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Getting Unstuck

January 17, 2005

Four tips for getting yourself out of a design jam.

Your pencils are sharpened and the page is blank. You’ve spent the last half hour watching cars, pouring a cup of coffee, and cleaning your keyboard without a thing to show for it. You’ve got designer’s block, my friend.

I find myself struggling to begin my creative process from time to time, and there are some tricks I’ve picked up along the way that actually work quite well for me. My own tricks, mind you, which may not work for you since everyone’s wired differently.

Don’t look at another designer’s work if at all possible.

This is counter-intuitive because some will tell you that looking for inspiration is exactly what you do want to do, but here’s why it doesn’t work for me. Browsing for a starting point means I’m trying to find something interesting in other people’s work, and when I do I can’t help but get the feeling that they’ve done exactly what I wanted to do. If I have a site open that I really, really like as I design, there’s no getting around the end product really, really looking like the original. Sure, I’ve added enough unique character to create an original work, and I may be the only one ever comparing the two side-by-side, but I’ll always know where the inspiration came from. If it’s too close to the original, it’s hard to live with the result.

A recent exchange with another designer went something like this:

“I really like what you’ve done here. It’s like you’ve taken the Apple aesthetic, the clean and simple look, and extended it to include the client’s brand. It doesn’t look like Apple, but as a designer I can see your influences.”

It was meant as a compliment of course, and infuriatingly, he was dead on the mark. The site in question looks nothing like anything Apple has ever done, and is heavily branded in the client’s favour, but once you have that comparison point, you know.

Throw a whole bunch of ideas on a canvas and see what sticks.

Start cruising your favourite stock provider for fresh type and photography, play around by searching for random words completely unrelated to what you’re working on, and hunt through your personal collections for any source imagery that might catch your eye. Some of the most effective work I’ve done comes from purposely moving into new territory, and using imagery I wouldn’t have found without doing some exploring.

Plan, or improvise. Either way, do your DD.

Some may be structured and have an orderly approach to the design process, starting from paper and progressing step-by-step to pixels; others might take pre-planning documents and jump immediately to their image-editor of choice. I find that different jobs require different approaches; some of them take a few sketchbook pages before I’m ready to start thinking in pixels, others will never touch the physical page.

What’s more important than a planned process, however, is the due diligence (DD) that must happen before a design begins. Gathering materials like existing branding, project objectives, content, and anything else available is essential for the design process.

I’ve done work where the only thing to go on has been a logo and a site name. No content, no brand guidelines, absolutely nothing but an idea and a handshake. Without fail, every time projects begin this way, the end result is a) unsatisfactory, b) expensive, and c) absolutely nothing like what I started with. The latter is most disappointing, because often I wasn’t able to build the site I really wanted to since the site’s goals (that weren’t pre-established) prevented it.

If it’s not working, throw it out.

This is probably the best tip I can give you. If you have an idea that has been stuck for a while, it’s a sign. The idea isn’t working, or at least it’s not working in its present form; ditch it. Save it first, then start a completely fresh idea.

Once you’re able to divorce yourself from your ideas to the point where you can get rid of something you were initially excited about, you’ll find that sometimes it takes 2, 5, or more revisions before you get the one idea that’s going to work for the job at hand.

This was a tricky one for me to learn, because there are some really great concepts that have fallen by the wayside simply because I couldn’t see my way through from start to finish. But once I started getting used to the idea of just trashing something that wasn’t working, I found that it became much easier to design myself out of a corner. And now that I’ve factored the potential for multiple revisions into my usual process, I’m finding my initial success rate of hitting the right solution the first or second try is going up nicely.

Dan Mall says:
January 17, 01h

Cam C. beat me to it. Hillman Curtis’ book MTIV is excellent for this kind of block.

Another thing that I use is music. Find a song that fits with what you’re designing. If you’re designing something conservative, throw on some Beethoven. Better yet, if you’re designing something conservative, throw on some Slipknot. That should get the juices flowing and provide for some interesting results.

Betsy says:
January 17, 01h

If I find myself stuck I switch tools. Turn the computer off. Pick up paper and scissors, crayons, pastels, watercolors, brushes. Fabric and glue. Likewise, if I am sketching and I get stuck I turn on the computer. I find it especially useful to do something with my hands. My hands are an extension of my brain, just as my eyes are. So when I actively use my hands to make something, I feel I’m using more of my brain than when I use my hands to click the mouse.

