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.