brainstorm with my colleagues. It was a faster way for me to develop ideas because it helped determine quickly which concepts had promise and which needed more thought.
6. Conduct research
Have other pros dealt with a similar challenge and, if so, what have they done? Can you improve upon it? How can you approach things from a completely different angle? What is the background of the project and/or the client? How about the industry—what are some of the pain points, who is the competition and what is their approach? Research expands your view of a project and can set you on a path to solving the problem.
In my previous job, when our art director left the company, I was challenged to step up and take on all the design projects myself. The immediate objective was to create a stage design and collateral for the company's anniversary. Research helped me a lot, since I needed to consider the budget, design feasibility, availability of materials and timeline. Without research, a project has no foundation.
7. Don't panic
Sometimes we get into a vicious cycle of worrying about the block and we end up perpetuating it. If all the above tips don't work, put something down on paper, canvas, etc., ignore whether it is good or bad and walk away. Come back in set period of time (e.g., one hour) and add to it without editing or questioning yourself. Repeat. Before too much time elapses, you will have either something that is great or something that won't work, allowing you to move your focus in to a different direction. The worst thing you can do is: nothing.
Creativity is an active, not a passive process. If you keep working at it, you can dissolve creative blocks and be productive. Warren Buffet says, "No matter how great the talent or effort, some things just take time." But these are a few ways you can speed up the process.