Overcoming Creative Block
Regardless of your profession, I think everyone will have experienced Creative Block at some point. Having that burning desire to make something, but zero inspiration. You wait, patiently (although the patience doesn't last long) for inspiration to strike.
I’ve heard many people say that, as a creative professional, one isn't allowed to believe in creative block. And while this is true to an extent (believing in it only gives it more power), the reality is every now and then creative block will show up and park its fat arse right in the way of your beautiful project.
While I won’t claim creative block doesn't affect me (it does), I’ve developed several tactics over the years for combatting and getting past it. I don’t think any one tactic is better than another; it just depends on your particular creative problem and your process.
I've written most of these points from a graphic designer's perspective, but they should roughly translate to any creative field.
Coffee is a particularly good short-term solution. If my day is off to a slow start or I'm feeling unmotivated to work, one of my favourite tactics is to keep piling on the coffee until I have so much nervous energy I can’t help but do things. It's a good get-the-ball-rolling solution. It probably goes without saying that too much caffeine can have a negative effect, so know your limits. I usually stop after three.
Get online and look at some inspiring shit. Pinterest, Medium, Behance, Instagram, Ted and YouTube are good places to start. I also subscribe to several newsletters which populate my inbox with curated articles for me to read when I start my day. I subscribe to blogs about print and packaging design, fashion, art, photography and more. Don’t be afraid to look outside of your particular field of interest, in fact, seek it out. The key to creative thought is taking many unrelated ideas and merging them into something new and magical.
Read a Book or Watch a Movie or Documentary
Fiction/non-fiction, movie/documentary, it doesn't matter. I find fiction/movies great because you can immerse yourself in a world that someone else (or hundreds of people in the case of a big-budget film) has created. Non-fiction/documentaries are equally great because they often present practical solutions to real problems, and often solutions can then be applied to different problems. Or they're just breathtakingly beautiful!
I also, occasionally, buy design magazines. They’re a good way of keeping in touch with the latest trends and seeing what the biggest names in my industry are up to.
Go Online and Watch a Class
Don't know what to do next? Go online and learn something new! I like nothing more than watching tutorials on my lunch break. The reality of my career is that the software is always evolving and there are always new tools and techniques to learn.
- There are countless free tutorial videos on YouTube. Some well made, some not so much, but all educational.
- If you use Adobe products (like I do), they make their own tutorials which go deep into the tools of their products.
- Then there are sites like CreativeLive or Lynda which offer classes made by professionals for professionals on an array of subjects and skills. The beauty of CreativeLive*, in particular, is they stream classes for free if you have time in your schedule, or you can buy them to watch at your convenience.
*this is not a paid endorsement, I'm just a fan.
28 to Make
Also on CreativeLive, there’s a particular course called 28 to Make which is a free 28-day course designed to help develop your creativity and get out of a rut. There are some lovely, profoundly simple ideas in this course which will help you put pen to paper when you’re feeling uninspired.
Talk to Colleagues
I’m fortunate enough to work alongside some very talented individuals. Not only are they great to turn to for feedback and a fresh take on something I’ve designed, but seeing some of the amazing work they create is a great motivator to get my head in gear too.
Their perspectives are also so different from mine. If I have to design something like a table, I'll know how I want it to look, but not the best way to make it. By bouncing ideas around with guys in the workshop, for example, we build on our combined knowledge to make the best table we know how to. The sum of our knowledge is greater than the individual parts.
Sleep On it
If you run out of ideas part-way through a concept (and you have the luxury of time) walk away from it for at least 24 hours. Do anything else but think about the project. It’ll give you some well-needed perspective, and when you come back to it, some obvious problems (or solutions to known problems) will leap from the page. You can then begin to edit and close-in on the finished product. If possible, I always try and make time in any design or writing I do to step away and come back to look at it fresh.
Write/Draw Through it, Even When it’s Bad
The sad reality of inspiration is it doesn’t ever strike when you want it to. I was speaking with an artist friend of mine last month (the conversation which became this blog post) about how I was stuck on a particular design idea. He reminded me that inspiration is a luxury and that if you feel stuck, you need to keep going. Work through the block, even if it's bad, and sooner or later you’ll draw something good. This is the opposite of sleeping on it. Tim Ferriss has some similar advice when writing a book, suggesting you should write “two crappy pages” every day. This will do one of two things: either get the ball rolling, and 2 crappy pages become 10-20 good ones. Or, as Tim says, “…even if they’re bad, they’re at least done”. Then you can worry about if they’re any good afterwards when it comes to the edit.
This is a concept I love which I got from reading the writings of a Buddhist monk called Shifu Shi Yan-Ming, and then putting my own spin on it. You may be thinking "what on earth is action meditation?", but I guarantee you’ve experienced it. When you’re daydreaming in the shower and have a great idea, or you’re out running and *pop* there’s a solution to something you weren’t even thinking about. If anyone reading this likes the movie Layer Cake, there is the line “...concentrating the front of the mind with a mundane task so that the rest of the mind can find peace” which is the same idea. My favourite forms of "action meditation" are: taking a shower; running; walking; riding my motorcycle; cooking; mowing the lawn; doing the dishes or even pairing socks. Anything that requires a bit of physical movement but not too much creative thought.
Set a Deadline
Deadlines are a great way of ensuring tasks get done. Take this blog, for example, I’m writing because I want to. There’s no client or outside influences on this whatsoever. I can post as often or as little as I desire. But I have undertaken this project with a weekly deadline of posting every Sunday for the next year. Having a looming deadline every week, combined with the knowledge that I have told friends and colleagues (and now you reading this) that I’m going to post weekly, inspires creativity. I don’t want to lose face by saying I’m going to do something and then not do it. And having a deadline gives me a rough schedule to work towards. I know that if I want to post on a Sunday, the first draft needs to be ready by about the Wednesday before. Then I have a couple of evenings for editing and the Saturday to polish and format and add in any imagery or hyperlinks, etc.
And if I don’t stick to my schedule, I have my old friend Blind Panic to help me rush to the finish line when all else has failed. As long as there’s enough planning beforehand, it should hopefully never come to this. Having a deadline, I have to make means it has to be done, no matter what.
So that’s my list of tried-and-tested ideas for getting past Creative Block. Let me know what you think, what techniques you use, and if there’s anything you think I’ve missed.
Just to reiterate, none of the links above are paid endorsements, only things I have found that worked for me. That's not to say I'm against the idea of monetising this blog, I just want to be totally open.