I work primarily in architecture and I have found this a useful technique no matter what type of design I am doing.

January 17, 01h

I find the best method is a cup of extremely strong coffee and a time away form the machine. Usually 4 ounces of espresso with cream and sugar, a newspaper or magazine (as a distraction) will do the trick. It used to go well with a cigarette, but that ended. Damn personal well being…

Inspiration is one of those fleeting, untangible things that comes in the most unexpected and oddest places. Don’t be afraid to take the time as that’s usually all it takes. Damn time constraints…

Joey B. says:
January 17, 01h

I also find it’s always good to get away from the computer, usually go for a walk (with or without the accompanying iPod) or just watch some TV or read a book or just jam to some good music. There is nothing worse than designer’s block, and it all too often happens.

And if I may ask, what was the inspiration to write this particular article?

January 17, 02h

Tip #1 has always worked well me, as well as Jason’s suggestion. And if all else fails, go take pictures. A picture got me unstuck from a recent design block.

January 17, 03h

I think all these are great diversions. There’s the tric…no matter what you choose make sure your mind is totally off the problem and into/onto something else if even for a brief period of time.

MAke the subconcious do the work ;)

Mark says:
January 17, 05h

Geez, I could have used this article about 3 months ago before learning these lessons the hard way. I recently wrote an article about the major lessons I learned from my own redesign. Each one of your points are dead on though Dave.

A good long run always seems to help me get my thoughts and creativity back in order.

January 17, 07h

I have been having this exact problem. I browse around for ideas and I end up with a site that I think is too much alike my inspiration. I then scrapt it and feel frustrated. From now on I am going to avoid browsing around and pick up my pencil and a pad of paper. Thanks for the great advice dave.

AdamStac says:
January 17, 08h

Dave, thank you for some insight on how to by pass those pesky blocks, and you’re right about when you look at someone elses work for inspiration too. Even though your evolved vision has no distinct resemblence, you still feel “less whole” about it. Meaning you can’t own it as much as you could if it had been purely inspired from your mind alone.

I’ll be taking your advice!

Dustin says:
January 17, 10h

Quote (Dave):
” I may be the only one ever comparing the two side-by-side, but I’ll always know where the inspiration came from. “

I’ve experienced this all too much. You know, you hear designers from all over say “I could just spend hours at the garden looking for inspiration.”

I’m starting to think you should put a word of caution in the main xhtml used for the csszengarden that says, “Designers, beware: if you are browsing through the csszengarden seeking inspiration, put your keyboard back together, then leave your office for a while.”

Anyway, thanks for the interesting perspective Dave. It’s taught me something new and different. Out of all the things to do it’s “don’t look at other people’s designs.” I think I’ll try it on for size come my next design. It also makes you want to go back and redesign all the one’s that you ‘sort of’ based your site off of someone elses. Even very small design elements like 16x16 pixel icons will haunt you. :0

Chris says:
January 17, 10h

Just in time. I’m in the midst of coming up with a new design for my own site and just hit a wall. time to throw it out I think.

January 17, 10h

Also, if its not working, step away from it. Go for a walk, go play some basketball, get away from the damn computer. That works for me.

Peter De Bouvere says:
January 17, 10h

My problem is: I come up with brilliant (according to my standard) ideas at the most inconvenient times. In the car, 200 miles away from my computer, during exams, on holiday, you name it. Once at my desk, I’m jammed. That blows.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one remedy for that kind of designer’s block: AIR GUITAR. Yeah baby, that always gives me a boost.

Go ahead, try it.

January 17, 11h

Peter’s comment made me smile, but it is true. I’ve never tried the air guitar as a form of inspiration yet, but music can really have a mindfilling, idea-injecting effect.

An iPod is a must for every designer.

paul says:
January 17, 11h

i tend to look for inspiration from other mediums when i’m stuck. magazines, billboards, television, movies, building architecture.

looking at other sites doesn’t work too well because it seems too much like taking someone else’s ideas and just reusing them.

Todd says:
January 17, 11h

What a timely point of view. I’m sitting here with a bad case of block and decided to see what’s going on on the internets and I get this.

I also like to step away from the project and do something else, it just sucks when you’re under time constraints.

Back to the drawing board.

Jeff says:
January 17, 11h

Not looking at other designer’s work is my favorite tip of those. I always feel like I’ve copied a site when I do that, for exactly the reasons you pointed out. It is the worst feeling.

Valette says:
January 17, 11h

“…do your DD”
What is DD?

And related to point four, I have heard a similar thing in regards to writing songs: if your entire song hinges on one or two extremely awesome lines, get rid of them. Don’t get dependant on a snippet of billiance that does not work with the work as a whole.

Tony says:
January 17, 11h

I agree with Jason. Step away. If you can’t step away, work on something else. Quit focusing on your block, and give yourself something else to occupy your mind.

Good writeup Dave.

Dave S. says:
January 17, 12h

DD = due diligence. Sorry, I didn’t call that out well enough. Fixed.

avianto says:
January 17, 12h

I always follow a ‘ritual’ everytime I finished reading client briefs and/or got creative block: Take a walk outside my living/working place and watch everything, people, cars, signages, birds, whatever, unfolding in front of my eyes.

Inspiration come from everywhere. Good writing Dave.

cam c. says:
January 17, 12h

Dave, the first thing I liked about your post was the comment about “cleaning your keyboard”… at one point last year, I had the entire keyboard apart (all the keys popped off, too) and the non-electrical bits drying in the sink during a particularly bad block.

I’ve found a lot of creative energy in the past 3-4 months, and a lot of it is due to discovering the points you’ve outlined. I also have found a few great books on creativity; Hillman Curtis expands wonderfully on some of the same points in his M.T.I.V. book. I’ve found that his suggestion of looking for themes in movies, fashion, etc. have given me a better sense of how to keep the creative process on track.

rob says:
January 17, 12h

Find your ritual and break it down. The mind is at it’s most creative when it has to do something it has never done before and does not know how to do it.

NOT posting in here can help as well …

dave says:
January 18, 01h

Well, we just wrote a whole article about this subject (!)

My favorite thing is to give an idea to a friend and have him completely turn it inside out. Have someone else (or yourself) remix all the visuals. Or do a completely different version and see how two opposites might help discover a new path.

January 18, 03h

Dave (#28), the only problem with that solution is that the designer might well feel at tht point that the work has been ‘tainted’ (for want of a better word)by the fact that it might now have become something to do with an external influence. Pride, that ever daft and ‘getting in the way’ thing, might become at stake and at the end the designer might not be quite happy.

Due dilligence…I never thought I would hear that outside of my training program at work - interesting way of putting it.

Oh and that air guitar thing; definitely. Guitar fueled music is THE cure to designers block in my honest belief.

A good read though, and one I have to say that I will keep bookmarked for future reference!

Calrion says:
January 18, 05h

What spectacular timing! I have two mockups due to the client on Monday; one looks ‘bleh’ and the other… well, I think I want to do something with their logo, but without being cliché. I’m stumpted.

My trouble is not getting the creative juices flowing, but focusing them. I can create plenty, just not something that suits the brief as well as I’d like.

Tunnuz says:
January 18, 05h

The right post in the right moment … :) I was developing a new graphic for my website :|

Daniel Williams says:
January 18, 07h

It might not be the most professional answer, but when the walls close in on me and I can no longer concentrate on making any progress in my design, i’ll minimize everything and play a quick round of Quake. The speed of gameplay darts up my adrenaline and ultimately, my concentration when i decide to come back to the real world and knock something out.

Derek says:
January 18, 10h

How many times I’ve had the same thing!

All to often (prn: off’ - en) I’ve had designs that just hit a glass cieling. Ditching the idea and starting over has saved me many times.

Glad to know others do the same thing…Ifelt like I was just a poor designer!

Jon Berg says:
January 18, 11h

I am not sure this will work if you are a professional web designer, but
Here is mine: Let yourself loose, believe in your own taste, design what YOU think looks great. Stopping up and always thinking what other people will like will only limit your creative thoughts.

Andy Fox says:
January 19, 06h

Your last point reminded me of a book Steven King wrote called “On Writing”, a non-fiction on his personal approach. One point he drove home was “Kill your darlings.” There are times I focus on an idea, excited about it and therefore determined to fit it in one way or another. When I take a break, as Jason suggested, and come back, I realize that while the idea still held water, it just didn’t do so within the confines of this piece. Kill your darlings.

G. I. says:
January 19, 06h

What is ‘air-guitar’?…

Andy Fox says:
January 19, 06h

Playing guitar without a guitar. Long hair and over-the-top enthusiasm helps.

