Tell me if this sounds familiar: You get a brief for a new project and your head is buzzing with ideas. You’re anxious to get to work, confident your ideas will quickly become beautiful designs, so you open up your design program of choice. But half an hour goes by and, instead of working on the first of several great concepts, you’re still staring at an empty canvas. The dreaded creative block— it happens to the best of us.
Usually associated with writers, creative blocks strike just about all of us working in creative fields from time to time. And whether it’s a brief lack of inspiration on a project or a full-blown “I’ve hit the wall” moment, creative blocks are troublesome. They interrupt our workflow, cause delays on projects, and can cause undue stress and anxiety.
The good news, though, is that there are plenty of great methods for overcoming these kinds of creative stoppages. Here, I’ll share some of our team’s strategies for getting unstuck.
First, we’ll talk about some of the techniques you can use at the beginning of a project’s lifecycle to limit the amount of creative blocks you face down the road.
In this blog post, my colleague Kevin Barr talks about the importance of sketching in UI design. I couldn’t agree more, and it’s all the more true for branding projects. Start your project by scribbling out a bunch of rough ideas on paper— yes, actual paper. Even if you don’t use these ideas later on (or if they become something totally different), this act of visual brainstorming will help you keep moving once you get into pixels or vectors later.
Collecting ideas and inspiration is an important part of our design process, especially at the outset. Most designers do this in some capacity and plenty of non-designers use services like Pinterest in much the same way. As this post points out, creating some loose guidelines for color palettes, UI elements, typography and so forth before a project begins “can streamline the design process and cut down the time you spend staring at a blank screen.”
“You have to set up the narrow parameters that you work in, and then within those, give yourself just enough room to be free and play.”
Talking about creative block, artist Trey Speegle said “You have to set up the narrow parameters that you work in, and then within those, give yourself just enough room to be free and play.” I think this is very true— sometimes the blank screen, with its limitless possibilities, can be intimidating. So before you get going, detail what it is you exactly plan to do. Say, for example you’re creating a logo. Will it be abstract, corporate, or limited to letterforms? Do you have an existing color scheme you need to work with? What has the client already revealed about what she hates/loves? Knowing this ahead of time will free you to experiment and stay on track.
Okay, those are a few strategies you can do employ to prevent creative block. Now we’ll focus on methods to use when it actually happens.
In this podcast, lettering artist Sean McCabe “Sometimes, starting out by coming up with the worst solution can help you overcome inertia. The idea is to at least get started.” This may sound counterintuitive— what designer wants to spend time on a bad solution?— but getting these out of the way early on can force you out of the ideas phase and into action. Working on a bad idea for a little while and figuring out why it doesn’t work may lead you to the right answer.
Another helpful strategy is to adopt an iterative approach to designing. If you aren’t satisfied with what you’ve come up with so far, there’s a tendency to want to scrap it and start over. Sometimes this works, but more often than not it can create a sort of perfectionist loop that doesn’t allow you to make any progress at all. Using a logo project example: maybe you rearrange the elements you’ve already created in different compositions or experiment with different typography. Take a decent idea and through lots of tweaks, make it great.
“When I get stuck I find that it helps to step away from the project and work on something completely different. Just the change of pace helps clear my mind so when I pick the project back up I’m able to see things I didn’t see before."
As my colleague Cassie points out, If you’re feeling truly stuck, it may be best to temporarily switch gears. This might mean taking a walk outside, grabbing a coffee with a coworker, or answering emails for half an hour— anything to allow your brain a respite from thinking about the design challenge. Usually you’ll come back to the project feeling refreshed, and you may see opportunities or angles you didn’t before.
“When I’m feeling stuck I often find a colleague to talk it through. One of our team’s core values is to ‘work together,’ and walking through design challenges collaboratively is often better than one person going it alone."
I think designers can be somewhat stubborn by nature— being confident in one’s abilities and standing up for your ideas is part of the gig. This is generally positive, I think, but can be counterproductive if someone hits a wall and tries to figure it all out by himself. As Kevin points out here, it’s important to be able to lean on your colleagues for a fresh set of eyes. When we get stuck on a project, having an intense focus on it is usually a contributing factor. Stepping back to get the perspective of someone less familiar with the project can be hugely valuable.
We’ve found that employing these strategies— setting ourselves up for success before design and taking an iterative, collaborative approach throughout a project’s lifecycle— helps us considerably when obstacles arise, which they inevitably do. Give them a try the next time creative block threatens to derail your project and you might find it’s easier to keep calm and carry on.
Joe Colly is a designer at Pinkston Digital. With an eye for clean and intuitive design, Joe is passionate about elevating brands through simplicity and purpose. For more articles from Joe and the rest of our team, subscribe to our newsletter: