Everyone has heard of “writer’s block”, the inability for a professional writer to get the right words down on the page. Designers experience a similar thing, that I call “Creative Block”. Sometimes it’s just something that happens on a particular day — I can’t get going on anything, and nothing I design pleases me. Other times, it’s a specific project that I’m stuck on and I end up frustrated and tossing out design after design. This usually happens on a deadline.
When I first started my own business, creative block terrified me. I felt paralyzed, knowing I had to get the project finished, but unable to start, or stuck at a certain point with no idea how to finish. I wanted to deliver projects that were both great and on-time, but creative block threatened either one or both of those. I was tempted to give up on some projects, and wanted to just call the client and tell them I couldn’t finish. My creative block could last a few hours, or a few days, and I never knew when it was going to happen. And the anxiety I experienced when it did happen made it worse.
Over the 11 years that I’ve run my own design firm, I’ve developed several strategies for getting through creative block and keeping my clients happy with great designs.
Learn to Recognize It: The first step to beating creative block is to see it when it’s happening, and to accept it. There’s a difference between simply struggling to come up with a good idea for a design, or having difficulty laying out content on a page, and true creative block where nothing you do seems to satisfy you or you can’t see any way to even get started. Pushing through a design difficulty is usually the right thing to do, but pushing through creative block is nearly impossible.
Don’t Freak Out: Anxiety is not a great tool for creativity. Creative block is going to happen, and it will sometimes happen a the worst time, under a tight deadline for example. When it happens to me, I acknowledge that I’m blocked and that I’m going to have to get the project done when I’m not, even if that means pushing a deadline, or pulling an all-nighter.
Do Something Else: The primary way to defeat creative block is to find something else to do that has nothing to do with design. Take a walk or a bike ride. Do some yard work or clean the house. Play a video game or read a good book. Take a nap. This is a lot harder than it sounds. My instinct at first was always to keep hammering at a design until something broke through, and taking time out of my work day to “goof off” made me feel like I was losing money. But the simple truth is that I can spend three hours pounding away at a project, trying things that never seem to work out, and afterward be no closer to a finished project, or I can spend those three hours not thinking about design, giving my right brain a chance to reboot and come back to the project refreshed and inspired.
Finally, Find Your Rhythm: It took me a while, but I eventually noticed that I tended to get blocked mostly in the afternoons, and I was generally more creative in the mornings. So I planned my design projects such that initial design work that required a lot of creativity would happen in the morning, and in the afternoon I focused on more mundane tasks, like making text corrections, answering emails, writing proposals or setting up project schedules. It’s all work that needs to be done, but it doesn’t require a lot of inspiration.
Ultimately, inspiration and creativity are not qualities that can be called up upon command. By staying calm and working around creative block and not trying to work through it, I can be confident that the inspiration will eventually come. When it does, it always comes back with a vengeance and I can deliver a design and project that I’m proud of and that will wow my client.