January 19, 07h

«Browsing for a starting point means I’m trying to find something interesting in other people’s work, and when I do I can’t help but get the feeling that they’ve done exactly what I wanted to do.»

Exactly this have happened so many times with me as well. However, the worst thing is discovering another page that looks exactly like your own, new, fresh webpage - just after you have completed and published it.

I’ve been designing webpages for a while, and…well - nearly all types of layout, all shapes, all color-combinations - everything - have been used somewhere, sometime before. And I was never the first one to do what first I thought was more or less unique.

January 19, 08h

A common problem I have is that I’ll come up with a great idea and then forget it before I write it down. Grr….

Pepper says:
January 19, 10h

Everyone’s ideas are very interesting. I agree with most of them. Fact is that the creative process consists of accumulating all the facts you can, your training, your history, client info, everything, and then vacating so that it can percolate and something new can come forward. I don’t tend to look at other people’s work either, though I often suggest it to others - silly of me. I have a 90% rate of client success with my first real solid ideas though, over a history of 35 years as a designer. Even though I estimate and charge for three sets of sketches, they choose the first one almost inevitably. So, how does this happen, actually this way, and one more thing. You all may think this is a little out there, but I did a doctoral program in the study of creativity - how we enhance it and where it comes from - and in the process of that research I learned a little religious fact that surprised me - the souls in the next world are resposible for leavening this world with all the creative ideas and discoveries. It sounds really strange and out of character with everyone’s ideas and I am not suggesting to be a religious fanatic. But, there is some interesting truth here. I pray. And, like magic, really, images come into my head and I sit down to work and I don’t stop till I have built them - and then I look at the page or the computer screen and go - wow, whichever one of you thought of that, its really cool! And as amazing as it sounds, every time, in that idea is either the final or the seed of the finished product that the client really loves and also receives marketing or financial success. Go figure. So I have to throw that suggestion in the pot - you can even be as inventive as to have a conversation with some creative geniouses of the past and say “hey give me a fresh idea of yours, please”. If anyone wants to check this out it source is from some teachings in the Baha’i Faith. Honestly though, commercially it has worked beyond all I could have imagined. Thanks for a great article to stir up all these thoughts and inspire us.

Matt says:
January 19, 11h

I love the strong coffee idea (#16).

One of my favorite techniques is to imagine flipping through a large book of designs. Think through how each of the aspects of your design could change… color, texture, emotion, dimensions, etc. When you find a design you like, sketch it.

On a similar note, I’ve always wondered why our brains can exhibit so much creativity within a 5 second dream but can’t come up with a decent graphic design when the pressure is on.

January 20, 12h

Matt (#36), I have to say I prefer some Lager. Seriously. Oh yeah, and the graphic design bit; I suppose it’s because creativity struggles to reign free when the pressure is on. I can write thousands upon thousands of words of babbligs for sites as well as designs, but when I really need to do that 1500 word English Coursework, My mind goes blank.

Dante, I have the same thing - but usually in the middle of the night. Indeed, all too often I’ll wake up with a great idea, mutter “I’ll write it down in the morning” and then go back to sleep. I’ve taken now to keeping a notepad and broken pencil by my bedside as a result.

Another solution I have to ‘designers block’ actually is to read a comedic book.

January 21, 12h

Dave, I have exactly the same experience with clients that only give me a logo and a handshake and the rest is up to me. The result is mostly the same, it takes a long way to get it right, I have a hard time to fill the content from a to z, to set up the right structure, and in the it gets expensive… And it often gets on my nerves when they pressure you because it takes too long. No wonder, you have to do more then just your job as a designer.

Once I start browsing around to find inspiration it is mostly a bad sign for me, the sign that I have a designer’s block, taking a break and listen to some music mostly helps. At this stage I often have something already but I’m not pleased with the result. Dishing the whole thing is exactly what I do too ;-)

Next step I do is looking in some books and magazines. The ideas are mostly stuck in a little corner of my mind waiting to reveal itself, the end result is a certain ‘eureka!’ feeling.

Alex Kuen says:
January 23, 06h

All to often I’m hit with that same urge to look at Zeldman or Airbag, then just creating a copy.

In the end, I guess it’s best to work with magazines for inspiration, not websites. I often find some of the best ideas come from those… Even the occasional book lends itself.

G. I. says:
January 23, 06h

Now I see that air guitar thing. If there are 3-4 designers in the same creative trouble, they can form an “air band”. One plays on air guitar, one on air drums, one on air piano and so on.